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La traduction dans les cultures plurilingues

Francis Mus
Karen Vandemeulebroucke
Lieven D’Hulst
et al.


(Failed) Passwords for the “private core”. On translating Brian Friel’s Translations for a Hungarian theatre in Romania

Erika Mihálycsa

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1Northern Irish playwright Brian Friel’s play Translations tackles the loss of the Irish language in the years before the Famine, through the “standardization” (Anglicization) of Irish placenames for the first Ordnance Survey. The play explores the intricacies of translating back and forth between Irish and English, thematizing translation as a Derridean beingin-the-arrival with no source and no target language, and hence no possibility of arrival. As everybody onstage speaks English, the one-language standing for both (major) English and the language to become minoritarian – Irish, Friel’s play deconstructs both nationalist and unionist readings of Ireland’s past and of the issue of the native tongue. The play opened at the State Hungarian Theatre in Cluj/Kolozsvár, Romania in 2001, in my translation (the second translation into Hungarian, being both the play’s first performance in Hungarian, and the first performance of a play by Brian Friel in Romania), directed by David Grant (The Lyric Theatre, Belfast). Translating Friel’s Translations into Hungarian in Transylvania, Romania, meant doubly thematizing the issue of minor (ity) vs. major (ity) language. Transylvania’s layered ethnie, linguistic and cultural heritage, the parallels with the “standardization” of Hungarian names and placenames into Romanian and their gradual suppression under the Ceauçescu dictatorship created a politically charged context for the play’s reception, which the translation and performance attempted to both hamess and escape. The present paper proposes to try and provide an answer to the following questions: what language to translate Friel’s play into – by means of addressing a text written in a (Deleuzian) minor language, Hibemo-English, transposed into a minority language in Transylvania, resorting to a minor variant of Hungarian; how many languages does translation bring into play, and how many directions does continuons to-and-fro translation take; how can translation fly by the nets of political reading (Friel’s Northern Irish context; the 2001 performance’s Transylvanian Hungarian context); how far can the (onstage) one-language make visible the Derridean dictum, “We only ever speak one language – We never speak only one language” (Derrida 1998: 7).

2Translations is set in Donegal in 1833, in an Irish “hedge-school” in Baile Beag/Ballybeg, the fictional small town revisited in several of Friel’s plays, at the time of the establishment of National Schools – with English rather than Irish as the language of tuition – throughout Ireland. It is here that Hugh, the hedge-school’s schoolmaster and his lame son Manus teach their rural pupils Latin and Greek, and converse with the quixotic middle-aged pupil Jimmy Jack in quotations from the Aeneid and Virgil’s Georgica. English military arrive in Baile Beag to carry out the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland, mapping the country and standardizing (Anglicizing) Irish placenames. In charge of the operation are two English officers, Colonel Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland, accompanied by a civilian interpréter who tums out to be Hugh’s younger son Owen, who had gone to Dublin to seek his fortune. The central conceit of the play is that the English spoken onstage has to be “translated” by the audience as Irish and English. Manus’s resentment of his brother Owen (known to his English superiors as Roland) stems from what he sees as a double betrayal – for helping in the replacement of Gaelic names and for encouraging the budding love between Yolland and Maire, his intended. Yolland’s naïve romantic interest in all things Gaelic cannot obliterate the fact that, with the translations of Irish placenames, “something is being eroded” (Friel 1981: 53). The love of Yolland and Maire, expressed by means of their recital of (foreign) placenames in a scene evocative of Romeo and Juliet, ends abruptly with Yolland’s abduction; this event brings down Lancey’s threats of violent retaliation on the community, literally enacting the symbolic eviction in the acts of translation. The play ends on Hugh’s promise to teach Maire English, emigration to America now imminent, and failing to remember the opening lines of the Aeneid.

  • 1 For a discussion of the political agenda of Field Day and Friel’s involvement in it see Richtarik ( (...)

3Translations, the founding text of the Field Day, first performed at the Field Day Theatre in Derry in 1980, tackles the issue of language and/as identity with a thematic insistence unparalleled in Friel’s oeuvre – to the extent that the author felt the need to write a satirical sequel, The Communication Cord, to ward off some of the political implications attached to Translations1. In his diary kept during the time of the play’s writing, Friel seems to attempt to distance himself from these political implications, performed in the midst of the Troubles in his hometown – the place where the Troubles first flared up and whose name itself, Derry/Londonderry, speaks of divided political allegiances:

  • 2 Brian Friel, “Extracts from a Sporadic Diary” (Ireland and the Arts: A Special Issue of Literary Re (...)

I don’t want to write a play about Irish peasants being suppressed by English sappers. I don’t want to write a threnody on the death of the Irish language. I don’t want to write a play about land-surveying. Indeed I don’t want to write a play about naming places. And yet portions of all these are relevant. Each is part of the atmosphère in which the real play lurks.2

  • 3 Cf. John Montague, A Lost Tradition: “All around, shards of a lost tradition.../ The whole landscap (...)

