|What is the significance of Owen in Translations?
Owen is the most reasonable, pragmatic and sensible character in Translations. Like Maire, he is forward-thinking rather than conservative, embracing the opportunities of the towns and cities rather than clinging to rural traditions, accepting British rule and the ascendancy of the English language. Yet he is not impatient or confrontational towards his family and friends in Baile Beag as Maire sometimes is, “his manner is easy and charming”. Where the Donnelly twins represent the rebellion against British rule, Owen characterises the moderate, progressive side of Irish politics, willing to collaborate with the regime and the cartographers.
It is this collaboration that creates conflict between Owen and his elder brother Manus, and ultimately causes the family to split apart. Owen, by supporting Yolland’s work, indeed by doing most of the work himself, is worse than the English, a traitor to his culture. Manus pours disdain on Owen, whose very name is torn between his older brother and new friend, between Gaelic and English: “There are always the Rolands, aren’t there?”
Manus is tied to rural Ireland by his sense of responsibility towards Hugh. They are both dependent on each other, and neither can move forward. Manus can’t take the job at the National School, and he cannot support a family with Maire. As she drifts away from him he becomes more bitter. This bitterness taints his view of British rule. To him, either you are for the British, like Lancey, or against them, like the Donnellys. Yolland’s ambivalence, the contradiction between his love of Ireland and his work as a soldier and cartographer, is frustrating: “I understand the Lanceys perfectly but people like you puzzle me”.
Manus is indecisive and fearful. He cannot confront Yolland, or when he does his taunts are ineffective because incomprehensible to the Englishman, “the wrong gesture in the wrong language”, so his anger is directed towards Owen. Owen is caught between his job, helping his friend Yolland, and supporting Manus and the rebellion. It is only when Yolland is gone that he makes a decision. When faced with Lancey’s ultimatum - “Do your job. Translate.” - his choice is clear, between his job and his community. In giving false information to Lancey (he mistranslates “Tulach Alainn” as “Fair Hill) and playing Doalty’s game by delaying to tell him the camp is on fire, Owen effectively severs his ties to the English soldiers. Lancey’s response is angry and panicked, “You carry a big responsibility in all this.”
Owen’s conversion to the rebel cause is an example of his pragmatism: backed into a corner, he naturally sides with his friends and family. It is also a demonstration of how conflict escalates and factions polarise. The militant rebels kill not Lancey, the unyielding imperialist, but Yolland the “committed Hibernophile”. They remove that moderate influence, and at the same time neutralise Owen’s support for the British. Lancey’s devastating retaliation will solidify Irish support for the nationalists. Owen’s political significance to the play is in the representation of moderate, pragmatic forces and their neutralisation.
Owen’s social significance is in his independence. He has no calling to look after his father, and neither is he reliant on anyone, or in love with anyone. Manus, on the other hand, is afflicted with all these things. Owen’s unique vantage point, being in some respects inside the community, in others outside, allows him to comment objectively on the world they are living in. Talking to Yolland, he is quick to point out Ireland’s bad points, “Live on what? Potatoes? Buttermilk?” But returning to the hedge school in Act 1 he seems a “committed Hibernophile” himself, disaffected with city life: “Beautiful! Beautiful! Honest to God, it’s such a delight to be back here with you all again – ‘civilised’ people.”
Owen sees the civilisation of his native community and family as separate from its language. Indeed, Hugh is a poet not in Gaelic but Latin, and the literature and mythology they base their culture on is ancient Greek and Roman: “We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island.” Owen is also able to trace this culture back to Latin in the roots of its place names, “The Murren” is from “St. Muranus”, for example. Gaelic is simply a transitory phase in the procession of languages used in Ireland. Perhaps the replacement of Latin by English, as the basis of an international culture, is a more fitting interpretation of Hugh’s final, metaphorical reference to the conquest of Greece by Rome, than the mere conquest of Ireland by Britain.
Owen seems to understand the true nature of Gaelic as a cultural tool: it is a code that outsiders can only with great difficulty learn to break. Not a system of communication, but of concealment, the antithesis of an international language. Friends can be admitted: Owen tells Yolland, “You can learn to decode us.” But enemies are confused and rebuffed: he answers Lancey’s threatening question, “Where does [Doalty] live?” in Gaelic, “Tulach Alainn”.
The “significance” of Owen in Translations is the character’s status as an accurate and objective observer of his surroundings and situation, as a manifestation of the positive possibilities for Ireland and her people in contrast with the slow stagnation of Hugh’s stationary and hopeless life, and as a bridge between the worlds of the British and the Irish. Owen represents for Friel, writing in 1981, what the Republic of Ireland would become in the 21st Century: prosperous, cultured, and English-speaking.