Language within Relationships
Language plays a huge role in every society.
It defines personalities, shapes thoughts, and effects human relationships. In the play Translations, by Brian Friel, the Irish language is notionally represented by the English language. Although Irish is no longer spoken by the majority in Ireland, the language is very much alive in its sense of wonder, curiosity, and wittiness.
The Irish characters in the play are supposedly speaking Irish throughout most of scenes although on some instances Latin and Greek are used in script. Through the characters’ dialogue and actions, ordinary relationships, like the relationship between father and son, are exposed in their raw form and can be analyzed for the distinction they express due to the use of language.
One can say that all the characters starring in this play are important but for the purpose of this analysis of language and the gestures that accompany it, only certain characters will be focused on.
Manus is the first character introduced in the beginning of the play. Hence, due to his strong and reoccurring presence in the play it is essential to focus on several of his relationships with other prominent characters like Hugh, Maire, and Owen. On the other hand, Yolland brings great insight into the play because of his role as the English military man. His relationship with Maire is especially interesting because it illustrates how two people of different tongues can communicate. Doalty and Bridget bring to light the relationship of peers who communicate only in one language, their native tongue of Irish. Their relationship is that of lighthearted friends who through the notionally Irish language, make many a funny scene together.
All these characters contribute to the representation of the Irish language in this play. Through their conversation and written gestures they illuminate the implication of the function of language in their relationships.
Manus deals with all the prominent characters of this play. His relationship with Maire is that of girlfriend and boyfriend. But their words to each other are not soft like the words of two people deeply in love. Rather, they are short and impatient almost exuding frustration. Manus is tense in his dealings with Marie: for example after he hands Maire a bowl of milk he says, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get up last night.” These words are cautious and slow.
Upon reading one would imagine him saying them quietly as to not cause an explosion with loudness. To respond, Maire dismissingly says “doesn’t matter” (9). Their dialogue is always very brief, using short, fast phrases; as seen in perhaps the longest of their conversations when they discuss the future of the hedge-school (16).
With Manus, Maire always takes on an epigrammatic demeanor. This irritates Manus as shown Act One when he says to Maire, “What the hell are you so crabbed about?!” (10).
His arrangement and choice of words shows that he is “crabbed” as well. Maire and Manus do not exchange happy, charming words with one another like couples often do. Even when Manus had the good news of his new employment kind words were not passed between them. Also, Owen was the one who actually broke the good news to Maire, showing that Manus and Maire’s exchange of words lack real communication and connection (59).
In contrast to her tense relationship with Manus, Maire had a special bond with Yolland. They were able communicate despite their lack of a common language. Unlike her dialogue with Manus, Maire’s discourse with Yolland was done in a patient manner. Maire did not mind repeating what she said more than once. As in their conversation about the waving to each other across the fields (59) and about the dance (60); reiteration was the theme. Also, with Yolland, Maire is soft, gentle, and kind in her words. She compliments Yolland saying, “I love the sound of your speech” (63) and that he has “soft hands; a gentleman’s hands” (66). Maire even tries to speak in Latin to communicate with Yolland (63, 64). A sign that she is willing to leave a language she is comfortable with in order to strengthen her relationship with Yolland. But, through their use of several languages it is apparent that Maire and Yolland communicated more through intuition about language than through an actual verbal language. Maire also uses gestures to get Yolland to understand, such as when she picks up a handful of dirt and says, “Earth” (64). It took greater effort on Maire and Yolland’s part for them to communicate but they did despite their different native tongues.
As for dialogue and interaction between Manus and Hugh it is that of mutual understanding. Hugh enters the play and immediately hands his hat and coat to Manus “as if to a footman” (21). Manus and Hugh exchange no greeting words.
In fact, they exchange very few words throughout the whole play. Mostly, Hugh orders Manus around and Manus obliges. In that way their words to one another are very few in number but from these words a lot is understood. Manus is extremely loyal to Hugh and in return Hugh trusts and relies on Manus. Hugh’s reliance on Manus is apparent whenever he addresses Manus. He only ever talks to Manus when he is asking him for something, such as when he asks for “a bowl of tea…” (23) or “ …a slice of soda bread” (85). Hugh does not ask for anything from anyone, except Manus.
Being brothers, one would think that Manus and Owen have many things in common. In fact, throughout the majority of the play, they do not. Through language and gesture, they are shown as very different characters with many dissimilar traits. But their relationship evolves through development of the play. By their early verbal exchange it is apparent that Manus and Owen do not have high opinions of one another. The first thing Manus says to his brother is, “You’re welcome, Owen,” (27).
It is as if Manus is already sick of Owen even upon his arrival. The disapproval Manus has for Owen is apparent in their conversation with Manus scolding Owen for mistranslation. Manus exclaims: “You weren’t saying what Lancey was saying!” (36). In this conversation Manus’s words are questioning and critical, while Owen’s comebacks are slick and unconcerned, showing that the brothers’ relationship is not playful and lighthearted, rather it is critical and serious. Near the end of the play, their relationship is transformed when Manus decides to leave.
Their dialogue is no longer conveying disapproval of one another. It becomes that of two brothers who care about one another. Owen says, “You’re being damned stupid, Manus,” (69). This statement stands as advice and concern when coming from Owen, a worried brother. The last interactions between Manus and Owen convey the new status of their relationship, shown in large part by the language used by Manus. He talks the most in this interaction than he has throughout the whole play, using passionate, detailed statements, showing his newfound trust in Owen.
Exchanges between Doalty and Bridget bring comedic relief to the play.
They use witty statements appropriate for use among friends who are comfortable with one another. Bridget enters Act One saying Doalty is “full as a pig” (10). Banter between Bridget and Doalty comes in playful teasing phrases. Bridget jokes with Doalty saying, “you dirty brute” (12) and, “That’s the point, you donkey you,” (13). As only a friend can, Doalty asks Bridget, “Are you stupid?” (18) and, “Who told you that yarn?” (19). At one point Doalty reacts physically to their exchange grabbing Bridget around the waist (12). The pair is flamboyant with their language, interacting with humor and pleasantry. Their relationship with each other is like their relationship with the Irish language: quick and smart.
Language contributes to every relationship as seen in the play. Through choice of words, arrangement of words, and execution of words one can easily make certain judgments about the status of any relationship. Language is the gateway to communication in every country and with every people. Hence, it must be used wisely.
Friel, Brian. Translations. London: Faber, 2000.