4In this national debate on the loss of language and on the inevitability and costs of modernization, Friel adopts a post-nationalist stance (Kiberd 1996: 616): his treatment of the theme of translation and the fact that he writes a play in English which the audience has to imagine to be acted out in Irish shows him committed to a project of perpetual translation. As a (Northern) Irish writer treading, willy-nilly, on Joycean promises vis-à-vis the language of the other, he was forced to pass through the experience of the delusions of nationality and singularity and to recognize that estrangement from ail language is the natural condition of the (Northern) Irish writer. Gaelic, the ancestral language is irrevocably lost to Friel as to generations of Irish poets and writers; Gaelic place-names come to represent for him as for John Montague, “a geography of disinheritance”3. The play’s central conceit – that the audience has to assume throughout that it is acted out in Irish while, in reality, it is written in English and has no Gaelic “original” – thematises an exile from the native language which Derrida called the condition of the monolingual, that of being thrown into absolute translation with no original, no source, and only a target-language. Indeed, when Ireland’s national Gaelic theatre, the Galway-based Taidhbhearch wanted to stage the play in Gaelic and English, Friel refused permission on the basis that only in one language can the fundamental irony of the dis-unity of a culture be rendered (Murray 2006: 103).

5In Monolingualism of the Other or, The Prosthesis of Origins, Derrida offers a deconstruction of the condition of the monolingual writer who cornes from a colonial context and who – like himself, from a French-speaking Maghrebi Jew family – is fated to inhabit one and only one language which does not belong to him: “I only have one language, yet it is not mine” (Derrida 1998: 2). For the monolingual whose language – the only language in which “to inhabit” is meaningful to him/her, irrespective of other acquired languages – is given from the outside with its grammar rules, idioms and literary tradition, the primary linguistic experience is of a double barrier separating him/her from the inaccessible “mother tongue” on the one hand and, from the “inhabitants” of the language s/he speaks and writes on the other hand. The result is that the language remains “always mute for the one who inhabits it, and whom it inhabits most intimately, that it remains distant, heterogeneous, uninhabitable, deserted” (Derrida 1998: 58, emphasis added). This unique alienation establishes a common condition for ail those who lack a primary identification with a “mother tongue”, the condition of absolute translation:

The monolingual of whom I speak speaks a language of which he is deprived. [...] Because he is therefore deprived of ail language [...] he is thrown into absolute translation, a translation without a pole of reference, without an originary language, and without a source language [langue de départ]. For him, there are only target languages [langues d’arrivée], if you will, the remarkable expérience being, however, that these languages just cannot manage to reach themselves because they no longer know where they are coming from, what they are speaking from and what the sense of their joumey is. Languages without an itinerary and, above all, without any superhighway of goodness knows what information. (Derrida 1998: 60-61)

6The condition of Derrida’s monolingual – and of Friel’s stage characters – could be summed up by two mutually exclusive statements: (1) We always speak in one language alone, and (2) We never speak in one language alone.

7Throughout, Derrida wams his readers that one should never overlook the question of the language in which the question of the language is raised. As a result, the recognition that all true translation, all text, must retain some sense of the foreignness of its originals – and, one may add, in the case of Irish writers, of the inaccessibility of its originals (Gaelic) for the reader. Moreover, Friel’s Translations repeats and reiterates the history of modem Irish literature, which began with an act of translation – translation into English, into the language of the other, being a means of inventing as well as reflecting the Irish “original”.

8Translations dramatizes the key moment in Irish history when Irish gave way to English, and when an entire culture was forced to translate – and reinvent – itself into a different linguistic landscape. The maps of the Ordnance Survey are a powerful metaphor for the transformation through appropriation of cultural/linguistic space. The play does not merely lament the loss of Irish, a disinherited tongue, but also shows the process of losing its capacity to relate to, describe and map the present, becoming, like the Greek and Latin taught at Hugh’s hedge-school, a language anchored in the past and laden with “a pietas for older, quieter things” (Friel 1981: 89). In a passage that seems to articulate a tenet from George Steiner’s After Babel, the schoolmaster uses the metaphor of mapping for the Celtophile Yolland:

HUGH: ... words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen – to use an image you’ll understand – it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of... fact. (Friel 1981: 52)

9The drama plays a practical (however bitter) joke on present-day Irish audiences, to whom the Gaelic placenames are only intelligible by means of (Owen’s) English translation. The joke confronts them with the status of this language in Ireland today, which was decreed the country’s first official language by the 1937 constitution written in English. At least two approaches to language are thematized: a positivist one (represented by Lancey and Owen) which foregrounds the belief in straightforward and unproblematic linguistic transfer, and an ontological or poetic view of Heideggerian inspiration, that posits an intricate, layered relation between language and identity and questions the possibility of translation as linguistic transfer, as each language allows for different ways of (poetically) dwelling in the world (Pellettier 2006: 69). It also draws attention to the fact that, “once Anglicization is achieved, the Irish and English, instead of speaking a truly identical tongue, will be divided most treacherously by a common language” (Kiberd 1996: 622).

  • 4 Murray (2006: 99-102) argues that palimpsest, the superimposition of discourses/ languages/narrativ (...)

10In 2001, I was commissioned by the State Hungarian Theatre in Cluj/ Kolozsvár, Romania, to translate Translations. A first translation of the play into Hungarian by Márton Mesterházi, with the title Helynevek ( “Placenames”), had already been published in 1990, though not to that date performed. At the time, neither the theatre’s administration nor the translater were aware of the existence of a previous translation. Fordítások ("Translations") opened on October 6th, 2001, directed by David Grant from the Lyric Theatre, Belfast; the theatre kept the performance on its repertoire until 2004. The translation had to address the issue that in the body of the text, the truly foreign elements are precisely the “originals” – the Gaelic placenames to be translated – while in about two thirds of the play the characters are assumed to speak in Irish. In Friel’s text, these Gaelic names come up in the second act, in Yolland and Owen’s labours of translation, and are explained and then appropriated into English either by transliteration or by Verbatim translation. The only other foreign bodies in the text are the Latinisms and Greek words, and the frequent quotations from Homer and Virgil. Stage English stands thus twice as often for Irish as for English; this central conceit allows Friel to play out his (self) ironic game with national identity residing in language and with the prosthesis of “origins”, since his “original” is already a translation – underlining the fact that the Irishness of the Irish can barely be articulated outside the English language. Having the play translated into a foreign (third) language adds yet another layer of translations to this textual palimpsest of superimposed languages/ translations/names4 – yet it paradoxically also means the loss of the original’s sense of being-thrown-in-translation, as the third language hides, if not quite erases, the absence of the “original” language, Gaelic. Alongside the question What kind of language to translate Translations into, one needs to raise the question Which of the original ’s languages should we translate?

