Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

"It's the Same Me, Isn't It?": The Language Question and Brian Friel's Translations

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

"It's the Same Me, Isn't It?": The Language Question and Brian Friel's Translations

Article excerpt

THE LANGUAGE QUESTION, as it applies to the Irish, concerns the movement away from English and back to Gaelic. Ever since colonial times, the English have systematically tried to dismantle Irish identity by attacking Irish culture. In fact, the term "Irish culture" would have been considered an oxymoron by British colonials. The stereotype of the proper Victorian Englishman stood in sharp contrast to the stereotype of the vulgar Paddy. Declan Kiberd notes, "the English have always presented themselves to the world as a cold, refined and urbane race, so it suited them to see the Irish as hot-headed, rude and garrulous" (83); and Terry Eagleton wryly comments that Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy "might well have been rewritten as Britain and Ireland" (33).

In their postcolonial responses to these stereotypes, many Irish nationalists now seek a return to their roots, be they mythic or linguistic, thereby reasserting the past that their predecessors were taught to be ashamed of. The desire of some to reclaim their native language of Gaelic, as opposed to the English imposed upon them by their colonial oppressors, has created what has become known as the language question. These nationalists seek a return to precolonial times, celebrating their culture as it once was, before the arrival of imperialism.

Such a reclamation of the past serves as a postcolonial imperative. Edward Said argues, "for the native, the history of his or her servitude is inaugurated by the loss to an outsider of the local place, whose concrete geographical identity must thereafter be searched for and somehow restored" (77). And Seamus Deane observes that this loss to an outsider often takes linguistic forms: "A colonized people is without a specific history and even, as in Ireland and other places, without a specific language" (10). By reacting against an imposed language, Irish nationalists endeavor to restore their own identity and return symbolically to precolonial status, before their homeland was appropriated and translated.

Brian Friel considers the actual time of colonialism and the linguistic usurpation by the English in his play Translations, where he dramatizes the English actually putting their stamp on Irish soil: a group of English soldiers are charged with traversing the countryside and renaming all the landmarks, either by directly translating the Gaelic names into English or by finding English phonetic equivalents. It would have been easy for Friel to portray the soldiers as unsympathetic invaders and the peasants as gullible victims, but Friel's vision is much more complex, forcing his audience to reevaluate his characters while continually reconsidering the language question.

Set in 1833, Translations takes place at a hedge school in an Irish-speaking town named Baile Beag, which means "Small Town" (it later will be renamed "Ballybeg," which means nothing). F. C. McGrath comments on the genesis of Translations: "Friel's preoccupation with language fused with serendipitous discoveries about the ordnance survey and about an ancestor who was a hedge-school master" ("Language," 541).

As the play opens, Manus, the elder son of the schoolmaster, tutors a special student: Sarah is reluctant to speak, and Manus diligently works with her, trying, significantly, to get her to say her name. McGrath considers Sarah to be autistic; additionally, he quotes Seamus Heaney, who sees her more allegorically: "It is as if some symbolic figure of Ireland from an eighteenth-century vision poem, the one who confidently called herself Cathleen ni Houlihan, has been struck dumb by the shock of modernity" (qtd. in "Irish Babel," 42). Language becomes a metaphor for identity, Sarah struggling with her own name as those around her struggle with their concept of themselves. Robert B. Smith offers, "The Hebrew Sarah was the mother of nations. Friel's Sarah stands for a people's loss of tongue and name" (399). Her position symbolizes victims of imperialism who lose their language and, consequently, their identity. …

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