Issue section: 

How does empire work? It doesn’t just involve a physical seizure of territory, it also seeks to eliminate cultures and memories embodied in the people they are subjugating. Think of how the Turkish state is at war with the Kurdish culture and language. Or of how the Russian Stalinist regime — in total opposition to what Lenin had argued —outlawed minority languages. And if you’re looking for imperialists at work you can always be sure that Britain was in the frontline.

Brian Friel’s play Translations, on now at the National Theatre in London, centres on a mapping exercise in Ireland in the 19th century. Behind the apparently benevolent exercise of geographical clarity lies the Anglicisation of Irish place names.

Such projects (although those who took part in them may not have realised it) were part of a bulldozing of Irish identity as a prelude to seeing Irish people as expendable. The action in the play takes place less than a decade before the British-overseen famine. It saw two million Irish men, women and children either emigrate or die — around a quarter of the population.

Translations is about language, but language is about politics. Druim Dubh, which means “black shoulder” in Irish, becomes Dromduff in English

And with each “rationalisation” the Irish are slowly pushed under.

The play takes place mostly in a rural school, a setting in which the educated Irish transmit their own views. It is soon to be replaced by a local outpost of a national education network — teaching in English.

Owen, the son of the schoolmaster Hugh, returns home after many years away in Dublin. He’s accompanying Captain Lancey, one of the mapping expedition, and Lieutenant Yolland. Owen is working as a translator and facilitator for the English. Yolland wants to be friendly, although he can’t even get Owen’s name right and calls him Roland.

Owen’s response to his family is “Owen — Roland — what the hell. It’s only a name. It’s the same me, isn’t it? Well, isn’t it?” But his erasure of himself goes along with his rubbing out of Irish.

Yolland falls in love with Maire, one of the school’s pupils, and they share a beautiful love scene where they communicate without knowing more than a phrase or two of each other’s language. It is “beyond words”, but words cannot indefinitely be excluded. Their love is enormously touching and joyous, the more so for being surrounded by a gathering tragedy.

The National Theatre production is strong in many ways. From the lighting to the excellent performances it brings out the power of Friel’s play.

Colonialism generally insists that its victims much abandon their own tongue and adopt that of the coloniser. But it also ensures that even when they are speaking the same language, they are still really speaking another one, where notions of “progress and “freedom” don’t mean the same thing.

This is a wonderful production of a play that works on dozens of levels.