35 pages 1 hour read

Brian Friel


Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1981

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Summary and Study Guide


Translations is a three-act play by Irish playwright Brian Friel. The first performance was staged in Guidehall, Derry with the Field Day Theatre Company, which was founded by Friel. Dealing with themes of communication, progress, and rebellion, Translations’ premiere, in September 1980, was backgrounded by The Troubles, a period of tremendous cultural and political change in Northern Ireland. Shortly after the premiere of Translations, Bobby Sands led the historic Irish Hunger Strike, along with nine other Irish Republican prisoners, in the Maze prison. This strike was the final protest in a series of “blanket” protests (refusal to wear prison clothes) and “dirty” protests (refusal to leave cells to shower or use the toilet) brought about by the British government’s refusal to recognize Irish Republican Army prisoners with Special Category Status. 

Though the themes of Translations correspond with the political atmosphere of Ireland in the 1980s, the play itself takes place in August of 1883. The play’s setting is a fictional agricultural village called Baile Beag—or Small Town—in County Donegal. The village is an isolated Irish-speaking community whose residents have experienced little contact with the English-speaking world. This changes, however, when a detachment of British Royal Engineers arrives to complete the first Ordinance Survey. The soldiers make maps of the region, translating the names of Irish locations and landmarks into English. Though the translation is a simple administrative decision, the ramifications of this process are more significant, as Ireland’s culture, history, and tradition are embedded in its language. 

The play follows Owen O’Donnell’s return to his hometown of Baile Beag after six years in Dublin. Owen is the younger son of Hugh O’Donnell, headmaster at the local hedge school. Hugh teaches Latin and Greek, in addition to Irish. Owen’s brother, Manus, who has a lame leg, teaches at the school with his father. Owen is employed by the British army to work on a map survey of Ireland. He serves as a translator for his English colleagues, helping them translate the names of places on the map and communicate with the Irish-speaking villagers. Among these colleagues are Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland, the latter of whom is a young romantic who falls in love both with Irish culture and a local woman named Maire

After a local dance, Lieutenant Yolland disappears mysteriously, likely kidnapped by an armed Irish resistance movement. A search party of British soldiers goes looking for Yolland, ransacking the village in its wake. Captain Lancey threatens the villagers, telling them that he will shoot all the livestock if Yolland is not found within twenty-four hours and burn their homes if he is not found in forty-eight hours.

The ending of Translations is ambiguous; it never reveals what happened to Lieutenant Yolland. In the final scene, Hugh drunkenly reminisces about the day when he marched to join a 1798 rebellion against the British, bearing only his copy of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. He fumbles through a recitation from the Aeneid, his memory blurred both by time and his drunken state. Translations thusexamines numerous atmospheric and environmental barriers to communication, including language, cultural change, and the questionable progress that occurs over time.