Brian Friel’s Translations explores the power of language

New Black Hole Theatre production raises questions about cultural barriers

Actors in the Black Hole Theatre Company's performance of Translations. Photo by Asad Aman

From Jan. 18 to 28, the University of Manitoba’s Black Hole Theatre Company (BHTC) will be showcasing Irish dramatist and writer Brian Friel’s most famous play, Translations.

Set in Ireland in 1833, Translations is a story that takes place when the British army conducts a map-making survey and renames places in a small Irish town to make them more accessible to the broader British public. However, the names are changed from Irish to English names and this seemingly well-intentioned act raises a lot of questions in the community.

“The act of naming itself is an act of controlling, labeling, defining and limiting which doesn’t necessarily fit a previous worldview,” said William Kerr, director of Translations. “All language, in fact, is an act of translation.”

While there are Irish and English speakers in the play’s cast, only English is spoken or read in the performance. The Irish and English characters do not understand each other, but the audience can understand everyone and watch the misunderstandings between the characters unfold.

“You can communicate beyond language through a play and the love scenes suggest that love goes beyond those linguistic confines,” said Kerr.

Despite taking place in Ireland, and exploring Irish identity, Translations was written in English. Friel wrote Translations to be the first play performed by his theatre troupe, Field Day Theatre Company. At the time, it seemed odd for the political theatre company’s first play to be set in mid-19th century Ireland, rather than the tumultuous political settings of 1970s or 80s Northern Ireland, considering it was written there in 1980.

Translations explores themes like assimilation that are reminiscent of and relevant to Canadian Indigenous history and culture, and the struggle for Indigenous communities to reassert their values or identity.

“The Irish feel they were complicit in the loss of their language. They feel they’ve sort of self-assimilated,” said Kerr.

“One of the things I love about this play is in some ways it is explicitly about the fact that we are trying to create truth onstage every night and knowingly failing, but trying harder.”

The production’s cast and crew faced logistical challenges due last semester’s faculty strike at the university and this slowed down the progress of the production a bit. These challenges made Kerr appreciate how hard everyone worked on the play and showed that theatre really is a labor of love.


Translations will run from Jan. 18-28 at John J. Conklin Theatre. Tickets are $18 for adults, $12 for students. For more information on the current season and free LunchBhagg shows, visit