11Three possibilities present themselves. The first is to translate every placename (the choice made by Márton Mesterházi who translates both English and Irish names into Hungarian): that is, to pursue the central conceit of having the characters translate from Hungarian into Hungarian throughout. As Mesterházi writes in his introductory note to Helynevek [ “Placenames”],

  • 5 Márton Mesterházi, “A fordltó mentsége” [The Translator’s Apology] in Brian Friel, Helynevek, 100; (...)

In the original text the Irish place names stand in Gaelic as long as, by superior order, they do not become Anglicized – the process the play is about. (Friel also introduces a couple of English place names, of course in English.) If I leave those place names untranslated, the (Hungarian version of the) play will be about nothing. If I translate only the English place names, it is the Irish ones (the very ones outraged in their dignity) from which I estrange Hungarian readers. If I translate only the Irish/ Gaelic place names, I leave pieces of English text in the play every (English) sentence of which I have translated into Hungarian. Only desperate audacity seemed to be logical here. As for the Hungarian equivalents, Balazs Orban was most helpful. Commonly known place names (like Dublin) have been left unchanged.5

  • 6 Cf. Owen: “My job is to translate the quaint, archaic tongue you people persist in speaking into th (...)

12This is certainly a major translator’s challenge: one has to invent the process of transliteration, a process of Entzauberung and of erosion of meaning – a process all the more problematic, since one of the pretexts to “standardizing” these placenames in the play is precisely the alleged erosion, and confusion of meaning of Irish toponymy, the daims that some of these names are distorted, often erroneously remembered by the speaking community. Basically, the translator has two choices: either to start from “corrupted” aurai forms and “set them righf ’ – a process hardly credible; or to produce phonetic approximations of perfectly meaningful “originals” (z.e., Gaelic names) with the loss of accents, an odd phoneme, stripping them of meaning and thus “corrupting” them. As this is what usually happens with transliterations, the second is the more obvious choice, resulting in “corrupted” Hungarian names stripped of accents, umlauts. However, it tends to overlook the play’s radical irony – that due to the working of the onstage one-language, the Gaelic originals acquire “meaning” (or rather, an aura of meaning) precisely through the English corruptions. The translator here runs the risk of “transliteration” not from a “quaint, archaic tongue”6 to standardized modem usage, but of transliterating meaningful names into distorted Word forms – the strategy Mesterházi resorts to most often. On the other hand, this translator’s strategy tends to gloss over the fundamental skepticism with which Friel seems to treat the question of origins. Either way, the translation makes a (political) choice, precluding the possibility of the other (perhaps not dominant, but no less constitutive) reading.

Mesterházi’s boldly inventive Helységnevek maps a process of translation where meaning escapes from “Anglicized” names – voiding the “standardized” names of meaning:
OWEN: Do you know where the priest lives?
HUGH: At Lis na Muc, over near...

OWEN: No, he doesn’t. Lis na Muc, the Fort of the Pigs, has become Swinefort. And to get to Swinefort you pass through Greencastle and Fair Head and Strandhill and Gort and Whiteplains. And the new school isn’t at Poll na gCaoragh – it’s at Sheepsrock. Will you be able to find your way? (Friel 1981: 50-51)
OWEN: Tudja, hol lakik a plébános?
HUGH: A Disznóvárnál, nem messze a...
OWEN: Nem. A„ Disznóvár” [Pig’s Castle] a„ Sertésdomb” [Swine Hill] nevet kapta. És a„ Sertésdombhoz” az„ Erdei Kastélyon”, a „ Kilátósziklán”, a„ Parti dombon”, a„ Mezón” [phonetical distortion of “mező’: field] és a„ Férsíkon” [distorsion of “fennsík": highland] kell átmennie. Az új iskolát sem a Birkakövön, hanem a„ Birkakón” [distortion of‘‘birkakő”: sheepsrock] építik. Odatalál egyáltalán? (Friel 1990: 149)

13His rendering of the “Lis na Muc – Swinefort” cluster, for instance, resorts to a vernacular name for the “Irish” placename, while the “English” name has an appropriate, and stiff, official ring, employing the generic term for the animal that is hardly ever used in day-to-day speech. The transliterations, on the other hand, are effected through various forms of phonetic distortion, mostly the dropping of accents – closely reminiscent of the mispronunciation of Hungarian words by foreigners.

14A second option would be to translate everything that is in English and leave the Irish placenames their foreignness, explaining them where they are explained in the play. The estrangement of the audience from the “original” names, however, only implies a strong political choice, arguably quite at odds with the play’s dominant reading, reinforced by the context of its production. A third, and more equanimously foreignizing, possibility is to leave ail placenames, whether Irish or English, in the original (retaining thus the aural aspect of transliteration), precluding the possibility of situating the foreign-language text inside either language.

  • 7 Most notably, in Hugh’s soliloquies with Steinerian echoes in acts II and III, as well as in the em (...)

