Translations was written in 1980 as the first play to be produced by Brian Friel's theatre company, Field Day. The company's aims were to reinvigorate discussion about Irish history and culture.
The play set the tone for future Field Day productions, which continued to explore notions of language, community and cultural identity through looking at the myths and stereotypes that exist about Ireland and its people.
Rather than producing dry, political tracts on the concept of what Ireland is and was, the members of Field Day chose to address these questions through literature, concentrating on the reactions of people normally forgotten by history.
The play is set in Baile Beag, in 1833, at a time when the British Empire was expanding throughout the world. The play uses the concept of translation as its central focus, dealing with language translation and the crossing over of national boundaries.
Language is the main area of attention, with everything spinning off from its difficulties and possibilities. It is the main means through which people mediate their experience of the world, and how they define what they are and what they see. To deprive a nation of its mother tongue is, essentially, to deprive the culture of its individuality and distinctiveness. The English renaming of places, and introduction of English as the main language used threatened Ireland and its identity in a fundamental way, as the Irish people would be alienated from their own country and past, and so no longer possess them.
There are other facets to the play, however, as it deals with the way that people interact, and interpret each other, both within their own community and outside of it. Friel not only opens up discussion about what it means to be Irish, but also about what it means to be human.