Translations Themes

Translations Themes

The Power of Language

As the title indicates, the overriding themes of Brian Friel’s Translations are all related to the power of language and the power that comes with controlling language. The full extent of that power is revealed in the play and it is nothing less than chilling: if your intent is to destroy a culture, the first thing you do is take away that culture’s language. Every single aspect of social discourse extends outward from a shared and common code of communication. Language is essential for building a civilization and the lack of a language is vital for destroying that civilization.

Assimilation Creates Alienation

Friel also examines the theme of how forced assimilation through the loss of language stimulates a sense of alienation which further contributes to spreading the ideology of the dominating invader. Throughout the play, several characters respond to the British plan to Anglicize maps of Ireland by withdrawing from regular social discourse. This theme is most dramatically presented through the specific case of the character of Sarah. Sarah turns inward to such an extreme degree that eventually she reaches the point where merely vocalizing her own name becomes an almost mystical experience. In opposition to the internal progression of movement as a way to deal with such alienation is an external movement away and this is the reaction of Maire who reacts to attempts at force assimilation by the British by making plans to escape to America.

Communication Prevents Chaos

Ultimately, the lesson about the power of language that Friel teaches in Translations is that without its utility for facilitating communication, society will collapse into unending chaos. Words (or pictures or sounds or whatever form of communication a language takes) are maintains stability within a society, not weapons. When a civilization begins to die, the first thing aspect to erode is its common language and this erosion usually commences with the introduction of one or more foreign tongues into the mix. The battle for supremacy in the transmission of information kickstarts the lack of stability that inevitably leads initially to semantic confusion: freedom fighters transform into terrorists or terrorists come to be viewed as freedom fighters. Or, in the particular case of Translations, cartographers become soldiers.

Translation is Reinterpretation

The title that Friel chose for his play is indicative of the depth of meaning in the titular act. Translation is not just the simple act of giving an object a new name in a different language. Translation is also about creating a new meaning or, at the very least, reinterpreting meaning to align with the cultural expectations of the language into which the object is being translated. Every translation may begin with the expectation or the hope that the essence of the original will be maintained and something approaching purity of meaning will carry over, but the purity of that essence is subject to variables including, but hardly limited to the purpose of the translation and the competency of the translator.

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