Not much action actually happens on stage in Translations. This occurs off stage, which is one of the key elements of Greek drama. Words are used to present movement rather than explicit action. In this way, the characters report back to the audience about what is happening in the world outside of the hedge school, acting as a sort of chorus. There is also a tragic element to the play, provided by Maire and Yolland.
The play opens quietly, with Manus teaching Sarah to name herself, while Jimmy Jack Cassie reads - the most un-dramatic of pastimes. There is a split between those who are educated and those who are not. Manus bridges the gap at the beginning, moving between Sarah and Jimmy Jack easily and considerately. His attitude changes through the play as he lose Maire and Yolland disappears.
The characters come in, in staggered intervals, each adding a conversational and thematic thread to the dialogue. Maire is concerned with moving to America. Bridget and Doalty talk about interfering with, and hampering, the English effort to map the region.
The lesson begins when Hugh enters, drunk and tired, asking about the etymology of words. Just before Owen enters and is greeted like the Prodigal Son, Hugh mentions the new National school. Owen introduces Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland, and mistranslates Lancey's speech about the English motives for the mapping and renaming of Ireland. The first act ends with tension between Owen and Manus, who objects to Owen allowing his friends to call him Roland.
The second act opens with an echo of the first. There are namings occurring, with Owen more committed to the act than Yolland. They are both drunk, and Yolland drifts off into romantic talk of Ireland and how he wants to be a part of it. Hugh comes in and mocks myths about Ireland through talk about Irish as a language of poetry to counteract the poverty and hardship of life. Owen is frustrated with Yolland's romantic view of his country and eventually loses his temper, telling Yolland what his real name is. They celebrate this baptism with more drinks while Manus tells them of the job he has been offered as a teacher on Inis Meadhon. Maire delivers milk, and asks Yolland through Owen, to a dance the following night.
Maire and Yolland are next seen together, trying to talk to each other, and becoming increasingly frustrated with their inability to communicate. The sound of their voices draws them together, and eventually they kiss. Sarah sees them, and runs off to tell Manus.
The atmosphere changes in Act three, as Yolland has disappeared. Owen is optimistic, refusing to face up to the real possibility that he has been killed. Lancey threatens the town with eviction if he is not found. Doalty suggests that he knows where the mythical Donnelly Twins might be, and goes off to get them. Maire appears, highly distressed and talks of Yolland. Hugh eventually offers to teach her English, just as he says that they must all learn the new place names and make them their own. The play ends with Jimmy Jack talking about the dangers of marrying outside of the tribe and Hugh translating Latin, talking of a mythical country that was threatened by a neighbouring race of men.