Translations Essay Essay, Research Paper

In drama, the opening scenes of the play normally provide an exposition, and

establish characters and themes. Translations does this, beginning by providing

a stage setting which contributes immediately to our appreciation of rural Irish

communal life in the early 19th century. As Friel describes it there is a hedge

school situated in a ‘disused barn’ with the remains of ‘five or six stalls’. It

is full of ‘broken and forgotten implements’, and the room is ‘comfortless’ with

‘no trace of a woman’s hand. This depicts a poor community in a place of

learning. The community however, emerges as a very active place with a sense of

social activity and togetherness, an atmosphere established through references

to people and places off stage. Pubs such as Gracies, Con Connie Tim’s, and Anna

mBreags are well known meeting places. Characters who never appear on stage-Bed

Ned Frank, Biddy Hanna, Sean Beag, Seamus, and the Donnelley Twins contribute to

this feel of a busy community, hence the opening scene can be said to provide an

exposition, fulfilling the function of what opening scenes do.

Another thing the opening scene of ?Translations? does is introduce the

themes and devices of the play.

One theme introduced is Humour, which is used for two purposes; to bring

light-heartedness to the play to entertain the audience, and to break and

release tension, so that there are alternating atmospheres in scenes to make the

play more riveting.

Examples of the latter in the opening scenes are Jimmy Jacks humorous speech,

on Athenes ?supple limbs? and ?flaxen hair?, and the fact that his only

knowledge of any English words is ?bosom?. Also, is Maires one sentence of

English that she learnt from her Aunt, ?In Norfolk we besport ourselves around

the maypole?.

An example of the latter situation is when Marie brings news that the

‘English soldiers are below in the tents’. The tension increases significantly

with Marie’s reference to the English provoking a strong reaction from Manus,

when would not have otherwise responded to her nagging. ‘What the hell are you

so crabbed about?. At this point, when the tension is rife, the intervention

of humour is used in the entrance of Doalty who enters imitating Hugh, the

schoolmaster, ‘vespearal salutations to you. The humour serves as a contrast to

the tension before, therefore reinforcing in the audiences? mind the violent

reaction of Manus before the humour. It serves to highlight an important point

for the audience, that Manus dislikes the English and can be characterised as a

person in opposition of them. This method of using tension, then humour in a

cycle keeps the play more riveting. It is a recurrent device, established in the

first act which is utilised in the rest of the play.

Irony is another device introduced in the play which continues throughout the

play. It is used to undermine important points. An example can be found in Scene

1 where Hugh’s views are undermined. Hugh claims that the English are

particularly suited to the ‘purposes of commerce’, implying that Gaelic is not,

but he then ironically shouts to Manus for a slice of soda bread, showing that

Gaelic is needed for those purposes. This shows that Gaelic is not necessarily

better than English as they are both used for commerce.

Politics is an important theme introduced in the opening scene of the play.

The Hedge schools in which the opening scenes are set were a form of rebellion

against English colonial rule in the early 19th century, thus the audience are

aware of the political context in which the play is set. . Events in the play

parallel events of that time. For example the English were in the process of

anglicising Ireland during the period when the play was set, and were occupying

Ireland, and Marie informs the audience that the English soldiers are ‘below in

the tents’. Similarly, Maire reference to the smell of ’sweet potatoes’ is

parallel to potato famine about to take place in Ireland. As well as this, is

the revelation from Owen that ‘a new map is being made of the whole country’.

This parallels the events of 1824-26 when ordinate survey maps were being drawn.

The political context in which the story is set is important, as it is a basis

of understanding the play. Its relevance throughout the play is marked from the

opening scene at the mention of ?hedge schools.?

Another theme, Translation is established in the opening scenes and is

prevalent in the play. There are linguistic translations with Hugh constantly

asking his pupils to translate into Irish, Owen translating Lanceys English into

Irish, while Jimmy translates Greek into English ?Hosarg my phamene?. The

opening lines of the play see the first translation in the play- from silence to

speech, when Sarah declares ‘My name is Sarah’. With this statement, the theme

of identity is introduced and the important link between identity and names is

emphasised, a link which permeates throughout the play. Owen and Yolland for

example are searching for the meanings of Irish place names to give them a new

identity. Later, the importance of names and identity is shown with the naming

of Nellie Ruadhs baby who is named ‘Eamon’ after his father. This shows that

names are passed down in families, and is important in identifying a person

The most important theme of the play, language is a persistent concern in the

opening scenes and the rest of the play. The quotation In the first scene, that

?It is easier to stamp out learning than to recall it’ has particular

relevance to the plays theme, in that ‘Translations’ is depicting a culture of

learning and scholarship that is being stamped out by the English. This quote

early in the play suggests to the audience what the crux of the play is; the

removal of the Gaelic language which will be stamped out.

In the opening scenes, these characters are introduced, coming in by

progressive entrance.

. There is Doalty who is ported as humorous from his impersonation of Hugh,

?Vesperal Salutations to you all?. His ?moving the surveyors pole? shows

him to be opposed to the English sappers who are trying to eradicate the Gaelic

language. He is also linked to the Donnelley Twins. and it is suggested in the

opening scene that he knows something of the mysterious Donnelley twins who have

disappeared.. ?Are the Donnelley twins not coming.. Doalty shrugs and moves

away.? The Donnelley twins absence when two English s horses are found dead,

casts suspicion on the twins, particularly as Doalty is evasive about them. They

are associated with death at an early stage, their activities suggesting that

they will oppose the English by physical force.

There is Jimmy Jack Cassie who is fluent in the ancient languages with ?the

gods of the Greek myths? very much alive for him. It is revealed that he ?holds

great importance to these languages,? from his excited comment to Manus, ?Wait

till you see this Manus.? This suggests that there is something of great

importance Jimmy is about to say but he then proceeds to launch into an

explanation on Athene. His excitement shows the weight he gives to the language.

