‘The play is a reminder that the Irish people can decide which language is spoken in Ireland’
Helen Gilbert , Post-Colonial drama,
‘The play exemplifies the slipperiness of language on a number of levels’
The quote taken from Kiberd I disagree with as I feel that there are too many points in the play itself and in the context that goes against it. For example the new national school opening. It is not practically possible for the Irish to have a decision in what language is spoken in Ireland, as it is almost made for them, due to the issue of poverty and therefore emigration to countries such as Canada and America, so they could find a more stable, and wealth life style as they would then be able to provide for their families back in Ireland.
However, I do agree with Gilbert quote, as there are numerous places in the play that exemplifies the fact that the Irish language really is ‘slippery’. For example when Lancy speaks to ‘some of the people of Baile Beag’ at the end Act one, Owen translates for him, but when he does this it is altered in such away that ends up comforting the Irish people and telling them what they would want to hear, rather than telling them the truth.
Set in times of political and social flux. ‘Translations’ examines the battle between a domineering cultural power and the disappointment about the disappearance of the Irish language, including the change in views and opinions within the Irish society.
‘Translations’ also shows the reader more clearly an awareness of cultural differences, and the tragedies and violence they generate.
The innocent sounds of ‘Winfarthing, Bun na hAghann, Barton Bendish, Drium Dubh, Saxingham, Poll nagCaorach, Nethergate, Lis Maol’, are the wordless dialoue shared by Yolland and Maire. It is the only dialogue in Translations which has no moral significance, since it is simply words communicating the desire to communicate. Friels’ view of irony is clear enough to see through to the contradiction beneath it all. Yolland longs to settle in Ireland, Maire’s heart is set on America, as she knows that there she will be able to live a stable enough life, so she could send money back to her family in Ireland so they will survive.
Once Yolland and Maire understand a language that they can both understand, they will soon come to discover they do not share the same aspirations. Kiberd claims that the Irish have free will over whether they should speak the language or not. There is no way more powerful to show off ideas that is more powerful than language, no way more powerful than the authority to name. We see ‘Translations overflowing with examples of ideas exchanged, in conflict and in flux’, says Richtarik, who is the writer for ‘Acting between the lines’, published in 1994.
I think the theme of language in this play has a very historical and cultural aspect, as we see with the ordinance survey and the military, there comes the authority to re-name the historical places, peeling away their origins and histories along with the unspeakable (to the British) spellings. The discussion between Yolland (the English man) and Owen (the Irish man) about the value of preserving old names whose origins have been forgotten reverse expectations. It is Yolland who expresses concern about the re-naming process saying ‘It’s an eviction of sorts.’ Owen shrugs the concern away. ‘We’re making a six-inch map of the country. Is there something sinister in that?’.
However, Yolland insists saying that something is being ‘eroded’ in Act two, Scene one. When Owen traces the memory that he has left, back to the place-name, Tobair Vree, he suggest that there is a ‘process of natural entropy in operation and that no-one now remembers its story’ says Alan Peacock, who was the editor of ‘The achievement of Brian Friel’, in which this quote is found. Yolland still insists however that the name stays the same. This to me backs up Gilberts’ quote, when she says how the language is shown as ‘slippery’ in Translations. As Owen, (an Irish man) is willing to destroy such a meaningful and historical place name, this could, combined with many other aspects of corruption and colonialisation result in the Irish loosing their language all together. It also shows that the language, although so beautiful, hasn’t really any solidity as it could have so easily been changed by just a few people.
In some respects I see Owen and Yolland as if they both traitors to their respective beliefs, undermining the arguments they might have been expected to keep to. Hugh has already given Yolland evidence on the thoughtlessness of associating the wonders of the Gaelic language with a not so glorious image of the people, and for the future; ‘Yes, it is a rich language, Lieutenant, full of mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception…’. But Yolland, the accidental soldier, carries on his duty of ideological conversation, for he is in love with the idea that Ireland is either rooted in the past or in an imagined future.
