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The language barrier

Last update - Friday, July 15, 2011, 22:20 By Metro Éireann

During one scene in Brian Friel’s Translations, now playing at the Abbey Theatre until 13 August, an Irish woman and English man attempt to communicate their affection for each other. The pair gaze steadily into each other’s eyes, uttering romantic words that beg for reciprocal understanding.

There’s only one problem: neither can speak the other’s language. Máire speaks only Irish; George only English. Despite the difficulties involved in translation, each desperately wants to understand the other.
The couple envisions the sharing of language as beneficial not only on a personal but also on a societal level. For George, learning Irish will deepen his relationship with Máire and with the land and people that have invigorated him with a passion for life. For Máire, English is a guaranteed way to engage with George and with the ideas of innovation and global connection that his language represents for her.
But any prospect of a relationship between the two is challenged by the social forces that surround and drive them. This is 1833 in a small village in Ireland, and George has arrived on business with the Royal Engineers of England to plot and Anglicise the names of Irish towns.
With its diverse spread of characters, all with complex backgrounds and opinions, Translations conveys to the audience a sense of layering. The various issues and conflicts introduced by each character seem almost impossible to detangle.
So much so that the play’s Ireland of 1833, while distinct, seems not so far from the Ireland of today. Tensions – big, sweeping moral tensions of identity, association, and inclusion – arise and are never quite resolved. Will the villagers devalue their perceptions of tradition? Could George ever truly integrate himself within the Irish community? What steps could the characters – both Irish and English –take to diminish their “us versus them” mentality?
Yet despite the difficulty, there is immense hope in Translations, especially in the play’s strong emphasis on mutuality. Learning a language must also imply using it; it will always require a communicator and a responder, both presumably open to cultural exchange.
Learning about and attempting to understand a culture different from one’s own works the same way. Openness on both sides does not ensure ultimate success or fluency, but if genuinely undertaken, it renews the pursuit of intercultural understanding with possibility and productivity. And what is humanity if not productive and constantly innovative?
As Translations suggests, historical, social, and political progression is at once both daunting and exhilarating. It’s the spark of interest and desired engagement, perfectly exhibited by Máire and George, that will perpetuate civilization into the uncharted, unplotted future.
– Michaela Dwyer

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