Translations is a three-act play by Irish playwright Brian Friel, written in 1980. It is set in Baile Beag (Ballybeg), a Donegal village in 19th century agricultural Ireland. Friel has said that Translations is "a play about language and only about language", but it deals with a wide range of issues, stretching from language and communication to Irish history and cultural imperialism. Friel responds strongly to both political and language questions in the modern-day Republic of Ireland. He said that his play "should have been written in Irish" but, despite this fact, he crafted carefully the verbal action in English which makes the dynamics of the play come alive, and brings its political questions into true focus.[1]

Baile Beag ("Small Town") is a fictional village, created by Friel as a setting for several of his plays,[2] although there are many real places called Ballybeg throughout Ireland.

Translations in Kupalauski 15
Translations on stage in Minsk
Written byBrian Friel
Jimmy Jack
Captain Lancey
Lieutenant Yolland
Date premiered23 September 1980
Place premieredGuildhall, Derry, Northern Ireland
Original languageEnglish[a]
SubjectLanguage, colonialism
SettingCounty Donegal, late August 1833

Performance and publication

Translations was first performed at the Guildhall, Derry, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday, 23 September 1980. It was the first production by the Field Day Theatre Company founded by Friel and Stephen Rea. It was directed by Art Ó Briain and featured the following cast:[3]

Mick Lally (Manus)
Ann Hasson (Sarah)
Roy Hanlon (Jimmy Jack)
Nuala Hayes (Máire)
Liam Neeson (Doalty)
Brenda Scallon (Bridget)
Ray McAnally (Hugh)
Stephen Rea (Owen)
David Heap (Captain Lancey)
Shaun Scott (Lieutenant Yolland)

Translations received its American premiere at Cleveland Play House in 1981, starring Richard Halverson as Hugh. The production was directed by Kenneth Albers with scene and lighting design by Richard Gould.[4] The play was staged in New York City later that year by the Manhattan Theatre Club, starring Barnard Hughes. It was briefly revived on Broadway in 1995 in a production starring Brian Dennehy. In 2006–2007, the Manhattan Theatre Club returned it to the stage at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey and the Biltmore Theatre in New York, directed by Garry Hynes.[5]

The play was published in 1981 by Faber and Faber, who still publish it today. It is published in the United States and performance rights are held by Samuel French Inc. It is a set text on the Leaving Certificate English curriculum in Ireland and, in the United Kingdom, it remains a popular set text among English and Drama & Theatre A-Level students.[6] It won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize for 1985.

An Irish-language version of the play has been produced.[7] The play has also been translated into Welsh by Elan Closs Stephens. The Welsh version has visited a number of venues in Wales and was first published by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, under its Welsh title Torri Gair ("Breaking the Word"), in 1982.

Translations was adapted as a radio play directed by Kirsty Williams, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, on 4 September 2010 (see Translations (radio play)).[8]

"Translations" was adapted for a Catalan audience in February, 2014 by Ferran Utzet, and performed at the Biblioteca de Catalunya (Library of Catalonia) in Barcelona. It was produced by Perla 29.[9]

It was performed at the Olivier Theatre from the 22nd May to the 11th August 2018, starring Colin Morgan as Owen and Ciarán Hinds as his father. It was directed by Ian Rickson[10].


The play is set in the quiet community of Baile Beag (later anglicised to Ballybeg), in County Donegal, in 1833. Many of the inhabitants have little experience of the world outside the village. In spite of this, tales about Greek goddesses are as commonplace as those about the potato crops, and, in addition to Irish, Latin and Greek are spoken in the local hedge school. Friel uses language as a tool to highlight the problems of communication — lingual, cultural, and generational. Both Irish and English characters in the play "speak" their respective languages, but in actuality it is English that is mostly spoken by the actors. This allows the audience to understand all the languages, as if a translator was provided. However, onstage, the characters cannot comprehend each other. This is due to lack of compromise from both parties, the English and Irish, to learn the others' language, a metaphor for the wider barrier that is between the two parties.[11]

The action begins with Owen (mistakenly pronounced as Roland by his English friend), younger son of the alcoholic schoolmaster Hugh and brother to lame aspiring teacher Manus, returning home after six years away in Dublin. With him are Captain Lancey, a middle-aged, pragmatic cartographer, and Lieutenant Yolland, a young, idealistic and romantic orthographer, both working on the six-inch-to-the-mile map survey of Ireland for the Ordnance Survey. Owen acts as a translator and go-between for the English and Irish.