15The translation text that was eventually performed in Cluj/Kolozsvár has in tum addressed the second and third possibilities. The fact that the translation of all placenames into Hungarian was not attempted is mostly due to the translator’s reservations as to the loss of the foreignness of Irish, the “ancestral tongue”, hence the play’s implied irony. Eventually two translation versions resulted: the one that was played onstage, and the textual version that was published, and which differs from the stage version on some sensitive issues7.

  • 8 David Grant, Programme Notes to Brian Friel, Forditások, Kolozsvári Állami Magyar Színház/ Teatrul (...)

16Director David Grant’s original conception was to have everything in English (i.e., English placenames) translated into Hungarian, maintaining the Gaelic “originals” in their foreignness. This choice came up against the resistance of the actors as well as the translators’ reservations. The actors, as Grant records in his Programme Notes on directing Friel in Hungarian, signalled that the Hungarian names were too “poetic”, obliterating the essentially brutal, levelling process of translation into a major language8. Furthermore, not infrequently the names translated from the English unwittingly echoed existing Transylvanian Hungarian placenames, creating homely resonances the translater wished to avoid.

17My translator’s choice, therefore, was a hybrid, in-between one: in the body of the text the placenames appear in Irish and English, allowing for the translitérations to work and their corrosive effect to be heard onstage. On the other hand, wherever in Friel’s text the meaning of a placename is explained (in English), these names are translated into Hungarian (virtually ail the names that we witness Owen and Yolland translating). In the theatre version, all English names stay unchanged, so that Lancey’s threat of eviction is meted out on the English names:

LANCEY: If that doesn’t bear results, commencing forty-eight hours from now we will embark on a series of evictions and levelling of every abode in the following selected areas [...]
OWEN: If they still haven’t found [Yolland] in two days time they’ll begin evicting and levelling every house starting with these townlands.
LANCEY (reads from his list): Swinefort.
OWEN: Lis na Mue.
LANCEY: Burnfoot.
OWEN: Bun na hAbhann.
LANCEY: Dromduff.
OWEN: Druim Dubh.
LANCEY: Whiteplains.
OWEN: Machaire Ban.
LANCEY: Kings Head.
OWEN: Cnoc na Ri. (Friel 1981: 80-81)
LANCEY: Ha ez nem vezet eredményre, negyvennyolc óra elteltével kilakoltatásokba kezdünk és a hàzakat a földdel tesszük egyenlővé a következő kiválasztott szektorokban [...]
OWEN: Ha addig sem találták meg, két nap múlva minden családot kilakoltatnak és minden házat lerombolnak. Ezekkel a helységekkel kezdik:

LANCEY: Swinefort.
OWEN: Lis na Mue.
LANCEY: Burnfoot.
OWEN: Bun na hAbhann.
LANCEY: Dromduff.
OWEN: Druim Dubh.
LANCEY: Whiteplains.
OWEN: Machaire Ban.
LANCEY: Kings Head.
OWEN: Cnoc na Ri.

  • 9 As another example of the ironie and estranging use of English as a worldwide colonizing language, (...)

18Eventually, by having English placenames explode from Lancey’s mouth onstage, a new layer of translation is brought into play – a layer which speaks about new forms of linguistic colonization, driven by economie rather than military power: by the intrusion of English the (g) local, political reading is given a new dimension9.

  • 10 It is highly informative in this respect to read the fragments of reviews posted on the theatre’s h (...)
  • 11 Local newspapers, cultural and literary periodicals in minority languages (Hungarian and German) co (...)
  • 12 See especially Bertha & Morse (1994) and, most recently, Bertha (2006).

19The considerations behind such translator’s choice have to do with the performance’s 2001 Transylvanian context and the, inevitable, political readings that the translator wished to both hamess and escape10. The city where the play was to open is itself a rather typical Eastern-Central European example of a palimpsest of renamings: known under the names Cluj/Kolozsvar/ Klausenburg, its streets have been at least six times renamed through the 20th century as it changed hands, the contending Romanian and Hungarian names sometimes showing grotesque breaches. Given its historical conditions and recent past, the Hungarian audience in Transylvania is overmuch inclined to reading such narratives in an elegiac nationalist key, of loss and oppression, and to drawing parallels between the narrative of loss registered in the play and the homely narratives of national oppression and endurance, which have proliferated mostly in the Transylvanian Hungarian literature of the 1970s and ‘80s. During the Ceauşescu dictatorship, all ethnic minorities in Transylvania suffered various forms of enforced assimilation, mostly manifest in the regime’s pursuits of ethnically amalgamating previously plurilingual, multiculturel territories, in its attempts to suppress (especially higher) education in minority languages, as well as to abolish the use of languages other than Romanian in all State institutions and the media11. Under such conditions, which made hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans and Hungarians emigrate, Hungarian literature in Transylvania – most notably, the work of the major Hungarian playwright of the period, András Sütő, often compared to Friel12 – adopted a strong nationalist agenda, creating a double-voiced discourse that tried, on the one hand, to drive home its critique of the regime and, on the other hand, to simultaneously elude the wakeful eyes of the censors, clothing its message in the forms of historical parables easily decoded by the audience. Such double-voicing was, however, rigorously devoid of ail forms of (self-) irony, lapsing ail too often into pathos and pompousness; these literary works that have adopted the topoi of the palm-tree growing under weight and/or of the pearl secreted out of pain as a self-definition, served first and foremost as a creed of ethnic, cultural resistance and endurance, petrifying communal values held to be sacrosanct – oblivious to the Steinerian echoes in Hugh’s admonition:

HUGH: ... it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language [...] we must never cease renewing those images; because once we do, we fossilise. (Friel 1981: 88)

20Small wonder that with the fall of the regime, the vast majority of this literary output has suddenly become obsolete precisely because of its chronic lack of self-criticism and irony. Recent literature seeks, rather, to detach itself from, and parody its positions. Symptomatically, the internationally acclaimed State Hungarian Theatre Cluj/Kolozsvár, which in 2008 hosted the 17th Festival of the Union of the Theatres of Europe and whose performances have won numerous major national and international awards, has turned its back on the Transylvanian Hungarian plays of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the bulk of its repertory being made up of 20th century classics (up to Mrozek, Thomas Bernhard, Harold Pinter or Danilo Kiš) and contemporary plays by authors such as Heiner Müller, Marie Jones, Natalie Sarraute, Hanoch Levin, Gianina Cӑrbunariu or András Visky.

  • 13 Cf. the strong and sometimes emotional statements on performances of Translations in Hungarian thea (...)

21Such parallel readings, in my opinion, are all too prone to gloss over the critical edge of Friel’s play, that performs a work at, in, on language that (Transylvanian) Hungarian literature has not, until the most recent times, addressed. Moreover, a dwelling on the alleged parallel between the historical conditions of the (Northern) Irish and the Transylvanian Hungarian community tends to overlook the fact that Transylvania, a site of contending translations and varieties of Kulturkampf throughout its modem history, has known several rounds of (cultural, linguistic) appropriation, the Hungarian community’s plight being hardly singular in this respect – nor could Hungarian stand in lieu of an “original” language in the region. Postcolonial assumptions of such Irish-Hungarian historical parallels, current in Irish Studies in Hungary, obfuscate the fact that Hungarians as an ethnic group have played multiple roles, of both colonizers and colonized, throughout the history of the region13.

22I considered therefore that an emphasis on the foreignness of the play’s context was necessary in order to fly by, as far as possible, the nets of all-too-ready parallel readings. If by transposing the play into a third, foreign language (Hungarian) the “direction” of the manifold translations performed in Friel’s play, easily picked up by an English-speaking audience, is adumbrated – delivering perhaps the strongest argument for the play’s ultimate untranslatability – indiscriminate hamessing of what is widely sensed to be a similarity of condition (linguistic, political, literary, of mentality) would run the risk of transforming Translations into a species of “Irish Sütő”, an essentializing, nostalgie, mythologizing nationalist narrative.

23Friel’s play owes much of its problematizing potential to a close reading of George Steiner’s After Babel. It is steeped in translation and translation theory, thematizing translation not only as interlinguistic transfer but also as an act of communication at large – seeming to echo Steiner’s tenets that all communication is a form of translation that”‘interprets’ between privacies” (Steiner 1975: 198), but at the same time pointing at the impossibility of “pure” translation/communication, since “each communicatory gesture has a private residue” (ibid.: 46). Friel’s use of the word “private” is crucial, since two of the play’s key sentences speak of the impossiblity of translating the “private”/” private core”. Indeed, two very different conceptions of language result from the two uses of “private” – Yolland’s residually positivist reading, which still rests on the assumption that there is a “core”, some ultimate, irreducible centre where meaning resides, set against Hugh’s vision that seems to tacitly acknowledge the irrecuperable nature of any such “core”, and which speaks of being-thrown- in-translation:

YOLLAND: Even if I did speak Irish I’d always be an outsider here, wouldn’t I? I may learn the password but the language of the tribe will always elude me, won’t it? The private core will always be... hermetic, won’t it?
OWEN: You can learn to decode us. (Friel 1981: 48)
HUGH: But don’t expect too much. I will provide you with the available words and the available grammar. But will that help you to interpret between privacies? I have no idea. But it’s all we have. I have no idea at all.
MAIRE: Master, what does the English word ‘always’ mean?
HUGH: Semper – per omnia saecula. The Greeks called it ‘aei’. It’s not a word l’d start with. (Friel 1981: 90)

24Hungarian has no word with the full semantic range of “private”: either the (possessive) privacy, or the secret “ingredient” has to be chosen, as shown in the Hungarian renderings of the “private core”, both erring on the side of one-directional meaning:

Mesterházi 1990: Ha megtanulnám is a jelszót, a törzs nyelvét sosem tudnam a magamévá tenni, nemde? A belső magot soha nem tudnam... elérni, nemde?
[Even if I leamed the password, I could never appropriate ( “make mine”) the language of the tribe, could I? The inside kernel I could never... reach, could I?]
Mihálycsa 2001: A jelszót megtanulhatom, de a törzs nyelvét sosem tudnám szóra bírni, igaz? A titkos kőzép, a személyes titkoké, mindig el lenne zárva előlem, nem igaz?
[I could learn the password, but I could never make the language of the tribe speak, right? The secret centre, of the Personal secrets, would always be barred from me, right?]

  • 14 FitzGibbon (2006) points out the ironic mode of the question coming from Hugh, the most imperviousl (...)

