The first act of Friels play Translations features many different contexts ranging from the infamous potato famine to hinting at the possible forming of the present day IRA (the Donnelly twins,) and politics. One of the major contexts that also coincide with the title of the play is translation. The translation of Irish name into English name. I only realised this by reading a Canadian writers essay on language and its importance in Translations. Especially in relation to Owen and his take on the Irish language. Where as many Irish people, at the time, saw the English to be taking away Irelands identity by colonizing it and changing names, language etc.
Owen seems to be na¯¿½ve and miss this. By changing place names they are not only taking away identity but also something more intimate, a part of their lifestyle. Hence when the English mistake Owens name to be Roland it seems to be Manus who is more frustrated by this whereas Owen says Owen Roland- what the hell. Its only a name. Its the same me, isnt it. The importance (or un-importance, depending how you want to perceive it) of names is brought up firstly at the start of the play when Manus is teaching Sarah to speak.
It is important to note that the first thing Manus teaches her to say is her name, also her identity. Owens ignorance for the colonisation is shown again when he says, my job is to translate the quaint, archaic tongue you people persist in speaking into the Kings good English. One quote from the particular essay by the Canadian writer says The Gaelic tongue is becoming obsolete in the wake of colonisation, Owen has boarded the ship of progress disassociating himself from his foundation. Similar, in a sense, is Maires view on the English language and that it should be learnt.
Maires view links in with another context shown in the play and that is the focus on dead languages, such as Greek and Latin and soon to be dead, Gaelic. By researching Irish history at the time the play is set, it is easier to gather an understanding for the wanting of Maire to learn English. Dr Leon Litvacks paper on the historical and colonial context of Friels Translations illustrates this. Maires reference to Daniel OConnel, the disillusioned veteran who founded the catholic association, OConnel preached that it was necessary to learn English in order to allow Ireland to progress in a quickly modernising western world. Hence Maire wanting to learn English rather than a dead language such as Greek or Latin as this will be necessary if she is going to immigrate to the United States.
One interpretation of the play is the focus on schools. Being set in an illegally run hedge school, a place where Catholics turned to for education after the penal laws were instated. The time the play is set is during a major transition period when the English are trying to get rid of hedge schools and introduce new national schools. It has been shown by statistics that half a million Irish children received illegal tuition through hedge school. This links in with the whole idea of translations, as at the new national schools, where you were forced to go to by law, the language you would be taught in would be English, no longer Gaelic. To some people This was a problem but to others like Maire, English was seen as the language of opportunity. The old language was a barrier to modern progress she quotes from the famous Daniel OConnel.
There is an increasing amount of tension being built up in the first act with regards to the devastating potato famine. There is a sense of dramatic irony being shown as well. Seeing as the play is set in the 1830s this is only a short time before the potato blight occurred in 1845.this disaster caused the population of Ireland to drop from eight million down to six million. It is believed that one million people died of starvation while another million were forced to immigrate to start new lives in Canada and America etc. It is obvious to the audience that the famine will occur but the characters in the play are blind to this even though the clues are all there.
This is why the audience tend to sympathise for their negligence. Even when Jimmy Jack suggests to Doalty he should plant something other than potatoes, which is the correct thing to do, he just comically shrugs off the remark, Too lazy be Jesus to wash himself and hes lecturing me on agriculture! Bridget also brings up the subject of the blight and its distinctive, ominous sweet smell, only to be aggressively dismissed by Maire. Sweet smell! Sweet smell! Every year at this time somebody comes back with stories of the sweet smell. Sweet God, Did the potatoes ever fail in Baile Beag? Well, did they ever-ever? Never! This is where the audience really begin to sympathise, as they know of the catastrophic effects that will soon occur.
Although Friel has not written the play from a biased or political point of view it is still possible to find the idea of the modern day IRA being formed in this play. This becomes more noticeable as the play progresses. Although it is still possible to get an idea of this from Doaltys seemingly harmless antics with the British soldiers and his constant dodging of questions involving the Donnelly twins.
Manus arent they at home?
Manus Where are they then?
Doalty How would I know?
Even the stage directions in this particular section lead us to believe something suspicious is going on, Doalty begins whistling through his teeth. Suddenly the atmosphere is silent and alert. To be able to understand that this may be about the IRA, background reading about the times the play is set and when the play was written (the 1970s, a time of great trouble and political unrest in Northern Ireland.) is necessary.
The 1970s were a time when tension between Northern Ireland and England was at a peak. This also was around the time of the infamous Bloody Sunday. So it is possible that Friel may have tried to incur some of this in to the play. Although Seamus Deane says Translations is a sequence of events in history which are transformed by his writing into a parable of events in the present day. The play has also been described as an enlightening metaphor for the situation in Northern Ireland.
The many contexts featured in the play are extremely important as they add a framework or shell to the play allowing it to go in many directions. Although it features so many different contexts Friel is quoted to say that Translations is to do with language and only language. Therefore not historical contexts. To become more familiar with the play and its many contexts background reading and the reading of other peoples interpretations are essential.
By reading theses criticisms I have become more aware at how Friel has made the play so effective by setting it in the specific era. By doing this it makes it easier for the audience to see how the recent condition of Ireland spiralled way out of control originating in the mid 1800s. It also gives greater depth to the tragedy that will eventually befall and that the audience know the tragedy is coming but not on so many levels. Overall it is essential to at least to some form of background reading in order to understand the play to a higher level.