Yolland and Owen work to translate local placenames into English for purposes of the map: Druim Dubh, which means "black shoulder" in Irish, becomes Dromduff in English, and Poll na gCaorach, meaning "hole of the sheep" in Irish, becomes Poolkerry. While Owen has no qualms about anglicising the names of places that form part of his heritage, Yolland, who has fallen in love with Ireland, is unhappy with what he perceives as a destruction of Irish culture and language.

A love triangle between Yolland, Manus, and a local woman, Máire, complicates matters. Yolland and Máire manage to show their feelings for each other despite the fact that Yolland speaks only English and Máire only Irish. Manus, however, had been hoping to marry Máire, and is infuriated by their blossoming relationship. When he finds out about a kiss between the two he sets out to attack Yolland, but in the end cannot bring himself to do it.

Unfortunately, Yolland goes missing overnight (it is hinted that he has been attacked, or worse, by the elusive armed resistance in the form of the Donnelly twins), and Manus flees because his heart has been broken but it is made obvious that the English soldiers will see his disappearance as guilt. It is suggested that Manus will be killed as he is lame and the English will catch up with him. Máire is in denial about Yolland's disappearance and remains convinced that he will return unharmed. The English soldiers, forming a search party, rampage across Baile Beag, and Captain Lancey threatens first to shoot all livestock if Yolland is not found within twenty-four hours, then evict the villagers and destroy their homes if he is not found within forty-eight hours. Owen then realizes what he should do and leaves, seemingly to join the resistance. The play ends ambiguously, with the schoolmaster Hugh drunkenly reciting the opening of Virgil's Aeneid, which tells of the inevitability of conquest but also of its impermanence. Yet, Hugh's stumbling attempts at recitation are evidence that our memory is also perennially mutable.

Friel's play tells of the struggle between England and Ireland during this turbulent time. The play focusses mainly on (mis)communication and language to tell of the desperate situation between these two countries with an unsure and questionable outcome.

Historical references

  • The character Máire contemplates emigration to America, reflecting the mass emigration of Irish people to America in the 19th century. The theme of emigration is key throughout the whole play, as Manus plans to leave after being offered a job in another hedge school.
  • There are fearful references to potato blight, anticipating the Great Famine of 1845–49 (the play is set in 1833).
  • Irish politician and nationalist hero Daniel O'Connell is mentioned and quoted as saying that Irish people should learn English and that the Irish language was a barrier to modern progress.
  • Anglicisation of place names, including Baile Beag (the setting), is prominent in the dialogue, because it is Lieutenant Yolland's professional assignment.
  • A national school is to open in the town, replacing the existing hedge school.
  • Characters Hugh and Jimmy remember how they marched to battle during the 1798 rebellion against the British influence in Ireland, only to march back home upon feeling homesick.


a. ^ For much of the play, it is understood that characters are speaking Irish, and the English characters cannot understand them. There are also several passages of Latin and Ancient Greek.


  1. ^ Agnew, Paddy (December 1980). "Talking to Ourselves: interview with Brian Friel". Magill. Dublin: 59.
  2. ^ Sternlicht, Sanford V. (2005). Masterpieces of modern British and Irish drama. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. p. 93. ISBN 0-313-33323-8.
  3. ^ Friel, Brian (1981). Translations. London: Faber and Faber.
  4. ^ [1], Article at Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  5. ^ Gluck, Victor. "Translations" Archived 2009-01-06 at the Wayback Machine. Review at, 29 January 2007. Retrieved 11 March 2008.
  6. ^ "Texts in shared contexts". Assessment and Qualifications Alliance.
  7. ^ "Aistriúcháin". Plays (in Irish). Irish Theatre Institute.
  8. ^ BBC – Saturday Play – Translations
  9. ^ [2] VilaWeb - Irish play holds lessons for Catalonia
  10. ^ "Translations". National Theatre. Retrieved 31 October 2018.
  11. ^ Richtarik, Marilynn J. (1994). Acting Between the Lines: The Field Day Theatre Company and Irish Cultural Politics, 1980-1984. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. pp. 31–32. ISBN 0-19-818247-3.
  12. ^ Bullock, Kurt (2000). "Possessing Wor(l)ds: Brian Friel's Translations and the Ordnance Survey". New Hibernia Review. St Pauls, MN. 4 (2). ISSN 1092-3977.
  13. ^ Boltwood, Scott (2007). Brian Friel, Ireland, and the North. Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 159–160. ISBN 978-0-521-87386-4.

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