Translations – Brian Friel


In the wilds of Ireland a small community school keeps alive a love of the classics. The people are poor and terrified by the potato blight. But they love literature. They study the languages of ancient Greece and Rome, and love the poetry of the Aeneid and the Iliad.

The teacher at this hedge school is a veteran of the Irish rebellion and fought at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. His pupils are a mixed bunch. A drunken companion from the war is besotted with the idea of Athene, goddess of wisdom and war. A young girl is almost literally tongue tied, unable to speak.

The teacher’s young son encourages her to say her name and praises her efforts to speak out. He is compassionate, but his own father is often drunk, and treats him badly.

Friel establishes this scene first. Then the teacher’s other son returns from Dublin. He has stepped outside the bounds of this tight community, and brings with him two British soldiers. There is a sense of betrayal from the moment he enters. Here is the prodigal son: his father and brother greet him lovingly, but there is a feeling that he has neglected his father and ignored his responsibilities.

The job of the soldiers is to map the whole of Ireland. It’s for military purposes of course. They are also offering free education to the locals, but the lessons will be in English. And they are to give all of the places on the map English names. It’s cultural and military domination.

But we laugh when we realise that it is the English who are uneducated, who are the barbarians. Soon an English soldier and an Irish girl fall in love. A close friendship develops between the soldier and the translator. There are small acts of rebellion against the occupiers, some comical, and some more deadly and serious. Throughout there is the sense of determined low level resistance to the inroads of these red coated intruders.

The play ends with two allusions to the classics. In one, the beauties of a favoured city, its Tyrian Towers, are destroyed by a race of military outsiders. So the British are destroying Ireland.

In the other the drunken companion considers exogamy – marrying outside the clan. He wonders, comically, will the goddess Athene look outside the family of the gods and marry him? Are loving relationships between the invaded and the invader ever possible?

I read Translations earlier in the year, and bought tickets to see the production at the Olivier Theatre, London. The performance was awarded 5* on a Guardian review, and when I saw it last night it did not disappoint.

Translations is an examination of empire and colonialism with direct relevance for modern audiences faced with Trump, Brexit and neo-liberal politics. It reminded me that you can colonise ideas as well as places.

I grew up in the aftermath of the post war Labour government. The 1944 Education Act and the NHS revolutionised life, offering equality of opportunity to everyone. But now we are in the throes of a right wing counterrevolution that began as a challenge to the compassion of Labour, and has provided us with Brexit.

Democracy is being undermined by the interests of capital. Business groups, not always British, subsidise right wing think tanks They work behind the scenes, and secretly. Who funds the Tax Payers’ Alliance? It sounds so democratic. But according to The Guardian, it’s not funded by thousands of individual donors, as claimed by Chloe Westley on Radio 4 Any Questions today:

Who is behind the taxpayers’ alliance

Meanwhile Rees-Mogg makes dubious use of parliamentary funds to support his ERG ginger group fighting for a hard Brexit. Democracy is dead all right, but not because they ignored the referendum.

Open Democracy

The wealthy have used their money to colonise the world of ideas. They have bought newspapers and funded groups that promote right wing views and constantly attack left wing parties and politicians. They promote short sighted capitalist solutions to our communal life. They have colonised the public sphere and spread poisonous half truths and lies.

If I have a beef with government policy I get one vote, and maybe I can join a party and contribute to that with a small amount of money, or with my labour. But the rich buy oceans of publicity and pay to promote their pernicious views.

Are you an MP? Well, write for Rupert Murdoch (The Sun, The Times) or the Barclay brothers (The Daily Telegraph). These rich owners want low tax regulation, the continued availability of tax havens, and an exit from Europe because European laws limit their power.

They want to be free to challenge the rights of workers which are written into European law. Johnson and Gove, two of the key leaders of the Leave campaign, are in the pay of these partisan newspapers. That’s corruption. How can their views, or their votes in parliament, be impartial?

We need compassion, humanity and intelligence to protect society against the greed of business. But these ideas – society, compassion, equality only get lip service from our compromised institutions, including the media. Their real agenda is to promote neoliberal beliefs which negate human values. They prioritise profit above people and above the country. They suck the life out of our national institutions and replace it with the dead hand of tick boxes, efficiency ratings and shareholder profit.

I used to think postcolonial literature was just about history. But it’s not. It’s our story too.

PS See link for more views on this issue:

John Trickett – Shadow Minister – in The Guardian


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