Translations was the very first play put on by the Field Day Theater Company founded by the author Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea, best known to audiences around the world as the IRA soldier who proves that love conquers all in the field The Crying Game. Rea would also originate the role of Owen in the play’s premiere production in 1980. Five years later Translations would be awarded the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize named after a British diplomat killed by the IRA. The prize is awarded to literary works that seek to promote the spirit of peace and reconciliation between Ireland and England. Considering that the plot of Translations is specifically about attempts to institute British domination through the process of manipulating the means of communication, a most palpable sense of irony exists in it being chosen for that particular honor.
Brian Friel utilizes the concept of the play’s title—the difficulties and potential for abusing the power of influence that lies in the translation of one language into another—to explore the ways in which an invasion can be conducted without necessarily exerting physical force. Translations wrestles with issues related to the inextricable intertwining of language, culture and nationalism. Most importantly, it focuses on the extent to which a pre-existing culture can be forcibly transformed through assimilation by translation. Imagine an alien race occupying earth and forcing every person to begin referencing every existing aspect of its history through the language of the space invaders. How many generations would come and go before that history ceased to exist as it was known before the arrival of the aliens because nobody could remember the language used to describe it? Such an occupation is the centerpiece of the plot of Translations.
Translations is a play that scrutinizes the impracticalities of trying to translate a culture through the process of decoding a language and how those inherent obstacles inevitably result the very definition of the term “culture clash.” Any translation of words from one language into another is fraught with the potential for unintended misinterpretation. Since Translations is ideologically determined by its setting within the long and prickly history of troubles between the Irish and the British, it should come as little shock that this potential is expanded and expounded upon by the addition of intended misinterpretation for the purpose of facilitating dominion by one of those cultures over the other. Nevertheless, Translations would not itself have been translated into many foreign languages on its way to becoming one of the most performed contemporary plays of the 20th century nor would it have achieved its status as one of the most commonly found pieces of literature on college curricula in America were its message about the extent to which language is essential in creating societies limited strictly to the politics of a couple of little islands in the North Atlantic.
As for that palpable sense of irony in winning an award specifically honoring literary attempts to bridge the gap that exists between those cultures notoriously engaged in of the globe’s longest-running conflicts? That irony is severely undercut by the incontestable sincerity of Brian Friel’s message in Translations that communication is the only thing keeping chaos at bay.