A play about translation and place names

I love theatre. A few weeks ago now I saw Brian Friel’s play “Translations”. Obviously I was attracted by the title. In this historic play British soldiers descend on an Irish village to make a map for the Ordnance Survey. The mapping exercise also involves recording and “translating” the place names. It was not clear what qualifications the orthographer employed to perform this task actually had. He certainly did not have a classical education unlike the students at the local school where the school master not only teaches Latin and Greek but also launches into Latin whenever it suits him. The suggestion to use Latin as a lingua franca is unsuccessful. One of the school master’s sons is employed as an interpretor. He tells the orthographer the local name of each place, which he then compares with other names for the same place in several official registers, most of which he then dismisses as being wrong. He translates the name into English and then they appear to make up an English name that may or may not be related to the Irish name or its meaning. One wonders how the naming process was actually carried out.

The play was in English throughout, even when the character was supposed to be speaking in Irish. The playwright was able to portray the inability of two characters to understand each other while having both actors speaking English, with interesting results.The audience was also able to see misinterpretations deliberately made by the interpreter.

The translation of place names raises a number of questions, one of which is whether it makes a difference to the way the place is perceived.


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