His visual exterior, ?His clothes-heavy top coat, hat and mittens? are

filthy and he lives in then, ?day and might?, reinforcing to the audience,

the poverty in Balie Beag.

Sarah is another character introduced. She has a unique ?waiflike

appearance? and can speak very little. She is Manus student and it is clear

that she adores him. When he hugs her, this becomes apparent from her ?shy and

embarrassed pleasure?. Manus, in contrast sees Sarah as his student, a fact

that is evident in his reaction to Sarah?s gift of ?flowers? which he uses

as a teaching instrument- a visual aid ?say the word flow-e-rs?. For the

audience, this opening exchange establishes that Sarah will be loyal to Manus

due to her feelings for him.

Manus is introduced in ’shabby dress’ and works as an ‘unpaid assistant?,

reiterating the image of a poor community to the audience.. Doalty activities of

moving the surveyor’s poles to delay the English sappers, is regarded by Manus

as a ‘gesture’ to indicate a presence?. Maire, in contrast, who is revealed to

be poor having ?ten below to be raised and no man in the house? regards

Doaltys act as pointless, sarcastically commenting,’ You must be proud of

yourself Doalty’. This shows conflict between Maire and Manus, which can be

further seen in Marie wishes for Manus to take the job at the national school so

that she can go to America to learn English. Manus on the other hand does not

want to apply using the excuse of ‘my father applied for it.’ As an excuse as

this means, the English would run Manus (they own the national schools.) This

illustrates the conflict in the relationship, highlights the controversies

surrounding the language issue, as while Maire does not mind the English and is

ready to embrace modernity, Manus takes the opposing view; the audience can

therefore expect a certain inevitability that their differences ion later scenes

will separate them.

Bridget, reveals that in the new national schools, ?not one word of Irish

will be spoken? informing the audience that culture and Identify will

gradually be eroded away as only English will be spoken.

Hugh is introduced later in this scene. He is revealed as a drunk, referred

to as the ?aul drunken schoolmaster and that lame son of his?? He is a

person of authority. As soon as his pupils believe him to be coming the ?atmosphere

changes. Sudden business. Heads down?. He is described as someone ?shabbily

dressed, with residual dignity?. He treats Manus as his personal slave. He is

preoccupied with his own importance, so much show that he shows no interest in

major figures such as Daniel O Connel hi he refers to as ‘that little Kerry

politician? does. Hugh believes that it is the classical languages of Latin

and Greek which should be taught, saying that English ‘couldn’t really express

us’. This suggests to the audience in the opening scene, that he will disapprove

of English activities.

Maire, on the other hand, as seen in the position with Manus ‘determinedly’

demands to learn English saying that it is ‘a barrier to modern progress’. Their

different attitudes represent two political positions. Hugh is clinging to

antiquity while Maire wishes to embrace modernity.

In this sense, Jimmy and Manus at this point can be likened to Hugh in that

Jimmy is obsessed with the Greek goddess, Athene and Manus does not want to work

in a national school. They do not want to move forward.

Owen is the second son of Hugh. He is established in the opening scenes as

the go-between. ?All right?go between?. This quotation signifies to the

audience Owens position in Translations. In this scene and throughout the play,

Owen acts as go between both cultures-British and Irish. He is someone able to

straddle both cultures, as he works for the English as translator but is Irish,

but who is perhaps out of sorts in both cultures too.

Lancey and Yolland, who are introduced soon after, are established in the

opening scenes as soldiers with different attitudes.

Lancey is an outsider who regards Ireland without any emotion, and Yolland

sentimalises Ireland as an n exotic and romantic place. ‘I love the


Thus, in the opening scenes, it5 is established that Maire, and perhaps Maire

are willing to embrace Modernity while Hugh, Manus, Jimmy and Doalty represent

another political position, they like antiquity; the Gaelic language and are

opposed to the imposition of the English. The Donnelley twins represent another

political standpoint, their activities suggesting that they will advocate

physical force. Thus the opening scenes, the controversies surrounding the

language issue in the play are highlighted through the differences in attitude

of the characters in the play who represent different political standpoints.

Friel further characterises the people in the opening scenes, by choosing his

characters to speak in a certain way, to indicate their social class and


The way that Hugh and Lancey speak for example, reveal them to be highly

articulate. Hugh uses unusual highly complex language such as’ ‘verecund’,

perambulations’ and ‘conjugation’, which reveals he is a learned man. Instead of

saying ‘hello’ for example, he says, ‘vespearal salutations to you all’. Lancey

also speaks in a sophisticated manner. The fact that he knows four languages

marks him as being of a higher class of education and class than Doalty,

Bridgett of Maire.

Similarly, where Manus speaks in colloquialisms, Owen as a ‘city gent’ adopts

a pompous tone: ‘My job is to translate the quaint, archaic tongue you people

persist in speaking into the Kings good English’. Their difference in speech

characterises them as different people; Owen being established as someone being

more snobbish and arrogant, where Manus is less pompous Physical appearance is

also used by Friel used to establish character. Owen for example ‘is dressed

smartly, -a really gent’, showing that he has pulled himself out of poverty to a

more comfortable lifestyle, therefore he could be said to be more pretentious.

Manus, in contrast has ’shabby dress, which suggests he is poorer and more down

to earth.

Through these devices, the characters in Act One are established further.

Thus in the opening scene of Translations, the scene is set and all the main

characters and themes are establishes.

Doalty who is a ?young man?, proud because he is at his ?seven times

table?. This reminds the audience that in the play, most of the characters are

uneducated. The fact that ?Biddy Hanna? requests Manus to ?write a letter

to her sister in law, Nora? reminds the audience that the people are


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