“Words Are Signals”: Language, Translation, and Colonization in Brian Friel’s Translations

Adineh Khojastehpour & Behnam Mirzababazadeh Fomeshi

Independent Researchers

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


The Irish playwright, Friel is among the most prominent contemporary writers. In his works he deals mainly with socio-cultural issues in Ireland. His 1980 play, Translations focuses on the problem of language and cultural colonization in Ireland. Hailed as a postcolonial work, the play is not limited to the depiction of the problem; it presents some suggestions and probable solutions to the problem, especially with a different look at the role and significance of “translation”. While showing a tangible picture of colonial struggles, it tries not to depict a one-sided picture of the problem. The present paper focuses on Friel’s different view toward Irish colonization and Irish cultural nationalism. The objective of the paper is to show how Friel looks differently at the function of language and the crucial role of “translation” in colonial struggles.

Keywords: Colonization; Language; Translation; Brian Friel; Cultural Identity


The Irish playwright Brian Friel (1929-) is among the most distinguished figures in contemporary Irish drama. He is noted for addressing in his works significant socio-cultural and historical issues of Ireland. Due to his emphasis on subjects such as race, ethnicity, cultural identity, language, and power he is known today as a postcolonial writer. His works have been “concerned with the nuances of both personal and cultural-national identity and its relation to colonial dispossession, issues of home, language, tradition, the workings of private and public memory, all issues that inform postcolonial consciousness” (Bertha 2006, 154).

One of the most translated and staged plays after WWII, Friel’s Translations (1980) mainly concerns language. In this play Friel focuses on the crises over linguistic and cultural identity and refers to cultural colonization where language plays the most significant part. He also addresses other significant issues in colonialism which are of course directly or indirectly connected to language, issues such as education, historical background, map-making, distance between the colonizers and the colonized, and miscomprehension.

What Friel does in this play is, however, more than illustrating the problem. He goes further than presenting lively scenes of cultural clash and colonial struggle in Ireland. Not only does he pose the question, but, with specific emphases in the play, and also in some other ways, especially with showing a different look at the role of language and the significance of “translation” in colonialism, he proposes probable solutions and answers. The present article focuses both on the ways the colonial struggle and cultural clash are represented in Translations and on the solutions and answers Friel proposes.



Language and culture have always been considered significant assets to claiming some kind of identity, whether individual or communal. The correlation between linguistic identity, ethnic heritage, and the place of linguistic identity in the individual as a member of a group or groups has been investigated in numerous studies (Lee 2003, 8). Throughout history, nations have realized that only with an awareness of themselves and their history and culture can they attain the independence and identity they need. Cultural identity is crucial in forming a nation and it is difficult to claim a national identity without a substantial cultural heritage. Although the words “nation” and “state” are usually confused (especially in English and other modern languages), attempts have been made to distinguish between the two. Smith associates attributes such as a “historic territory, shared myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a single economy and common rights and duties for all members’ (2000, 1) to the word “nation”, and defines “states” as ‘sets of autonomous, public institutions with a legitimate monopoly of coercion and extraction in a given territory, and sovereignty in relation to those outside its borders” (Ibid.).

In colonial discourse, including both the discourse of colonialism and that of anti-colonialism, cultural aspects are as significant as political ones. As Loomba asserts, “the cultural, discursive or representational aspects of colonialism need not be thought of as functioning at a remove from its economic, political or even military aspects” (2005, 86-7). From the very beginning of colonial sovereigns, “the use of arms was closely connected to the use of images” (Ibid., 87). Cultural action “cannot be divorced from the larger struggle for the liberation of the nation” (Amuta 1995, 159). Discourses of identity, cultural or political, are usually “nostalgic of the past and authorize themselves through myths of origins, stereotypical representations of landscape and vernacular uses of the language” (Gonzalez Arias 2007, 113).

Culture is directly connected to language. As Fanon contends, “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, (italics mine) to support the weight of a civilization” (1986, 8). Fanon goes further to assume a key role for the relationship between language and culture in colonization:

Every colonized people—in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality—finds itself face to face with the language (italics mine) of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture (italics mine) of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards (Ibid., 9).

Thus, in colonization the need is felt to adapt the colonized to the culture of the colonizers, a process where language plays the most important role. This process has another significant process within itself: translation. It is now generally agreed that translation has a lot to do with colonization. In Bassnett and Trivedi’s words, “colonialism and translation [go] hand in hand” (1999, 3). Cheyfitz argues that translation has been “the central act of European colonization and imperialism in America” (as cited in Bassnett and Trivedi 1999, 3). Today the close relation between translation and colonialism is more strongly recognized. Now we can notice more superbly “the extent to which translation was for centuries a one-way process, with texts being translated into European languages for European consumption, rather than as part of a reciprocal process of exchange” (Ibid., 5). Also, as Bassnett and Trivedi put it, “the role played by translation in facilitating colonization is also now in evidence. And the metaphor of the colony as a translation, a copy of an original located elsewhere on the map, has been recognized” (Ibid.).

This is actually what Friel is addressing in Translations. The play reveals, in Meissner’s words, “the inherent danger in translation, particularly between cultures, and especially when there is a political agenda” (1992, 166). In this play “the colonial struggle in Ireland is represented as a contest over words and language” (Loomba 2005, 87). The play is set in a hedge-school in the small town of Baile Beag (Ballybeg), part of Donegal, in 1833. The teacher, also the schoolmaster of this school, is named Hugh. Manus, Hugh’s lame son also helps his father in teaching. Owen, Hugh’s other son, works as a translator for the British regiment which has the mission of renaming the Irish places and making a new map for Ireland. The main figures of this regiment shown in the play are the cartographer and orthographer Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland, who have been sent to Bailie Beag to remap Ireland and change place names into anglicised and standardized versions. What Friel shows hand in hand with the translation and transliteration process to highlight the cultural colonization is the education system. A new English-language system of National education is being applied to the place which is to replace the local Irish-speaking schools including the hedge school the play is set in. In the hedge schools Latin and Greek are considered beneficial and English language and English literary canon are unknown. At the end of the play, after the disappearance of Yolland, Lancey threatens to evict the town settlers unless the English soldier is found and it is here that the true aims of the English survey group become known to all the Irish inhabitants…Full Text PDF

Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On Google Plus