"Still the Same Me": Naming and Displacement in Brian Friel's Translations

Set in the 19th century, when the Irish language was under siege from forces within and beyond its borders, Translations premiered in 1980 at another moment of upheaval. By 1980, the violent sectarian conflict over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland known as the Troubles had been going on for a decade. Two competing narratives fueled the conflict: that of a Catholic minority fighting for their civil rights against a colonizing power and another of a Protestant majority trying to keep the peace against a violent paramilitary. These narratives created and entrenched definitions of the “Catholic” and “Protestant” identities for the Irish. Playwright Brian Friel and actor/director Stephen Rea forged a cultural organization to look for a third way, what Friel called “some kind of portmanteau term” of identity that “can embrace the whole island.” The Catholic Friel and Protestant Rea founded Field Day Theatre to produce plays that could shape the conversation about a new and distinctly Northern Irish identity from within their own culture. Translations, written by Friel and starring Rea, was its inaugural production.

Friel framed his exploration of identity and culture through language — how we use it, how it connects and divides individuals and cultures, and how it shapes our senses of ourselves in intimate and frequently inchoate ways. It is 1833, as the British National Ordnance Survey comes to Baile Baeg, a town in the borderlands of what would become Northern Ireland. The Survey, run by the British Army, will map the British territory of the Irish island, draw new boarders, clarify issues of taxation, and translate the local place names into the King’s English.

But things are changing even before the British army’s engineers arrive. The play is set in a large barn that serves as an informal Irish-language hedge school where a hodgepodge of adult learners pay per lesson for training in writing and math as well as Latin, Greek, and history. As they wait for the schoolmaster to show up from a christening — with news of the baby’s name promised to be the same as his unknown father — they gossip about the imminent opening of an English-language “national school” (who could go to school full-time; who would tend the fields?), fears of a “sweet smell” in the air that hints of potato blight, and one young woman’s desire to learn English instead of Greek in hopes of moving to America.

Friel underlines his interest in language as a tool that both unites and divides people in an elegant theatrical gesture. Near the end of the first act, the schoolmaster’s younger son Owen comes in with two British soldiers. He’s returning home and has an official job with the British army as its translator. Although the actors have been speaking English, the characters speak their respective languages of Irish or English, an irony underscored to comic if unnerving effect as Owen translates the British captain’s introduction to the Survey in much briefer — and cheerier — terms than the General’s carefully diplomatic but militarized speech.

Friel orchestrates these questions of communication, control, and identity across different plotlines. There’s a tart and poignant romance between a British orthographer and a young woman from Baile Baeg, who don’t share any language — except the now-defunct names of local landmarks. One subplot suggests beginnings of a resistance to the British terms of Irish-ness (it starts with shifting survey poles; it goes from there). The core of the drama lives within a single family as the shifting winds of power and language play out between Owen, his father — the hedge school’s polyglot schoolmaster — and his brother Manus. Manus is the eldest, lamed when his father crushed a leg during a drunken fall. He is loyal to his father and town, hoping to take over some lessons of his own and to marry his sweetheart in town; the Survey becomes a threat to all he loves best. Owen’s homecoming has him reconsidering his stake in this work of renaming. At first he plays the part of the glorious homecoming, but as his brother pushes on him, Owen can’t quite ignore the distinctly personal impact of his collaboration with the British.

The conflict between brothers begins, appropriately enough, with Owen’s name: The soldiers call him Roland; his brother is disgusted by this and at the start of the play, Owen dismisses him saying, “it’s still the same me.” Eventually he comes to question his easy assumption that names are immaterial to the things they describe, whether your own name or the name of landmarks that have defined home.

As their father, a man as close to the Roman Empire and its dead languages as his own changing tongue, tells his sons towards the end of the play, “It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.” But instead of looking to this language-embodied past as a lodestar for truth, he suggests a need to consider both the present and the past. “We must never cease renewing those images, because once we do we fossilize.” The borders between a fossilizing denial and an unmoored, history-less self remain tangled for the characters in 1833 and the audience of 1980.

Friel founded Field Day in part to contribute to a new and collectively imagined a way to be Irish — an active, contemporary culture that absorbs the complex legacies of native culture and its erasure, 800 years of contact with the British Empire and its culture and language. Using the language and tools of post-colonial theory to complicate its present political moment, Translations doesn’t live comfortably in a nostalgia for a lost time, instead recognizing the pain of self-creation and the profound solace of being called by your own name.

In its look at the Anglicization of Irish place names and erosion of its localized education — the cultural moment that sped up the erasure of the spoken Irish language — Friel approaches one of our most personal relationships: Who we feel ourselves to be and the ways we express that to others. Culturally informed but personally determined, how we know ourselves to be becomes who we know ourselves to be. As the English language continues to shift and absorb new words and classifications (consider the last ten years in gender pronouns), the power of naming yourself, knowing yourself through naming, and integrating that identity into a larger cultural conversation remains as tricky, timely, and absorbing as it was nearly 40 years ago.

Adrien-Alice Hansel