Manus and Owen: two contrasting fortunes. How do their attitudes and fortunes change?

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Rebecca Hong

Manus and Owen: two contrasting fortunes.

How do their attitudes and fortunes change?

The play Translations by Brian Friel opens with Manus, the eldest son of the hedge-school master, helping a "waiflike" Sarah, who suffers from a speech defect, to speak, and he does so with "a kind of zeal". This in itself reveals an aspect of Manus' personality. He is a giving character, putting the needs of  others before him. Manus has lived with his father, Hugh O'Donnell, in Baile Beag all his life, and has accepted his role as his father's 'guardian'. He is a nationalist, supporting the Irish while despising anything English. This is shown in his support for Doalty in Act I, where Doalty's trick on the English soldiers is regarded simply by Manus as "a gesture". Hugh's younger son Owen is perhaps more dynamic than Manus. He decided to leave Baile Beag for Dublin at a relatively young age, and was able to set up a number of shops there. At first we are unclear as to where Owen stands in terms of his nationalism. There is an air of ambiguity regarding just how 'Irish' he really is. However, once the play develops Owen proves that he is an Irishman at heart, becoming a nationalist together with Doalty and the Donnelly twins.

In both Act I and Act III Manus refers to himself as "lame". He mocks himself using the term "lame son" in an attempt to entertain those around him and make fun of himself, and succeeds, as it is said that "Maire has to laugh at this". The use of "lame scholar" in Act III, however, is said to draw attention to his pain and suffering. He believes that this makes him less attractive in Maire's eyes. The word "lame" is not used purely in a literal sense. It also carries with it metaphorical meanings. Manus is treated like a slave by Hugh, but feels he cannot apply for the same job as his father, perhaps because he considers him too much competition. Doing this  only cripples Manus, as he is restraining himself. He is not taking the opportunity which is being given to him.

The epithet given to Owen on the other hand is not one which is as personal as that of Manus. He admits to being a "go-between" when he arrives in Baile Beag, and this is true in many ways. He has been hired as a "part-time, underpaid, civilian interpreter", so must act as a translator to turn Irish place names into their English equivalent. He is also a "go-between" as he translates not only place names but languages for English and Irish people when they must communicate, for example with Yolland and Maire in Act II Scene I. Owen also uses the phrase "go-between" as he is the mutual friend who must introduce those at the hedge school to Captian Lancey and Yolland when they first meet.

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Manus and Owen are well-educated young men. Both are fluent in Greek, Latin, Gaelic and English, and they show this throughout the play. Manus is able to translate from Greek to Gaelic when Jimmy Jack Cassie, who is fluent in Latin and Greek, is unable to. Jimmy asks " 'o oi biotoio malista kedeto' - what's that Manus?", to which Manus responds "Who cared most for his substance". Owen is also able to use Latin in everyday language, as shown on his arrival, "Father? - responde - responde!". Owen is perhaps the more successful brother, as he owns nine ...

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