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Translations is a three-act play by Irish playwright Brian Friel written in 1980. It is set in Baile Beag , a small village at the heart of 19th century agricultural Irelandmarker. Friel has said that Translations is "a play about language and only about language", but it deals with a wide range of issues, stretching from language and communication to Irish history and cultural imperialism. Despite the 1833 setting, there are obvious parallels between Baile Beag and today's world.

Baile Beag may be presumed to be a fictional village, although such a placename does exist: as a working class suburb of Waterfordmarker, a village in County Wicklowmarker and a village in County Down (all in Ireland). However, it is also a generic name for a small village, which Friel uses in several of his other plays.

Performance and publication

Translations was first performed at the Guildhall in Derrymarker, Northern Irelandmarker, on Tuesday, 23 September 1980. It was the first production by the Field Day Theatre Company founded by Brian Friel and Stephen Rea. It was directed by Art O Briain and featured the following cast:

Mick Lally (Manus)
Ann Hasson (Sarah)
Jack Roy Hanlon (Jimmy Jack)
Nuala Hayes (Maire)
Liam Neeson (Doalty)
Brenda Scallon (Bridget)
Ray McAnally (Hugh)
Stephen Rea (Owen)
David Heap (Captain Lancey)
Shaun Scott (Lieutenant Yolland)

The play was staged in New York Citymarker in 1981 by the Manhattan Theatre Clubmarker, starring Barnard Hughes. It was briefly revived on Broadwaymarker in 1995 in a production starring Brian Dennehy. In 2006-07, the Manhattan Theatre Club returned it to the stage at the McCarter Theatremarker in Princeton, New Jerseymarker and the Biltmore Theatremarker in New Yorkmarker, directed by Garry Hynes.

The play was published in 1981 by Faber and Faber, who still publish it today.In the UKmarker it remains a popular set text among English and Drama & Theatre A-Level students.


The play is set in the quiet community of Baile Beag (later anglicized to Ballybeg), in County Donegalmarker, Irelandmarker. Many of the inhabitants have little experience of the world outside the village. In spite of this, tales about Greek goddesses are as commonplace as those about the potato crops, and many languages (ancient and modern) are spoken in the village. Friel uses language as a tool to highlight the problems of communication - lingual, cultural, and generational. In the world of the play, the characters, both Irish and English, "speak" their respective languages, but in actuality English is predominantly spoken. This allows the audience to understand all the languages, as if a translator were provided. However, onstage the characters cannot comprehend each other. This is due to lack of compromise from both parties, the English and Irish, to learn the others language, a metaphor for the wider barrier that is between the two parties.

The action begins with Owen (mistakenly pronounced as Roland by his British counterparts), younger son of the alcoholic schoolmaster Hugh and brother to lame aspiring teacher Manus, returning home after six years away in Dublinmarker. With him are Captain Lancey, a middle-aged, pragmatic cartographer, and Lieutenant Yolland, a young, idealistic and romantic orthographer. Owen acts as a translator and go-between for the British and Irish.

Yolland and Owen work to translate local placenames into English for purposes of the map: Druim Dubh becomes Dromduff and Poll na gCaorach becomes Poolkerry. While Owen has no qualms about anglicizing the names of places that form part of his heritage, Yolland, who has fallen in love with Ireland, is unhappy with what he perceives as a destruction of Irish culture and language.

Complicating matters is a love triangle between Yolland, Manus, and a local woman, Maire. Yolland and Maire manage to show their feelings for each other despite the fact that Yolland speaks only English and Maire only Irish. Manus, however, had been hoping to marry Maire, and is infuriated by their blossoming relationship. When he finds out about a kiss between the two he sets out to attack Yolland, but in the end cannot bring himself to do it.

Unfortunately, Yolland goes missing overnight (it is hinted that he has been attacked, or worse, by the elusive armed resistance in the form of the Donnelly twins), and Manus flees because his heart has been broken but it is made obvious that the English soldiers will see his disappearance as guilt. It is suggested that Manus will be killed as he is lame and the English will catch up with him. Maire is in denial about Yolland's disappearance and remains convinced that he will return unharmed. The British soldiers, forming a search party, rampage across Baile Beag, and Captain Lancey threatens first shooting all livestock and then evicting and destroying houses if Yolland is not found. Owen then realises what he should do and leaves to join the resistance. The play ends ambiguously, with the schoolmaster Hugh consoling himself by reciting the opening of the Aeneid, which tells of the impermanence of conquests. Unfortunately, Hugh's stumbling attempts at recitation are evidence that our memory is also impermanent.

Friel's play tells of the current struggle between both England and Ireland during this turbulent time. The play focuses mainly on (mis)communication and language to tell of the desperate situation between these two countries with an unsure and questionable outcome.

Historical references

  • The Englishmen in the play are a detachment of the Royal Engineers and function as part of the Ordnance Surveymarker creating six-inch to the mile maps of all of Ireland. The characters of Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland are fictionalized representations of two real soldiers who took part in the survey: Thomas Colby and William Yolland, but Thomas Larcom has also been identified as a possible model for the lieutenant, with Owen based on his teacher, the Irish linguist John O'Donovan.

  • The character Maire contemplates emigration to Americamarker, reflecting the mass emigration of Irish people to America in the 19th century. The theme of emigration is key throughout the whole play, as Manus eventually leaves after being offered a job in another hedge school.

  • Irish politician and hero Daniel O'Connell is mentioned and quoted as saying that Irish people should learn English and that the Irish language was a barrier to modern progress. Anglicization of place names, including Baile Beag (the setting), is prominent in the dialogue, because it is Lieutenant Yolland's professional assignment.

  • Characters Hugh and Jimmy remember how they marched to battle during the 1798 rebellion against the British influence in Ireland, only to march back home upon feeling homesick.


  1. Friel, Brian (1981). Translations. London: Faber and Faber.
  2. Gluck, Victor. "Translations" Review at, 29 January 2007. Retrieved 11 March 2008.

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