A look at the play Translations compared to Saussres theory.

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To objectively look at language as more than a means of communication would be an impossible task. Metaphorically speaking, it would be like getting dropped into the middle of a civilization that you knew nothing about but had to communicate with. It would be like trying to explicate the holy book of an ancient culture; needless to say it would be difficult. This doesn’t contradict the fact that parallels do exist between cultures, just that your specific cultural make-up would affect the way in which you would perceive things. Your disposition would be naturally biased against any conflicting ideals; the diversity that mediates ethnicity would be evident. To clarify, in the play Translations, when Yolland and Lancey attempt to communicate with the villagers they cannot be understood not only because of the language barrier, but because of reasons directly pertaining to culture and background as well. They’re differences might begin at the base of they’re ethnicity but then stem from hate that comes out of superior control over many things, including the language.

As the protagonist of the play, Manus assumes the role of the avid nationalist, his pride for his country apparent in the end of the first scene. In that argument with Owen, Manus disputes the assignment, “What’s ‘incorrect’ about our place names?” The ensuing debate is not prolonged but put to rest by Owen like a childish, businessman (“He punches Manus lightly, playfully and turns to join the others”). This act of protecting the English is a reoccurring tool for Owen that appears throughout the play. Again in line 40 we find Owen trying to include Yolland in their daily lives with Manus contesting ever aspect of the conversation. Here, Owen solicits an English response from Manus but gets none, (“Can’t you speak English for your man?”[To Manus]). Manus replies, in a patronizing tone, “Don’t you want to learn Irish? [to Yolland]” There’s definitely strong evidence that Manus detests Yolland’s presence, even to a greater extent because of his relationship with Maire.

To phrase it simply Manus and Yolland cannot really understand each other because culture and language go hand in hand, the Suasserien concept seems to ring true. Manus has a cultural abhorrence against Yolland, maybe out of his “inferior” power position. He doesn’t see in Yolland an easygoing romantic, like his brother, but a cold-hearted imperialist. This is how Yolland is treated by Manus throughout the play. The leading man does however exhibit an emotion that is universal and consequently adds to the limitations of Saussure’s concepts (which will be discussed later). The obvious but unspoken love Manus has for Maire complements his conflict with the English quite nicely; the “enemy” Yolland has the power and the girl. The protagonist Manus seems to be the central character of conflict, through him greater problems unfold.

The main drama is enveloped in the Hedge School. The students learn about many different cultures from the schoolmaster Hugh, who is the real intellectual. He has a superior understanding of many languages and can converse in any of them. The students in the school all look up to him and fear him like any student would a professor. Hugh is unlike Manus however. His eldest son doesn’t seem like he is in favor of change or content like his father seems to be. Hugh is the jolly old drunk and Manus seems the moody introvert who takes his aggression out on Yolland (YOLLAND “I’m picking up the odd word, Manus”, MANUS “So.”).

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Hugh’s character is symbolic of a person content with time and always ready for change. He seems to be the most welcoming member of the small Irish community and his attitude is always moderate. When Yolland is speaking with Hugh and Owen in the middle of Act Two in line 40 Hugh says to Yolland, “But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal…it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour.” Hugh in a matter-of-factly manner delineates the plight of his people. This shows his fatherly omniscience on worldly matters such as this. Yolland realizes that Hugh is “An astute man.”

Hugh must be astute for someone from centuries ago carrying the same philosophy as a post-modern structuralist. To be “Imprisoned in a linguistic system,” would really be exactly the same as adhering to one. On this level it seems Hugh identifies reality with linguistics. Obviously Hugh’s intention was to make Yolland feel more comfortable in their presence but the convention still exists. Another example of Hugh’s intelligence is towards the end of the play. “We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them our own. We must make them our new home”, line 48 Act Three. Nearing the end of the play Hugh realizes the impending danger and like any “leader” would do he begins to prepare the “troops”, his students. In these closing lines Hugh deals out the real truth to his son Owen. “It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language. “ The lines are referring to the place-names. Hugh is staunch in his opinions and he is a senior compared to the rest of the cast, these qualities dignify his character. With these strong words describing the shortcomings of Jimmy Jack, Hugh realizes that the memories and values of things in the past such as names and places are important and must be “renewed.” To reiterate Saussure, “Value is not a simple naming process.” Real emotion and experience go into the signs.

When Owen the younger son steps into Act 1 the mood changes. Here, immediately upon his entrance the cast seems to jump back in time, “Even that smell-that’s the same smell this place always had.” Owen, “a handsome attractive young man in his twenties”, engages all students and faculty with a hint of superiority, (OWEN “Me a soldier? I’m employed as a part-time, underpaid, civilian interpreter. My job is to translate the quaint archaic tongue you people persist in speaking into the King’s good English.”). Hugh along with everybody else ignores this comment and proceeds to clean the area to entertain Owen’s guests. Lancey enters and the explanation of his disposition is uncovered (“uneasy with people-especially civilians, especially these foreign civilians”).

Immediately the education and good nature of these students is overlooked. They become almost savage-like in the eyes of the English Lieutenant. The Lieutenant then humorously tries to explain the reason of his presence. The stage direction reads, “He speaks as if he were addressing children.” Jimmy then asks in Latin “does he not speak Latin.” This question shows the total lack of respect that the English have of the Irish. Jimmy,”the infant prodigy,” is probably much more educated than Lancey, but would never be regarded as such by the Lieutenant because they would never be able to understand each other. The students of the hedge school are not merely children in a classroom but an educated mass of people that deserve respect. The fact that the Lieutenant speaks to them as if they are children embellishes the point that the English presence is merely an exercise of power. The English, through their power hungry rape of foreign lands, seems to spread their language and their culture to other lands through force. In this play it is through the hesitant Lieutenant and the seemingly warm hearted Captain. Even the content of Lancey’s broken up dialogue is all lies. The real reason for the English intrusion is not to “make a map”, but to extend the grasp of a growing economical entity. England’s purpose in Ireland is to drain out any remnants of Irish culture and convert everything to an English standard.

