Commentary on Act 1 of the book Translations by Brian Friel
The opening paragraph of the play Translations tells us in great detail about where the play is set. It is set in a hedge-school, which was a disused barn or hay-shed. The opening of the play makes us see that there are two means of isolation. The language binds together the community and in this play we will see how differences in language split society.
Manus is teaching Sarah to speak as the play begins. He is being very patient with her and he thinks that it is important to teach her to articulate, ‘Come on, Sarah. This is our secret’. When you see how Sarah is finding it hard to speak English it makes you feel that she is the symbol for Ireland’s backward position. Jimmy on the other hand represents the educated civilised tradition of old Ireland. He is a scholar, however Sarah is the opposite. She is a contemporary Ireland, as she has no voice to speak out. She has no capacity for taking part in the modern world. Sarah just wants to become part of the society. The way Manus is pushing Sarah to speak, for example, ‘Raise your head. Shout it out. Nobody’s listening’. You feel that Manus does not want Sarah to be a nobody in the community, so he is helping her. The way that Sarah acts around Manus makes you feel that she fancies him, ‘Manus hugs Sarah. She smiles in shy, embarrassed pleasure’.
Jimmy is reading The Odyssey. As he is a scholar he can read books in Greek. He sees himself as a person in the story, ‘Sure look at what the same turf-smoke has done to myself!’ This is not very scholarship like of Jimmy as he relates the text in a very un-scholar like way to himself. He also says things that are very sexually orientated, ‘if you had a woman like that about the house, it’s not stripping a turf-bank you’d be thinking about-eh?’ and ‘she can’t get her fill of men’. Jimmy asks Manus whom he would pick out of Athena, Artemis and Helen. All of these people are characters from the book Jimmy is reading. This shows that Jimmy has a very limited view and conception of what he is reading. Manus asks Sarah whom he should pick; this shows that he considers her view to be important. The way Jimmy acts in this part of the play makes you feel that he is very intellectual but he is living his life in a book, he feels he is almost a character, a crazed personality living in the past.
Sarah does not know how to speak so she mimes what she wants to say and Manus translates for her. This makes you feel that they have a close relationship, as Manus understands whatever Sarah does. She goes over to the straw and gets out some flowers that she has hidden there. Jimmy does not see any of this as he is indulged in the book he is reading and has lost touch with reality. He does not know what is happening around him. He only pays attention to what is happening around him when he wants to know what something means in his book and so he asks Manus, ‘o oi biotoio malista kedeto – what’s that, Manus?’
Sarah gives Manus the flowers and he says that they are lovely to her in a reasonably patronising tone. She gets embarrassed and runs to her seat and buries her head in a book. Manus walks to her and says, ‘Flow-ers’. He wants her to be able to say this word, as he wants to give her an identity by teaching her to speak, their relationship is purely platonic. Sarah says the word and Manus leans down and kisses the top of her head, he thanks her again for the flowers and says they are beautiful.