Irish playwright Brian Friel's Translations was first performed in September 1980 at the Guildhall in Derry, Northern Ireland. Its production was managed by a theater company founded by Friel and actor Stephen Rea.
Act I: The action is set in a small Irish town called Baile Beag in August 1833. At the "hedge-school" held in an old barn in general disarray and filth, Manus, the son of the old schoolmaster, Hugh, is managing things before his father arrives. Manus tries to get Sarah, a woman with a speech impediment, to correctly pronounce basic phrases of introduction. Meanwhile, another pupil, Jimmy (also known as the Infant Prodigy) spouts phrases of Greek and Latin. Otherwise, we are to assume they are all speaking in Irish. Soon Maire, a young, attractive woman appears. Manus tells Maire about how someone named Biddy Hanna asked him to write a letter to her sister in Nova Scotia, and how Biddy Hanna was so clueless as to have asked Manus to write, "Thank God one of them new national schools is being built" without realizing that he was the son of the schoolmaster. Maire brings news of English soldiers living in tents in the town. Soon Doalty and Bridget arrive; Doalty is drunk and boasts about his ruse, shifting the poles of a "machine" that the English soldiers were using to confuse them. Manus explains that his father is late because of a christening he was attending. Maire and Manus seem to have intimate relations, and she asks him if he's going to apply for a job at the new national school. Manus says no because his father is going to apply for it and he doesn't want to be in the way of his father. Maire hints that she wants to go to America to escape from her rather large family ("There's ten below me to be raised and no man in the house.") The group talks about the new school, which will be mandatory for children 6-12 and which will operate in English. Hugh arrives, and conducts his "lesson" by imparting them news and stopping at certain words to ask his pupils about their Latin origins. He tells of the christening, the arrival of Captain Lancey of the Royal Engineers and his partner Yolland--the Englishmen, who are conducting an ordnance survey of the area, and of how he will be running the new national school. Suddenly, Owen, Manus's brother who hasn't been back in six years comes in and receives a hearty welcome for all. He is a "city man," and announces that he has brought with him Lancey and Yolland. Owen brings them in and serves as a (mis)translator as Lancey and Yolland explain their project. Lancey says that they will be making a comprehensive map of the entire country, in order that they might better assess taxation policies. Owen's somewhat lazy translations help the Englishmen to convince the Irish that the project will be for their own good. The act ends with Manus expressing concern that Yolland can't even pronounce Owen's name, calling him "Roland," and Owen reassuring him that it is just a "name."
Act II, Scene 1: The act opens with Owen and Yolland working together to Anglicize the names of local Irish landmarks. Owen criticizes Yolland's "romantic" view of the Ireland; unlike Lancey, whom Yolland describes as "[t]he perfect colonial servant," Yolland's imagination is prone to wandering, idealizing Owen's family and friends and ascribing a kind of Edenic status to the Irish landscape. He still can't pronounce Owen and proves generally unaware of Owen correcting him because he's so caught up in his own speechifying. An encounter between Hugh and Yolland ensues in which Hugh reveals that he has never heard of Wordsworth. This becomes an opportunity for Yolland to idealize Irish literature and myth. Yolland tells Hugh that he's learning to speak Irish, though Hugh doesn't much care. After Hugh leaves on some errands, Yolland confesses to Owen that he fears that the colonial project is "an eviction of sorts" and is ethically uncomfortable with his own part in the project. Owen shrugs off Yolland's "romanticizing" and essentially says that the old Irish place names are part of myths that people who live there don't even remember anymore. Yolland finally listens to Owen when he says his name isn't Roland. He is ashamed and horrified but Owen puts him at ease. Manus arrives and announces he has gotten a job at a school on an island called Inis Meadhon fifty miles away. Manus is reluctant to speak English even though he knows it because he resents colonialists like Yolland. Maire also comes by, and Manus tells her the good news as well. They all congratulate Manus. Maire and Yolland communicate with some difficulty, through Owen--she says there will be a dance at Tobair Vree, a name which Yolland has just learned and he is clearly overjoyed that he knows it. Drunk by this time, Yolland shouts out a bunch of Irish names of places and humorously throws in Bombay and Eden into the mix.
