Activity 2. Translations and education

Activity 2. Translations and education

Activity 2. Translations and education 442 552 Leolenguas Universidad de Oviedo

Activity 1.

Translations, Brian Friel
Author of the activity: María del Mar González Chacón


The activities that follow are thought for students and teachers of English as a foreign language. They would be most suitable to teach a B1-B2 level within the context of the learning of English for teaching. They are based on the use of a literary text related to the field of education and combine the study of the language and the cultural meanings of the contexts used. The excerpt belongs to Brian Friel’s theatre play Translations (1980) that happens in rural Ireland.


Translations happens in 1833 in a hedge-school located in Ballybeg or Baile Beag, a small Irish-speaking community from Donegal, in the northwest of the Republic of Ireland. The British army is carrying out an Ordnance Survey map of Ireland which implies anglicising the place names as well as the establishment of the English National Schools, which will mean an end to the Irish language since English will be imposed.

The play deals with the themes of cultural identity and education to preserve it. The O’Donnell family are the protagonists: Hugh, the schoolmaster of the hedge-school and his sons, Manus, who has become the teacher of the school after his father, and Owen, who has exiled to England and come back to help the British army with the translations.

The context in Ireland:

Before the play was first performed…

The context of the play´s premiere (the first production took place in Derry in 1980) is significant. In January 1972 the Bloody Sunday took place in Derry, or Londonderry, Northern Ireland. In 1980 the hunger strikes started in Belfast.

After the play was performed…

In the play references foresee other events in Irish history such as the Famine of 1845 and one of its major consequences, the emigration of Irish people to places such as the USA, Australia or New Zealand, the Irish diaspora.

EXCERPT from Brian Friel: Plays 1, 1996, London, Faber and Faber, pp. 383-385.


The hedge-school is held in a disused barn or hay-shed or byre. Along the back wall are the remains of five or six stalls -wooden posts and chains- where cows were once milked and bedded. A double door left, large enough to allow a cart to enter. A window right. A wooden stairway without a banister leads to the upstairs living-quarters (off) the schoolmaster and his son. Around the room are broken and forgotten implements: a cart-wheel, some lobster-pots, farming tools, a battle of hay, a churn, etc. there are also the stools and bench-seats which the pupils use and a table and a chair for the master. At the door a pail of water and a soiled towel. The room is comfortless and dusty and functional -there is no trace of a woman’s hand.

When the play opens, Manus is teaching Sarah to speak. He kneels beside her. She is sitting in a low stool, her head down, very tense, clutching a slate on her knees. He is coaxing her gently and firmly and -as with everything he does- with a kind of zeal.

Manus is in his late twenties/early thirties; the master’s older son. He is pale-faced. Lightly built, intense, and works as an unpaid assistant-a monitor- to his father. His clothes are shabby; and when he moves we see that he is lame.

Sarah’s speech defect is so bad that all her life she has been considered locally to be dumb and she has accepted this: when she wishes to communicate, she grunts and makes unintelligible nasal sounds. She has a waiflike appearance and could be any age from seventeen to thirty-five.

Jimmy Jack Cassie -known as the Infant Prodigy- sits by himself, contentedly reading Homer in Greek and smiling to himself. He is a bachelor in his sixties, lives alone, and comes to these evening classes partly for the company and partly for the intellectual stimulation. He is fluent in Latin and Greek but is no way pedantic -to him it is perfectly normal to speak these tongues. He never washes. His clothes -heavy top coat, hat, mittens, which he wears now- are filthy and he lives in them summer and winter, day and night. He now reads in a quiet voice and smiles in profound satisfaction. For Jimmy the world of the gods and the ancient myths is as real and as immediate as everyday life in the townland of Baile Beag.

Manus holds Sarah´s hands in his and he articulates slowly and distinctly into her face..

MANUS: We are doing very well. And we´re going to try it once more -just once more. Now -relax and breathe in…deep…and out…in…and out…

(Sarah shakes her head vigorously and stubbornly.)

MANUS: Come on, Sarah. This is our secret.

(Again vigorous and stubborn shaking of Sarah’s head.)

MANUS: Nobody’s listening. Nobody hears you.

JIMMY: ‘Ton démeibet epeita thea glaukopis Athene…’

MANUS: Get your tongue and your lips working. ‘My name-‘ Come on. One more try. ‘My name is-‘ Good girls.


MANUS: Greta. ‘My name-‘

SARAH: My…my…

MANUS: Raise your head. Shout it out. Nobody’s listening.

JIMMY: ‘…alla hekelos estai en Atreidao domois…’

MANUS: Jimmy, please! Once more- just once more- ‘My name-‘ Good girl. Come on now. Head up- mouth open.


MANUS: Good.


MANUS: Great.

SARAH: My name…


SARAH: My name is…


(Sarah pauses. Then in a rush.)

SARAH: My name is Sarah.

MANUS: Marvellous! Bloody marvellous!

(Manus hugs Sarah. She smiles in shy, embarrassed pleasure.)

Did you hear that Jimmy? –‘My name is Sarah’- clear as a bell.

