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Translations (Book Review)

I read this play more than a decade ago, when I did an independent study in college. It was Irish Drama and my goodness did I like studying that. I read Yeats, Synge, etc. Translations by Brian Friel was the last play I read for that study, modern as it was for being written in 1980 something.

So, when myself and the other Brit Lit teacher talked at the beginning of this year about what works to cover, I mentioned this one as it is Irish (I know, not British, but really) and very much about language and the English and Irish coming head to head.

We haven’t started it in class yet, but I reread it a bit ago, making notes (as you do) in an effort to figure out how to teach it, and what to focus on. I have no idea how my students, who generally are not the most enthusiastic English students will take to this.

I’ve seen it performed. Back in 2003/2004 or so at Actors Co-op in Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful, quiet play with a selection of characters who you like and dislike in varying measures.

Blurb from goodreads: The action takes place in late August 1833 at a hedge-school in the townland of Baile Beag, an Irish-speaking community in County Donegal. In a nearby field camps a recently arrived detachment of the Royal Engineers, making the first Ordnance Survey. For the purposes of cartography, the local Gaelic place names have to be recorded and rendered into English. In examining the effects of this operation on the lives of a small group, Brian Friel skillfully reveals the far-reaching personal and cultural effects of an action which is at first sight purely administrative.

The first thing I’d like to say is that I appreciate that Friel doesn’t villianize the English or idolize the Irish. There are good and bad on both sides. I love that it’s about language, because I find myself often falling into a romantic love for the archaic word choices that my students show no interest in.

“Why can’t he (Dickens, Shakespeare, Browning, etc) just say it like that?” after I’ve put a passage into simpler words.

Because words are beautiful and we never seem to appreciate that anymore. We love our visuals, pictures, movies, television; quick and fast. The students in this play know Latin and ancient Greek, languages no longer used in speaking and it makes a not so subtle challenge to the Irish Gaelic that the Irish characters speak. Their language is becoming obsolete with English taking over, both geographically and linguistically. Should it be prized for nostalgia and patriotism, or should we move along with what is necessary today, what is popular and understood by the masses? If language is about communication, why should I cherish Shakespeare who can’t just say “The times are unstable” and says:

But cruel are the times when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumor
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear,
But float upon a wild and violent sea
Each way and none. (Macbeth IV.2.18-22)

Am I just as obsolete as the teacher in Translations, holding on to Greek and Latin, when I sigh over Dickens, Fitzgerald, and Shakespeare and their woven words?

I love the play device of everyone speaking in English, but not understanding each other because the audience understands one speaks English, the other Irish. The reader falls in love with two characters falling in love who can only speak in Irish locale names because perhaps love conquers communication. But does it when the play ends as it does?

Translations is a sad play. No one really ends up happy except those lost in a fantasy world where their chose language still exists.

What is more important? Being relevant so you can communication or making sacred a lost language that represents a culture and life?

I’m glad there’s no real answer provided by Friel. I’m not sure I want the answer.

© ecnewman, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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