Act II, Scene 2: Maire and Yolland hold hands after the dance, and though they don't understand each other, they both talk. Maire comically tells him her only phrase in English: "In Norfolk we besport ourselves around the maypoll." Yolland lists off Irish place names, Maire corrects him. Eventually they kiss, and Sarah sees them.
Act 3: In the schoolhouse, Owen continues to work on place names. Manus comes in with a travel bag, about to leave. Apparently something has happened to Yolland because Yolland is missing. Manus asks Owen to tell the people at Inis Meadhon that he might be a while before going to the school. Manus leaves, and Sarah stutters sympathetically, "I'm sorry...I'm sorry...I'm so sorry, Manus." Doalty and Bridget arrive on the scene, bringing news of more English soldiers arriving and how Hugh, drunk, had been yelling out names at them ("Visigoths! Huns! Vandals!"). Maire comes in, talking of Yolland. She also doesn't know where he is, but caught in her own romance, starts listing off place names in England associated with Yolland. Lancey comes in and asks Owen to translate to everyone that if Yolland is not found in a day, they will shoot all the livestock in the town. In forty-eight hours, they will evict people and level their lands. Bridget rushes off to hide livestock while Doalty thinks about fighting the English. Jimmy and Hugh arrive, with Jimmy talking about how he's going to marry Pallas Athena. Hugh remarks while looking at James, how "it is not the literal past, the 'facts' of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language. James has ceased to make that discrimination." Hugh then concludes that they need to keep "renewing those images" to keep a culture alive. Hugh says he will teach Maire English because in his mind, he's made a kind of compromise wherein he wishes the Irish to claim English for themselves because it will be the only living language. James blathers on about endogamein and exogamein, marrying in and out of one's tribe (he's referring to himself in considering marriage with Athena, but also his comments clearly apply to Maire). The play ends with Hugh trying to quote ineffectually from the Aeneid, focusing on a passage telling of how Juno wanting to make her city the capital of all nations, but couldn't because of the destined rise of Troy.
Though Friel has been cited as saying that Translations is really just about language, it is clear that contained in the concern about language are very specific identity politics relating to Northern Ireland's encounter with England from colonial times into the times during which Friel was writing. Friel's own biography provides a useful context for the identity politics which Translations works through. Born in 1929 in Killyclogher (rural Northern Ireland), Brian Friel was actually registered as "Bernard Patrick," "Bernard" being a part of a trend to discourage Gaelic sounding names. "Bernard Patrick" might be a kind of symbol of a destabilized identity which mediates between his father's rural nationalism and his own move towards a more moderate "citified" position which critiqued, among other things, the backwards educational systems perpetuated by the Catholic Church which feared, above all, Anglicization. Translations certainly comments on the inadequacy of the kind of education which Hugh and Manus provide; the students learn in a filthy barn, the snippets of Latin and Greek which Hugh throws out at his pupils are meaningless and farcical. But at the same time Friel critiques a position which gives in entirely to the Anglicization processes promoted by the imperialists. Maire's budding Anglophilia is deeply satirized by her equally meaningless romance with Yolland, and Lancey's extreme measures deployed to find Yolland are absurdly punitive. Yolland's romanticization of Ireland and conflation of the poor, rural landscape with Eden is also satirized. It seems hat Hugh's idea at the end of the play that the English language must be accepted but re-colonized/re-appropriated by Irishmen is the moderate position towards which the play finally settles on. The image of Greece's destruction and the inevitable rise of Troy provides an allegory for Northern Ireland's destruction and inevitable Anglicization. Friel seems to advocate, finally, some kind of compromise position, but perhaps Hugh's forgetfulness as he recites the lines signals that this is in no way an easy compromise to hammer out.