As the title of the play indicates, the issues of the nature of language and its ability to define identity are central to Translations. Friel himself remarked that he wanted write a play 'about the nineteenth century, somewhere between the Act of Union and the Great Famine' a play about the death of the Irish language and the acquisition of English and the profound effect that that change-over would have on people.' (Friel, Andrews and Barry: ‘Translations and paper landscape: between fiction and history’, The Crane Bag vol. 7 no. 2)
Part of that 'profound effect' is that the play itself is written in English, with a careful dramatic contrivance created to ensure that the audience understands when characters are speaking in their native Irish tongue. Friel’s position is therefore ambiguous; although he also wrote in his diary that he did not 'want to write a threnody on the death of the Irish language' and the play itself is written in English, the play clearly considers the fate of the identity of a people whose language is threatened with eradication. Tom Paulin comments 'The history of language is often a story of possession and dispossession, territorial struggle and the establishment or imposition of a culture'. (A new look at the language question 1983)
This ambiguity is pointed in the play itself. Maire, looking forward to a new life of greater opportunities in America, feels she needs to learn English, and voices the words of Daniel O’Connell in 'the old language is a barrier to modern progress'. Owen, who has moved away from Baile Beag to find affluence in Dublin, has achieved his success at least partially because of his acquisition of English, to which he refers as 'the King’s good English' compared with the 'quaint, archaic tongue' still spoken in his father’s hedge school. Hugh himself, though he initially refuses even to discuss the teaching of English with Maire, can speak the language, and does, if only 'outside the parish' and 'for the purposes of commerce'. In this he is showing a necessity to be adaptable with language and even hinting at the economic power of English. On the other hand, we have Manus, who pointedly refuses to use English in front of Yolland, and Sarah, who learns to express herself vocally at the beginning of the play and is struck back to silence by Lancey’s imperiousness at the end. It is left to Yolland, the English soldier whose job it is to effect the renaming of the places on the map, to express most clearly the effect of this 'eviction' of Irish, recognising that 'Something is being eroded.' While Owen dismisses this as 'romance' and describes Yolland after his disappearance as 'a bloody romantic', the play suggests that Owen is right the second time but wrong the first.
Yolland’s and Owen’s discussion of Tobair Vree illustrates this neatly. Owen knows the narrative, the history, which gave the place its name, the story of Brian’s well. The well has dried up and Brian’s story has been forgotten by all except Owen, but the corrupted place name remains. 'Where there’s ambiguity,' Owen told Manus in Act One, the place names will 'be Anglicised.' The question with Tobair Vree is whether the new map should 'keep piety with a man long dead' or with 'a trivial little story'. In the shape of the play, the story is far from trivial. However corrupted and however tenuous the link in people’s memory, the name still identifies Brian and his story and gives the name a historical meaning; it is the story of the place. Even aside from that, there is the issue which applies to all the changes of map names, that of dislocating a community from its own orientation, illustrated tactlessly by Owen when he shows that the priest’s home has changed its place, according to the map: 'Lis na Muc, the Fort of Pigs, has become Swinefort. And to get to Swinefort you pass through Greencastle' And the new school isn’t at Poll na gCoarach it’s at Sheepsrock. Will you be able to find your way?'
Hugh would, of course, be able to find his way, but the new map, new signposts, the imposition of order on the country, would mean nothing to him. The answer to Yolland’s question 'Who's confused' Are the people confused'' is that the people will be confused when the new names are applied by the administration.
Owen’s dismissal of the story of Tobair Vree echoes the politician Daniel O’Connell, who said: 'Although the Irish language is connected with many recollections that twine round the hearts of Irishmen, yet the superior utility of the English tongue, as the medium of all modern communication, is so great that I can witness without a sigh the gradual disuse of the Irish.'
Against this, Thomas Davis, founder of the Young Ireland movement, said: 'A people without a language of its own is only half a nation. A nation should guard a language more than its territories.
'So while Friel did not want to write a 'threnody', the play questions closely the relationship between identity and language. It is significant, perhaps, that Hugh and Jimmy speak as easily in Ancient Greek and Latin as they do in Irish, creating an implicit link between dead and dying languages. It is also not a practical proposition for Friel to write in Irish, as the dominance of English in Ireland has become so firmly established. This separates him from Ngugi, the Kenyan writer who recanted his use of English in order to write in Gikuyu, his Nigerian dialect, and makes an interesting comparison with Arundhati Roy, who was the subject of criticism in 1997 when she won the Booker prize with The God of Small Things because it was written in English rather than a Keralan dialect.
It is significant that towards the end of the play, Hugh, who speaks English but who refused to discuss it with Maire, says 'We must learn those new names. We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them our own. We must make them our new home.' The actualities of power and history demand adaptation and compromise to ensure survival.