The English are notorious for the way they make cartography work for Empire. Brian Friel's 1980 play "Translations" is about one of these cartographical projects that took place in 1833, and it has been enjoying a "sold out" run in London since it opened at the end of May this year. It is a truism to claim that a theater production is timely, but watching "Translations" in 2018 one is very alert to English efforts to draw maps and boundaries, in a post-Brexit Britain where the Irish border becomes contested once again, with only one half of the island remaining in the EU.
"Translations" is set in a "hedge-school" in Baile Beag in Country Donegal where a group of villagers well above the age of primary school gather together in the evenings to learn - so far as revealed in the conversation - the Greek and Latin roots of words. Here we stumble on the first linguistic difficulty of the play. The actors are speaking in English with Irish accents, telling us they barely know a single word in English and discussing the roots of words like "baptism," which the non-Irish speaking audience can only surmise is a similar (even same?) word in Irish. They talk village gossip, and then discuss what English soldiers are doing in the area. One of the "students," Doalty, has walked in with a thin red and white striped pole, which, he informs us, the English have been pricking the bogs with. When put like that, it does sound like English soldiers are torturing the very land of Ireland, and the real threats to livestock and people will follow suit.
The school is run by Manus and his father Hugh, and Friel seems to have chosen the students to represent different aspirations. Sarah has a speech-impediment, and Maire is encouraging Manus to take up a better-paid job, so that they can get married; if not, she threatens, she's going to make the passage to Brooklyn. This better paid job is in a school where the curriculum is in English, which, Bridget, the village gossip, tells her classmates that Dan O'Connell, a politician who campaigns for Catholic rights, has encouraged the Irish to learn. The classes are also attended by Jimmy Jack, a scholar of Greek and Latin, and one wonders where he learned these classical languages and how he ended up in a village in Ireland. The one ready answer could be a rather exceptional Sunday school, where Catholic priests teach not only the Bible but also the ancient languages it has been recorded in. So the very first translations we encounter in "Translations" are from Greek and Latin into Irish, with English waiting in the wings. Its time will come soon enough, and Maire, whose heart is set on starting a new life in the U.S. says, "I don't want Greek. I don't want Latin. I want English."
This must have sounded very ironic to the British middle classes watching the play in the National Theatre, with many of them paying good money to send their sons (and perhaps daughters) to schools where the learning of Greek and Latin is still encouraged as a mark of distinction. Hugh says that when he encountered the English soldiers measuring out the fields, he tried to speak to them in Irish, Latin and Greek, in that order. "Not a syllable," he comments, which, again, to this middle class audience, would reflect rather badly on the education of these English officers of the 19th century. Friel has Jimmy read from Homer's "Ulysses" (very strong Irish literary history connections there) in Greek and "Irish" translation, and connecting it to his own life in Baile Beag. Similarly, he advises his classmates to read Virgil's "Georgics" to become better farmers. These "country bumpkins," Friel seems to tell the audience, have a much better and organic understanding of the classics than the policy makers and chattering classes in London, in any period, could hope to have.
But I am making assumptions about the audience. When I went to queue for return tickets on the day, I struck up a conversation with an Irish couple that were clearly Friel fans, and who asked me what had brought me to the play. I told them I was interested in English efforts at mapping the world, seeing a larger issue, when the play, for them, was very immediate and specific. The woman directed me to the play's program and taught me how to pronounce Baile Beag, not the Anglicized Ballybeg, properly, and this proved an excellent exercise before going into see Owen, Hugh's other son who has been working in Dublin, trying to teach Lieutenant Yolland how to pronounce place names. Owen, played by Colin Morgan of young Merlin fame, acts as the go-between between the villagers and the English, who are preparing the first Ordnance Survey of the island. Owen tests the Irish names against Yolland's English tongue (in this production played by the black actor Adetomiwa Edun) and transfigures and translates place names in accordance with Yolland's mispronunciations. This is hardly Yolland's request, he is the perfect white anthropologist, who likes the native to be as native as possible, with a whiff of James Joyce's English character Haines in "Ulysses," interested in Irish words and names. But Owen simplifies them all the same, which is hardly surprising from a man who has changed even his own name to Roland to facilitate communication with his employers.
Having suspended our belief that the actors who are speaking English with an Irish accent are in fact speaking Irish, when the English show up at the classroom we have to imagine that the Irish and English accents are unintelligible to one other. At one point, it seemed that when Hugh was speaking in "English" he switched from an Irish accent to an English accent, but that might have been wishful thinking on my part. Speaking in an Irish accent to denote Irish and an English accent to denote English may have been too taxing and possibly impossible for the actors for the duration of the play. This state of affairs is used to rom-com effect when Yolland and Maire flirt, speaking at cross purposes, and even better, saying the same things in Irish and English accents at the same time and supposedly not understanding one another.
English does come into full force however, when Yolland disappears, and the English army warns the villagers that unless Yolland is found safe and sound they will kill all the livestock and then evict the residents in this new Ireland that they have mapped with the help of Owen. An English officer in a red coat threatening violence in clipped English tones is always triggering for an audience, and I believe I did see the eyes of the woman sitting in the front of me water.
"Translations" is a short, economical play, one of those works of art that become universal precisely because it has invested enough time in the specifics of its setting. The excellent cast and impressive set make it a very immersive experience, making you firmly grounded in Ireland on one foot, and on the other, drawing your own parallels from this parable of mapping and translation.