Yolland is blinded to his part in the realisation of Hugh’s ‘inevitabilities’, and this is the main cause of Yolland’s introduction to the beautifully historical and cultured Irish language. However, this goes against Kiberd’s argument as it shows that if it wasn’t for Yolland putting his personal views forward about the Irish language, then Owen would have, with much more ease, been able to change the place names. This point also shows that the Irish actually didn’t put up much of a fight about the place names changing.
A further irony lies outside the text but remains in the performance. In 1970 a government survey showed that only 2.7% of an Irish audience would have understood the play if it had been written in Gaelic; by the time the play was produced in 1980, the languages struggle was over, here we are observing a done deed. We are also shown here another point that goes against the point made by Kiberd, for they don’t in fact have total control over the language they speak.
However, it is very easy to underestimate the British right, as usually whatever they said went and any other suggestions put forward, especially in the context of the Irish, would have been seen as inferior. An example of the power the British had working in their favour can be seen towards the end of the play when we see Hugh accepting the English language and people with that, so it is obvious that they didn’t have the power to choose what language they spoke as a country otherwise they would have done so and felt content with it.
I agree with Gilbert’s comment that, ‘The play exemplifies the slipperiness of language on a number of levels, and how the language of a country will never be removed from its core’. An example of this slipperiness is portrayed through the new National school. This is shown by Bridget when she explains what will happen in this new National school to Doalty
‘And form the very first day you go, you’ll not hear one word of Irish spoken’.
The younger generation of Baile Beag’s population are to learn in a language that records and celebrates British history and culture rather than their own. The Gaelic place names and family names, titles and lyrics of songs and stories will have to be preserved orally by the parent and grand-parent generations, if they care to that is. This agrees with the statement, because if the language wasn’t as ‘slippery’ as it is said to be Gilbert, then the Irish would have been able to have their say in what happened when the national schools wanted to preach the English language, and actually made a difference. This caused a major upset for the Irish as it was a very significant feature in their Irish identity. However, they did manage to let their language slip through their fingers. This point also goes against Gilberts comment, as it seems an unlikely strategy for an overwhelmed community to adopt once the support structures have been destroyed. Once more it is Hugh who talks of the deeper implications of the re-naming ,
‘it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.’.
The names of places have enormous emotional significance in all cultures e.g. ‘Bophal’, ‘Hiroshima’, ‘Lockerbie’. To a lot of world citizen of the 20th century these names have stories with associations that have shaped our whole lives and with it moralities. To disrupt these connections by substituting their very sound may be seen as ‘an introductory ritual of domination which may forewarn of genocide’, as Edmund Spenser (1970) explains. When Friel remarked that his play was ‘only’ about language he was in no doubt as to the importance language plays in forming identity.
Hugh recognises his identity, but he also sees the pointlessness of fighting the inevitable. Although he pretends to despise English which is fit ‘for purpose of commerce’, a use to which Lancey’s tongue seemed particularly suited. He is in fact, very skilled at speaking and using it. This shows that maybe what Kiberd is saying is right, that the Irish can choose what they speak, as Hugh could always speak English but just didn’t as a statement towards the English. Maybe if every Irish person was so reluctant then the Irish language wouldn’t have died out as dramatically and in such great proportion. Hugh enjoys his own qualities as a linguist; he could almost be seen as an athlete in language who is disappointed by the lethargy of his own native tongue.
Uncertainty from his two sons, Manus the peaceful traditionalist (perhaps significantly, a maimed man) and Owen the progressive, in their gradual uniting of moral positions. Manus will become a run-away and Owen will realise in his heart as well as mind ‘where he lives’. This could symbolise the Irish language abandoning their country where it was brought up in and grew in for so long. It is Hugh who will stand by both cultures, able to survive any changes through this adaptation whilst the others, i.e. Maire, will simply leave a place that is no longer home to her ears. Ironically, Maire will become a hope-filled immigrant to America, where the new white population will stunt any culture growing there for years. However, Maire is fortunate in that she can escape the growing silence of a culture in her home town.