25Hugh’s “privacies” is the more semantically layered of the play’s two “private cores”, as it brings into play his acknowledgement of his failed translations throughout the play14 – posing the question of impenetrable linguistic privacies, of dividedness in the common language, as well as voicing his premonition that not even the learning of the language of the new order can restore the sense of belonging or repair the old identity. My initial intention was to distance his “privacies” by a more foreignizing choice and one that would drive home the Steiner echoes more readily ( “orientation between each other’s foreignnesses”), yet this, tendentious, translation was not well received by either the director or the actors. Mesterházi’s choice, on the other hand, manages to approach Hugh’s “privacies” by taking a non-essentialist stance, pointing at the difference between Yolland’s and Hugh’s use of language – the first, latently essentialist, the second, multidirectional and elusive. What his translation is forced to give up is the echo connecting the two “privacies” across two acts of the play:

Mesterházi 1990: De elegendő segítség lesz-e néked ennyi, hogy a sokféle magányosság kőzőtt tolmácsolj?
[But will it be help enough for you, to interpret between the various
Mihálycsa 2001: De vajon ez segit majd, hogy az emberek titkai kőzt tájékozódj?
[But would it help you to find your way between the secrets of the people?]

26Privacies are not the only (Steinerian) untranslatability that Friel’s play delivers the translater. One of the play’s savage ironies is that the very placename that occasions the climax of the translation scene in Act II, causing the “victim” of appropriating translation, Owen/Roland and the one who “disinherits” him, Yolland, to shift positions vis-a-vis the erosion they perform through renaming, could be regarded as an argument for translation’s Mehrwert – a translated (English) placename that, on a closer look, turns out to be itself untranslatable, a shibboleth:

OWEN: Bun is the Irish word for bottom. And Abha means river. So it’s literally the mouth of the river.
YOLLAND: Let’s leave it alone. There’s no English equivalent for a Sound like that [...]
OWEN: Back to first principles. What are we trying to do?
YOLLAND: Good question.
OWEN: We are trying to denominate and at the same time describe that tiny area of soggy, rocky, sandy ground where that little stream enters the sea, and known locally as Bun na hAbhann... Burnfoot! (Friel 1981: 39-40)

27The Anglicizing of Bun na hAbhann ( “the mouth of the river”) into “Burnfoot” ingeniously resorts to Scottish Gaelic ( “burn” = river/stream, “foot” being used as mouth of the river), calling into mind that the landscape of Donegal is frequently likened to that of the Northern part of Scotland. In translating the name – the ultimate example of untranslatability, according to Steiner – space is also translated, one colonial space/language being superimposed on another. The English name Owen (!) seems in itself an argument for the empowering, energizing potential of the traffic-in-languages, perhaps the only one that the play proposes – yet its contextual meaning and cultural-linguistic implications are irredeemably lost to a foreign audience. Such a superimposition is, obviously, quite beyond the reach of translators whose language has not branched out into minor (colonial, regional, hybrid) variants, possibly with a strong (literary) tradition on their own. In my own published translation, “Burnfoot” [Búvárpatak – “diving stream”] sticks out from the context, obviously not belonging to the line of transliterations but preserving something of the ring of the Irish placename. Mesterházi’s version is also a perfectly meaningful Hungarian name, not readily associated with a rivermouth and somewhat a red herring due to its reliance on metaphor – his “Gaelic” Bun na hAbhann, Gyóngyóstorka [ “the mouth of the pearly” (appr., mouth of bubbling stream)] first undergoes various phonetic distortions through the loss of umlauts, as “Djondjos Torka”, “Nagyondos”, “Dostorka”, to be anglicized as “Gyongyos Torka” and, finally, through Owen/Roland’s invention, “Forró Föveny” [ “hot (sandy) stripe of land”] (Friel 1981: 138-9). “Forró Föveny” and “Búvárpatak” nevertheless share some “poetic” quality in common, sticking out from the context of more unequivocally levelling, erosive transliterations – not exactly inviting Yolland’s verdict that something is being eroded through translation.

28A marginal issue to be addressed by translation is that of the telling names. One of Hugh’s elementary-school pupils, Doalty Dan Doalty, is permanently teased as the simpleton of the class. The family name invites association with the English word “dolt” – fool, idiot:

DOALTY: I suppose you could talk then about baptizing a sheep at sheep-dipping, could you?
HUGH: Indeed – the precedent is there – the day you were appropriately named Doalty. (Friel 1981: 22)

29A plausible name, with a Northern Irish pedigree had to be found that would invite aural association with one of the Hungarian words for “stupid”. The name David Grant and I eventually settled on was Boland (a name borne, among others, by contemporary poet Eavan Boland), which can plausibly be mis-heard as bolond [Hung. fool, idiot],

  • 15 An, essentially optimistic, reading of the play favoured by Kiberd (1996: 614-623).

30Friel’s play also confronts the translater with the question What language to translate into: that is, one has to invent, and create a linguistic niche for the kind of language Friel’s characters use. This one-language of writing, a rural (Donegal) brand of Hibemo-English, is a Deleuzian minor idiom which incorporates and thematizes translation (the English phrases frequently mirroring Gaelic structures). This distinct, recognizable idiom is also an implicit answer to the question of translation as erosion – the tradition of innovative, language-conscious writing in Hiberno-English, this hybrid, in-between language going back to Synge and the Revival and being given a new dimension by the affirmative hybridizing linguistic poetics of Joyce’s modernist agenda15.

31The distinctly Irish and rural inflections of Friel’s stage language are immediately identified by the average English-speaking audience, whether in London or on Broadway; however, a minor tongue has by definition no equivalent in any foreign language. Mesterházi’s choice was to back-date his stage Hungarian, producing a language laden with turns of phrase with an archaic ring and the occasional quaint word – almost approximating a potential 1830s language use, there is, however no apparent intent of archaizing in Friel’s English. The translater can resort to various minor variants of his/her own language. None of these can, however, adequately represent and, indeed, stand for Hiberno-English with its inbuilt translation. My variant Works with Transylvanian Hungarian inflections without, however, being rooted in any of its regional dialects, carving out a (minor, minority) niche for itself within (major) Standard Hungarian.

