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Examine the ways in which language and identity are treated in Translations
Translations is set in 1833, in County Donegal, which was soon after the time when Britain had claimed Ireland as part of its empire. The British and the Irish therefore had differing languages, so the British decided to go through the process of naming or renaming Ireland s geographical features. In Translations language and identity are used more as a plot device and plot feature rather than as part of stylistic technique, which is their most common role.
When the play was first performed by Friel s own theatre company it was performed in the Irish language, and at the start of the play, all the characters speak Irish as their first language, the English language comes into the script a lot later, which reflects the course of events in Ireland over the past two centuries. All these characters have been brought up speaking the language and it is a fundamental part of their life, culture and identity.
English is the second main language in the play. It represents the future to Maire and Owen, and a mistake to Hugh and Manus. The two English speakers come as part of the same assignment, to make a map of the country and to see that the place names are … correct. , but they have greatly differing attitudes towards Ireland and its identity. Captain Lancey sees the Irish as inferior to the English, which is evident when he is willing to evict a whole village of them, over the disappearance and probable death of one Englishman. Yolland however falls in love with Ireland, its language and culture and he feels that something is being eroded by his task of renaming the geographical features of Ireland. Yolland is not the stereotypical English male of the time, because he missed the boat to India and that stereotypical way of life, which would be following his father s wishes.
The other two languages used in the play are Greek and Latin, which are spoken only by Hugh and Jimmy. These two classical languages create an identity of intellectualism in their users and it is significant that it is the Irish rather than the English characters who can speak them contradicting Lancey s view of them being inferior.
Friel shows us the use of language in several different forms. The first scene where Manus is teaching Sarah to speak shows us that language is used to create communication. This can also apply with the lack of communication between the English and Irish characters, for instance how Maire and Yolland fall in love with the
sound of each other, despite not being able to understand a word that the other actually says. Different languages create boundaries of communication and the play shows that a lack of communication through language leads to violence, like when the Donnelly twins are supposed to have hunted after Yolland and when Lancey threatens to
terrorize the villagers. One of the problems of using communication through language is that it is a weapon that can be used against you as well as for you. This is evident when Sarah, (who has just learnt to talk) tells Manus (who taught Sarah to talk), that she saw Maire with Yolland together.
The play is set at a time when colonization is occurring through education and thus language in Ireland, rather than through brute force. It is a time of division in Ireland between those who claim to be looking forward to progress in Ireland with the
incorporation of the English language and those who want to preserve the use of Gaelic as it is a part of their culture and it is an important method of fighting colonization. Friel creates characters who represent both of these groups.
Maire sees the conversion to the English language as part of a process of progression in Ireland, We should all be speaking English . This follows the arguments of Daniel O Connell (the only real person who is mentioned in the play), who believed that the transition to the English language would help in achieving better
civil rights and social conditions for people in Ireland. Translations is set soon after the Catholic Emancipation Act, where O Connell fought against the Penal laws, which oppressed the Catholics in Ireland. The significance of this is that relations
between England and Ireland were changing and it could be argued that it was partly thanks to the idea of modernization, through the conversion to English that the act was passed.
The character who is most opposed to colonization and the English language is Hugh. He believes that English is for commerce , but more importantly that it couldn t really express us (the Irish) I think that English could express the Irish beliefs, but it is more important to say if it should express them. Hugh can be seen to represent the past on the basis that he is an older character who like Jimmy Jack fought in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, The road to Sligo. A spring morning. 1798. Going into battle. . He shows an element of disrespect towards the English language when he disregards Yolland by dismissing the poetry of William Wordsworth and thus
English Literature, by saying Wordsworth?…. No I m afraid we re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant. …. We tend to overlook your island . However it wasn t long after 1831 when Chief Secretary Stanley introduced a system of National Education in Ireland, where English was to be the sole language to be taught and the language in which all subjects would be taught, so Wordsworth s poetry was to be read and recited by the majority of children in Ireland.
Hugh however could be seen as a representation of an Irish concession to colonization. Despite his obvious resistance to the English language, Hugh seems to
be in a state of restrained acceptance of the transition to colonization by saying that retaining the Gaelic language is our only method of replying to …. inevitabilities . Another argument to support this view is that he decides to teach Maire English.
The most pivotal character who shows conflicting attitudes to language and identity is Owen. He was obviously brought up in a very Irish environment (with Hugh as a father), but his transition to the English outlook seems to occur when he receives further education. His conflicting interests are highlighted as he has the role
of translator , a pivot between English and Irish. At one point in the script he shows more interest in anglicizing the Irish town names than Yolland, the Englishman who is responsible for this. He dismisses the history behind the town name of Tobair Vree as a trivial little story nobody in the parish remembers even though he remembers it in full himself. Another aspect of his divided nature is his name. His real name and identity, Owen, is compromised when the English characters refer to him as Roland. At first he is happy to be called Roland, but eventually the importance of his real name
returns to him. Roland like Ballybeg is an inappropriate replacement for the original Irish name. In the final scene he concedes that the catalogue of new Anglicized names is a mistake .
It is a plausible argument that the characters in Translations are particularly metaphoric, for instance that Manus could represent the Irish, because he has been lame from birth, similar to the Irish military disadvantage over the English at the time of colonization, but also because Yolland takes Maire from him, like the English had taken Ireland from the Irish. Friel s use of metaphor helps us to find the identities of the Irish and the English by paralleling them with the characters.
One of the main functions of language in the play, is to create or reflect identity. When the place names are anglicized, like when Baile Beag is turned into Ballybeg, we have to assess how much identity a name represents. The renaming of the town
could represent a loss of Irish heritage to English dominance or a progression towards a new way of life in Ireland. Names aren t the only measure of identity, but they do symbolize identity, and the act of naming or renaming is certainly a step to create or
change identity. An example of this is when Nellie Ruadh s baby is baptized, and the baby s father is revealed; thus the naming of the baby creates its identity and origin. When Sarah names herself in the first scene this is the first time she can give herself identity rather than other people doing it for her.
For something to have an identity, then it is specified to have a unique quality, so identities can counter each other. This is shown as there is a difference between the English identity and the Irish identity. Differing identities can create boundaries, as
Maire and Yolland break these boundaries by falling in love and because of Yolland s English identity he is likely to have been killed. Likewise when the Donnelly twins break the boundaries by killing Yolland, the Irish villagers are punished severely, because of their Irish identity.
The play seems to emphasize the importance of Ireland retaining its identity, in spite of oppression from the English. Friel highlights a particularly important era of Irish history to make this point and the plot gives sympathy to the Irish characters by
its illustration of them and the English. He uses language and identity as the tools to portray the boundaries and lack of communication between the English and Irish, showing us that a common consequence of such unsatisfactory situations is conflict. The identity that both the English and Irish share is as human beings, their lives being as valuable as each other s and consequently Friel may be saying that from either the English, Irish or any other perspective, killing is wrong. The disregard of human identity, through killing, is obviously still a problem in Ireland and the rest of the world, where identity, such as one s religion or nationality is a major motive for killing. Friel may therefore be showing that as language and identity are two important factors that contribute to the communication between two parties, if these factors differ, then they should still be treated with respect and acceptance to prevent
conflicts of interest going as far as the effects of Irish colonization and to prevent it reoccurring.
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