(To Sarah) The Infant Prodigy doesn’t know what we’re at.

(Sarah laughs at this. Manus hugs her again and stands up.)

Now we’re really started! Nothing’ll stop us now! Nothing in the wide world!

(Jimmy, chuckling at his text, comes over to them.)

JIMMY: Listen to this, Manus.

MANUS: Soon you’ll be telling me all the secrets that have been in that head of yours all these years. Certainly, James -what is it? (To Sarah) Maybe you’d set out the stools?

(Manus runs up the stairs.)

JIMMY: Wait till you hear this, Manus.


  • In pairs or groups discuss the following questions about the context of the play.

    a) What is the difference between Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?

    b) Do you think Irish or Gaelic are preserved languages nowadays? Why?

    c) What do you think is the role of languages in education?

    d)Do you think the Irish culture has been preserved through history? What do you think is the role of education in the preservation of the culture of a place?

  • Have a look at the theatre posters of the play and try to guess the main theme of the play by Friel:


  • Lines 1-8. Provide definitions in English for the following nouns related to education:

    • hedge-school:

    • schoolmaster:

    • stools:

    • bench-seats:

    • pupils:

    • master:

  • Lines 12-14. Provide definitions in English for the following adjectives used by Friel to describe Manus. Use the context to help you.

    • pale-faced:

    • lightly built:

    • intense:

    • shabby:

    • lame:

  • Lines 17-29. Match the definitions below with the adverbs in the lines mentioned:

    • In a manner that shows dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something:

    • In a manner or way that could not be better:

    • In a way that is readily distinguishable by the senses; clearly:

    • In a way that involves physical strength, effort, or energy; strenuously:

    • In a way that expresses happiness or satisfaction:

    • To some extent; not completely:

    • At a slow speed; not quickly:

  • Lines 15 to 17. Present Tenses. Present simple, continuous, Present perfect simple, present perfect continuous, state verbs. Identify the present tenses from the lines selected. Explain the formation and uses of the present tenses in English and choose the correct tense in the sentences below:

    • You always arrive/are arriving late!

    • Jimmy is reading/reads Homer at the moment.

    • Have you ever studied/been studying Gaelic?

    • Sarah has been/was studying the Irish language for three years now.

    • Manus has been told/ is told to study for the next exam in today’s class.

    • Hugh has just finished/just finished the essay on Irish literature.

  • Lines 30-65. Question tags are useful resources for the teachers to use with their students in the class. Make question tags from these statements from the text.

    • Sarah. This is our secret.

    • Nobody hears you.

    • Get your tongue and your lips working.

    • Sarah is a great student.

    • Do not raise your head.

    • I am right.

    • She has a low voice.

    • Your name is Sarah.

    • We can continue with the exercise.

    • Manus doesn’t know what we are at.

    • Let`s stand up.

    • You will be telling me all the secrets!

    • You could set out the stools.

    • Go ahead.


    • Consider Manu’s performance as a teacher. How would you define him?

    • Consider Sarah’s problems to learn and how these could be affected by a process of acculturation.

    • Why do you think the Greek language appears in the play? What is its relevance for education?


  • Watch this video from The Irish Times (April 2017), entitled “Two Tribes: a divided Northern Ireland,” about the situation in Belfast nowadays, and answer the questions below.

    • What is the common belief as regards the two communities that live together in Northern Ireland?

    • What is the actual reality that the maps show?

    • Why is Ormeau Road mentioned? What does it represent?

    • Are the different communities separated in Belfast?

    • Is the Irish language still present in the streets?

    • How is the sense of loss represented by people?

    • Do mixed areas exist nowadays in Belfast?

    • What is, according to the journalist interviewed, the future for Belfast?


  • After the extract you have read from Act One…

    Write a scene to continue the extract you read.

    Write an essay (200 words) on the relevance of language and culture for education.


  • Traditional rural Irish school / a male teacher in a school / a seat without a back or arms / a long seat for several people / a schoolchild or student / the head of a college or school.

  • Having les colour than usual, typically as a result of shock, fear, or ill health / of little weight; not heavy / having or showing strong feelings or opinions; extremely serious or earnest / dressed in old worn clothes / unable to walk without difficulty as the result of an injury or illness affecting the leg or foot.

  • stubbornly / perfectly / distinctly / vigorously / contentedly / partly / slowly.

  • are arriving / is Reading / have studied / has been studying / has been told / has just finished.

  • Isn’t it? / Do they? / Will-Could-Would you? / Isn’t she? / Will-Could-Would you? / Aren’t I? / Hasn’t-Doesn’t she? / Isn’t it? / Can’t we? / Does he? / Shall we? / Won’t you? / Couldn’t you? / Will-Could you?

Proyecto de investigación de la Universidad de Oviedo (2019/00026009)
“Educación literaria: textos en lenguas extranjeras para fines específicos”

Proyecto de innovación docente de la Universidad de
Oviedo(CPINN-19-A-025- 2019):
“Tareas colaborativas en torno a textos literarios en lenguas extranjeras para fines específicos: opinar y argumentar”

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