The protagonist realizes this and in Act Two line 0 Manus almost taunts Yolland, (“I understand the Lanceys perfectly but people like you puzzle me”). This gibe directed at Yolland comes from nowhere; Yolland seemed to be the pacifist in the militant pair. Why would Manus take out his aggression on this “shy, awkward man. A soldier by accident?” His contempt for the English is again exposed through line 465 in Act Two, where Owen again asks Manus to speak in English to include Yolland. Manus counters with the question, “For the benefit of the colonists?” Through these encounters with Yolland Manus’s stand point of the whole situation becomes evident. He obviously feels like there is an invasion of some sort going on. He, in fact, from the start understood the point of the map making (“It’s a bloody military operation, Owen!” line 750, Act One). Manus’s protagonist role is classic of this type of situation. His contempt for the English begins to materialize in these forms until the end where finally in the heat of passion he was almost moved to violence, (“I had a stone in my hand when I went looking for him-I was going to fell him. The lame scholar turned violent”).

Drawing on structuralist and post-structuralist conventions, concepts that originate in different cultural atmospheres can cross the borders of culture and manifest themselves in new and different cultures. Through these thought processes we can study the importance of texuality instead of meaning, which is really indicative of cultural meaning. Certainly, the importance of “meaning” is lost when only looking at the cultural meaning, instead when looking at the textual meaning it becomes universally applicable. Textuality in post-structuralist terms not only refers to things that are linguistic but also includes symbols and grammar. Reality, to a post-structuralist is “linguistically constructed” as professor John Lye stated in his essay entitled “Some Post-Structuralist Assumptions.” Simply, culturally bound texts such as the Koran and Bible can resemble and re-identify the concepts of, say, the Gita (the Hindu’s book of religious concept) and other texts such as this. Through Saussure we understand that language is simply the bond between idea and sound. Words are the signs that signify the thought or concept. Also, the very word in language, used to signify, constitutes very little when trying to understand meaning. Meaning instead comes from the difference of the signs (“Differences carry signification”).

A word is actually a sign that is the signifier and the signified combined. To really understand and distinguish these culturally bound texts would be to understand the words or signs in relation to another. Further, to understand the aforementioned books would be to have an unconditional understanding of the culture. In this sense the signifier is less important than the signified also according to Saussure. This method can easily adapt to fit the standards of any society. Yolland’s character for example, showed a duality. Even though his job was clear he internally wished to fully understand the Irish people and to familiarize himself with the landscape. Yolland may not have understood the philosophical concept at work but just felt a yearning, out of love or perhaps genuine interest, to take in this new culture. He wanted to understand more than the words, he wanted to feel like he belonged to the culture (“Yolland’s hesitancy has vanished-he is at home here now”).

Saussure may have been speaking purely in philosophical terms but these ideas can also be applied to society. People are subject to these terms as well as language. Take Identity for example. A person’s identity can come from many places but a more important “structuralist” question to ask of identity is where does it not come from? Notably, when identity differs from person to person and bears a resemblance between people; herein lies the concept of identity. Exactly like the Saussurien concept that words become meaningless if not compared to other words, identity lacks meaning if not thought of as an entity part of something greater. For Owen it did not matter that to the English soldiers his name became Roland. Instead he philosophized that “It’s the same me isn’t it?” Owen does not follow in the post-structuralist concept that identity comes from cultural surrounding. He doesn’t mind that to the English he is Roland. Manus on the other hand realizes the importance of the “name” of his brother and his brother’s identity prior to the English involvement in their territory. Manus answers “Indeed it is. It’s the same Owen.” As if to say that the same name of Owen was there but some attribute of his brother had changed. And rightly so, the English in their condescending manner had “appropriately” named Owen Roland and even if the same Owen was being addressed the instance of cultural disregard could not be ignored, by Manus at least.

Through the drama the limitations of Saussure’s concept seems to be revealed. Saussure confidently speaks of “values” in terms of things that can be composed of two things.

1. Of a dissimilar thing that can be exchanged for the thing of which the value is to be determined; and

. Of similar things that can be compared with the thing of which the value is to be determined. (pg11)

What Saussure doesn’t include in his theory is the variation of cultural difference and a basic difference in value systems. Some things cannot be compared or exchanged due to completely different values from two different cultures. The issues of the play surround the idea behind communication, why people communicate, and why people have trouble communicating. In some instances Manus refuses to speak English and in others the characters Maire and Yolland express their love for each other while not understanding a word they are saying. If these values vary from person to person, like from Maire to Manus, then they certainly vary from culture to culture. This along with post-structuralist concept can serve to illustrate the quality of text (language and grammar) cross-culturally. I agree with Saussure that language comes from experience. Although speaking too philosophically blurs the parallels that can be drawn from his theory. It becomes hard when you realize that “value” is totally a relative concept, different in every culture. How then can one attempt to explain the combination of nations that exist in reality?


Excerpt from Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure, Course Reader

Translations by Brian Friel, Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama (000 by Harcourt, Inc.)

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