32The dilemma at the (private) core of Friel’s play, which thematizes translation (in-between Greek, Latin, English and Gaelic) is, paradoxically, masked and made visible in the same gesture, once the play is translated into (any) foreign language. In ail likelihood, the foreign reader/spectator will miss the crucial fact that Translations is written in English – subsequently, that the “original” is missing, but a negative presence ghosting the stage one-language. While this play with the irretrievable “original” can certainly be given a nationalist political interpretation, as metaphorically perfecting onstage the erasure of the colonized language, it also questions such assumptions by making the “original” language into the truly foreign body in the source language text and thus dramatizing a translation process which lacks foundations. However, this multi-decker political thematization of translation without an “origin” and thus with no possibility of arrival, is conditioned by the stage language – English. In translation, Translations is easier to “betray” into a monolythic political discourse: in this case, the play would “only” be about the mechanisms leading to the loss of a language in a colonial situation – especially if the target language culture shows some contextual similarities to the play’s colonized culture. On the other hand, reterritorialization into a foreign language, which implies a change in the (multiple) directions of arrivai, may also situate the play’s one-language in a more abstract interlingual space, the danger here being that the political edge of the work is refined out of existence. In the first case, what is easily lost is the subversive criticism Friel’s play tacitly performs on current nationalist discourse and modem Irish culture as a whole; in the second, the danger is that the play’s contextual, political rootedness becomes invisible. Exploring the layers and dimensions, the pre-programmed manipulations, misreadings, missed understandings of interlingual and intercultural translation, Translations paradoxically resists translation – to the extent that Friel’s translater can only hope, in the words of Hugh, to provide the available words and the available grammar. Interpreting between each other’s privacies, as the case of the play’s staging at a Hungarian theatre in Romania shows, is an equivocal business that might never arrive at a full affirmative: the uncritical assumption of alleged historical, contextual analogies creates an illusory semblance of a “password” and hence, instead of finding the way to the privacies of the source language (con) text, risks to substitute it with its own preferred variant of the target language (con) text’s “private core”.



Bertha Csilla & Morse Donald E., Worlds Visible and Invisible. Essays on Irish Literature, Debrecen, Lajos Kossuth University Press, 1994.

Bertha Csilla, « Brian Friel as Postcolonial Playwright » in A. Roche (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 154-165.

– , « Brian Friel’s Performances in Hungarian Théatres: Problems in Theatrical Adaptation » in M. Kurdi (ed.), Literary and Cultural Relations: Ireland, Hungary, and Central and Eastern Europe, Dublin, Carysfort Press, 2009, p. 85-104.

Carvalho Paulo Eduardo, « About Some Healthy Intersections: Brian Friel and Field Day », in D. E. Morse, Cs. Bertha & M. Kurdi (eds), Brian Friel ’s Dramatic Artistry: “The Work H as Value". Essays taken from The Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, Dublin, Carysfort Press, 2006, p. 251-270.

Derrida Jacques, Monolingualism of the Other or, The Prosthesis of Origin, Patrick Mensah (transl.), Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1998.

Fitzgibbon Ger, « Interpreting Between Privacies: Brian Friel and the Boundaries of Language”, in D. E. Morse, Cs. Bertha & M. Kurdi (eds), Brian Friel’s Dramatic Artistry: “The Work Has Value ’’. Essays taken from The Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, Dublin, Carysfort Press, 2006, p. 73- 92.

Friel Brian, Translations, London, Faber & Faber, 1981.

– , « Helynevek » [Hung., « Placenames »] in Brian Friel, Philadelphia, itt vagyok! Három dráma [ « Philadelphia, Here I Come! Three Plays »]. Hungarian translation by Márton Mesterhazi, Nóvé Béla, with an Afterword by Csilla Bertha, Budapest, Európa, 1990, p. 99-186.

– , Fordítások [Hung., « Translations »]. Hungarian translation by Erika Mihálycsa. Cluj/Kolozsvár, LegKisebbKözösTöbbszörös 2001/2002, 7: 8, p. 115-125; 9, p. 68-83.

Jordan Eamonn (ed.), Theatre Stuff: Critical Essays on Contemporary Irish Theatre, Dublin, Carysfort Press, 2000.

Kiberd Declan, Inventing Ireland. The Literature of the Modern Nation, London, Vintage, 1996.

Mesterházi Márton, « The Hungarian Translator’s View of Brian Friel’s Translations and the Problems of Translating It into Hungarian », in D. E. Morse, Cs. Bertha & M. Kurdi (eds) Brian Friel ’s Dramatic Artistry: “The Work Has Value”. Essays taken from The Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, Dublin, Carysfort Press, 2006, p. 109-121.

Murray Christopher, « Palimpsest: Two Languages as One in Translations », in D. E. Morse, Cs. Bertha & M. Kurdi (eds), Brian Friel ’s Dramatic Artistry: ‘The Work Has Value’. Essays taken from The Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, Dublin, Carysfort Press, 2006, p. 93-108.

Pelletier Martine, « Translations, the Field Day debate and the re-imagining of Irish identity », in A. Roche (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Richtarik Marilyn J., Acting Between the Lines: The Field day Theatre Company and Irish Cultural Politics 1980-1984, Oxford, Clarendon, 1994.

Steiner George, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1975., visited 30/09/2010.


