Brian Friel’s Translations Language has been the topic of many debates throughout history. It is an issue, which can cause upheaval and even bloodshed. A modern day example of this can be found right here in Canada. A great amount of time, and emotional input, among other things, has been invested into Quebec’s sovereignty debate. There has been no long-term solution to the problem. This may be due to the lack of understanding the majority tongue has of the issues.
Language is a part of one’s identity. One might even venture to say the most important component. It is the framework used to make sense of the world. Of course other methods are adequate to do this, but language is paramount. To understand one must interpret and internalize. One’s language is interwoven with culture; consequently morals, values, and traditions are passed down by language to future generations.
In Friel’s Translations correlation of language and identity are best exemplified through the character Owen who embraces English, forgets what language actually means, and in essence slights who he is. Owen is the Irishman in Translations who seizes English. He believes it to be an element of success. Language is to be manipulated to fulfill his needs. The culture that is a vital part of the Irish tongue is forgotten, or more conveniently brushed aside to allow for “betterment”.
A major problem that arises from this is that “..culture is socially constructed, symbolically maintained and transmitted..” (Sackney 59). Without Irishmen speaking and experiencing their language it will die, and inevitably be only a memory of better times. As far as Owen is concerned his mother tongue is outdated, and for the uncivilized. This attitude is highlighted when he speaks to his long time friends and family members at the hedge-school. “My job is to translate the quaint, archaic tongue you people persist in speaking into the King’s good English” (Friel 29). The Gaelic tongue is becoming obsolete in the wake of colonization. Owen has boarded the ship of “progress” disassociating himself from his foundation.
The language and culture in which he was raised is left secondary to success. In the shuffle his identity has been unquestionably watered down. Assimilation is the key to the “divide and conquer” tactic used by colonists throughout the centuries. Owen has been divided from his people. He has become a nameless face in the struggle to prevail. For Owen names seem to be insignificant. He has lost sight to why they are meaningful. “Owen: Back to first principles. What are we trying to do? Yolland: Good question.
Owen: We are trying to denominate and at the same time describe..” (Friel 35). The question that arises is Dun na nGall or Donegal, Muineachain or Monaghan? Congruent place; therefore nothing has changed? As Owen states about his own name “Owen-Roland-what the hell. It’s only a name” (Friel 33). He does not comprehend that the primary function of a word is not only its meaning, but also its implication. The importance lies in the significance of those names in a specific context, and being heard from a unique and individual mouth.
It is near impossible to convey identical meaning of terms in any contrasting languages, because words are specific to a culture, and that experience. Diverse traditions and cultures are being assimilated into the English masses with the fallout being a destruction of heritage. The effects of this dilemma are evident in the Gaelic League of Austin’s mission statement quoted here. “We strive to preserve the language and culture of Ireland, and feel that with hard work and dedication, those in Ireland and abroad can make a genuine step towards promoting the beautiful and vital culture against threats of standardization. ..It [Irish] is worth saving and perpetuating for generations to come.” Owen is an example of the type of people who reduced Irish to this level.
He has taken on the English language to replace Irish, not just the Irish language, but everything that is interwoven within it. Owen has acquired the English language, but does not realize that he will never be English. There is a divider, which prohibits this second language speaker from completely being embraced into the language. He is the colonized, not the colonizer. Owen will always be Irish to the British, even though he is their ally.
He is an outsider on the inside, but overlooks this. He is finally faced with this reality when he is just the translator. “Lancey: ..commencing forty-eight hours from now we will embark on a series of evictions and a leveling of every abode.. Owen: You’re not—! Lancey: Do your job. Translate” (Friel).
Owen believed he was identified with Lancey and his troops where in actualization he was nothing more than a pawn. He had no influence over the British who he called “friend”. English could never mask his true identity. Irish is a part of his very being, and nothing can change this fact. Language is a part of one’s identity no matter how profusely it is denied.
It provides the foundation with which one views the world. Languages and people are individual; they may see the same effects, but in different and unique ways. This is what makes the world an interesting and complicated place. It is the same old adage about life being mundane if everything was the same. The deterioration of the Irish language may have begun centuries ago, but the fight for preservation and vitality still lives on.
One should not so easily accept circumstances and embrace the outcome, sometimes fighting for what is worthwhile and right is essential. Identity, knowing oneself, is a never-ending endeavor that must be contemplated by all. Bibliography Conradh na Gaeilge. “Mission Statement.” Gaelic League of Austin (1999). Available http://www.dobywood.com/austincng/ Friel, Brian. Translations.
London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1981. Walker, W, R. Farquhar & M. Hughes eds. Advancing Education: School leadership in action. London: Falmer Press, 1991.