1 For a discussion of the political agenda of Field Day and Friel’s involvement in it see Richtarik (1994), as well as Carvalho (2006).

2 Brian Friel, “Extracts from a Sporadic Diary” (Ireland and the Arts: A Special Issue of Literary Review, ed. Tim Pat Coogan. London: Namara, 1985, 56-61), quoted in Murray (2006: 95).

3 Cf. John Montague, A Lost Tradition: “All around, shards of a lost tradition.../ The whole landscape a manuscript/ We had lost the skill to read, / A part of our past disinherited;/ But fumbled, like a blind man, / Along the finger-tips of instinct” (Selected Poems, 108).

4 Murray (2006: 99-102) argues that palimpsest, the superimposition of discourses/ languages/narratives on one another is a constant factor in Irish writing and one that Translations, in particular, dramatizes; furthermore, he regards the rich output of adaptations and rewritings in contemporary Irish theatre – among them, Friel’s own versions of Chekhov plays – as culturally revisionist superimpositions, a response to history and problems raised by identity.

5 Márton Mesterházi, “A fordltó mentsége” [The Translator’s Apology] in Brian Friel, Helynevek, 100; translated into English and quoted in Marton Mesterhazi, “The Hungarian Translator’s View of Brian Friel’s Translations and the Problems in Translating It Into Hungarian” in Brian Friel ’s Dramatic Artistry, eds. Donald E. Morse, Csilla Bertha, Mária Kurdi, 112. In inventing the Hungarian equivalents of the Gaelic and English placenames, Mesterházi resorted to Balázs Orbán’s mid-nineteenth century description of Transylvania.

6 Cf. Owen: “My job is to translate the quaint, archaic tongue you people persist in speaking into the King’s good English” (30).

7 Most notably, in Hugh’s soliloquies with Steinerian echoes in acts II and III, as well as in the employment of more Hungarian names for the play’s “English” placenames where Verbatim translations are made in the play; on the whole, I have left the original English names where transliterations occur.

8 David Grant, Programme Notes to Brian Friel, Forditások, Kolozsvári Állami Magyar Színház/ Teatrul Maghiar de Stat Cluj-Napoca, (2001/2002: 8).

9 As another example of the ironie and estranging use of English as a worldwide colonizing language, the internationally acclaimed Romanian director Andrei Şerban staged, in 2008, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the selfsame theatre, where professor Serebryakov and his wife Elena, the two citified characters in the play, speak a mixture of affected English and Hungarian, while the rest of the characters address them in broken English:

10 It is highly informative in this respect to read the fragments of reviews posted on the theatre’s homepage which seem to waver between an, almost apologetic, acknowledgment of the alleged historical parallel while stressing the “universality” of the play’s message, and the full-fledged assumption of such parallelism. An example to the first is the review of Zsolt Karácsonyi ( “A Play with Signs”, Irodalmi Jelen, November 2001) – in English translation: “The frame of this tragedy is a seemingly harmless decree of power: the translation into English of Gaelic placenames. This might Sound familiar to a Hungarian audience. The performance is, however, no gloomy production indulging in deep feeling for the national tragedy of fate: though such echoes may corne through, what the Kolozsvár studio performance really is about is the between-the-worlds-ness, the borderline cases, the interface of two cultures where almost everything can be trans-lated, in both directions [...] From the very first moments what proves to be the main thrill of the play begins – the play with languages, with signs, the mixing of different playstyles.” To the second, the review by Katalin Köllő, “A fordítások művészete – sok szempontból” [The art of translations – from several viewpoints], published in the local paper Szabadság (October 13th, 2001) which stresses the validity of every sign and gesture, “in its place” in the performance as director David Grant “obviously had an eye to ‘résonances’, as the play’s subject matter is all too analogous with the situation of Hungarians in Transylvania” (my translation):

11 Local newspapers, cultural and literary periodicals in minority languages (Hungarian and German) continued to appear, however, throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, and Kriterion publishing house was created to publish in minority languages. The official discourse of the regime propagated harmony among the ethnic groups, the policies of ethnic amalgamation and enforced assimilation being often coated in apparently progressive State policies – such as (enforced) urbanization culminating in the ‘80s, dislocating large segments of rural populace and bringing about the destruction of hundreds of (mainly Transylvanian) villages, etc.

12 See especially Bertha & Morse (1994) and, most recently, Bertha (2006).

13 Cf. the strong and sometimes emotional statements on performances of Translations in Hungarian theatres, of Brian Friel scholar Bertha (2009), informed by postcolonial theory and showing markedly conservative leanings in addressing the issue of theatrical adaptations. Writing on performances of Translations, she unquestioningly assumes the Irish-Hungarian historical parallel (the play is chosen for its “relevance to the Hungarian plight” Bertha 2009: 97) and treats its Transylvanian productions in terms of living up to, or failing to convey the traumatic experience of Hungarians under the Ceauzescu dictatorship. The most recent, Oradea/Nagyvárad adaptation (2006) is praised as a “moving performance”, but for the “ambiguous” ending where Maire is resurrected to sing, in English, a Sinead O’Connor song (a sign of her becoming English): this is condemned as an “entirely inappropriate additional final scene (the love song), after the play’s concluding words conveying the loss of a culture” (Bertha 2009: 98).

14 FitzGibbon (2006) points out the ironic mode of the question coming from Hugh, the most imperviously self-obsessed of the play’s characters.

15 An, essentially optimistic, reading of the play favoured by Kiberd (1996: 614-623).


Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Roumanie.

© Artois Presses Université, 2011

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