Posted by: autismland | February 23, 2007

The Translator (#613)

Translations, the play by Irish playwright Brian Friel that Jim and I saw on Tuesday night in Manhattan, takes place in 1833 in rural Ireland and, except for some phrases of Latin and Greek, is all in English. This might not seem to be anything special, until one considers that the majority of the play’s characters—all Irish villagers in the fictitious county of Ballybeg—are supposed to be speaking Gaelic. The event that sets the play’s plot into motion is the arrival of the British—-in the person of red-coated soldiers speaking the King’s English—to make a map of Ireland and to translate the Gaelic names of places, rivers, towns, into English.

Come back home to assist the British is Owen, the son of Hugh, the local schoolteacher who seems to divide his days between spouting forth short lessons in ancient Greek and Latin, in Homer and in Virgil, and drinking. Owen’s job is to translate, not only the names of the places of the Irish countryside into something more pronounceable, and orderly, but to be the go-between for the British and the Irish. And Friel’s play, and the actors on Tuesday night, were able to make it seem that both Gaelic and English were being spoken, though, of course, the only language spoken was English. In one scene, Owen stands at center stage while the British lieutenant Lancey speaks in all the august tones of officialese about the map, their taxes, the establishment of new national schools (where English only will be taught). A small group of young Irish listen, faces blank and feet bare, and look to Owen to translate the king’s edicts, and Owen (who, at this point in the play, is quite eager to please his employers) leave out a lot in the translation.

And even though everyone was speaking English, it seemed that they were not; that a translator was indeed in order—-however poor a job he did.

I was fascinated by this scene, which seemed a sort of allegory for what I speculate what might be Charlie’s experience of language. If “most people” are like Lancey, with his most proper and correct English, and if Charlie may be said to be like the Irish villagers, then I can see this scene from Translations as perhaps capturing how Charlie and other people are technically speaking the same language. But not only is the accent all different, the very vocabulary and the rhythms of speech and the way sentences are strung together are not at all the same. After that scene, it was only too easy to believe that both Gaelic and English were being spoken, just as people hear Charlie speaking the same language as them, but they do not understand what he (speaking the same language) is saying. And he (speaking the same language) does not understand what they are saying.

My parents took Charlie out to his favorite restaurant for brown noodles with shrimp tonight. I had mentioned to them beforehand about how Charlie likes to bring some of his noodles home in a take-out container, to eat later. Last time we went to the restaurant, Charlie asked neither for a box or a container to take his food home in; he put his hand on my arm, looked at me, said Mom. Not sure of what words Charlie might use—-who can predict what words any of us might choose to use at a given future moment?—-I thought I ought to provide a translation, just in case.

If (to refer back to Translations), Charlie is the Irish and people not attuned to his communication are the British, I guess that makes me like Owen. The translator.

Whose own future, by the end of the play, is not the same as it was at the beginning. A British soldier—last scene romancing an Irish woman—has disappeared in the night; Manus, Owen’s brother, hurries away with Virgil and Aeschylus in a saddlebag; it is raining but smoke—what could have been set on fire?—-rolls into the door of the dirt-floored schoolroom. Owen is called once more to translate the dicta of Lieutenant Lancey, which leave the Irish gasping and running to hide their herd animals. The translator leaves the book of new English placenames on the floor.

This time, the translation was much more accurate, and true.

Just as “brown noodles” has been only a partial approximation of this dish’s real name, “Thai noodles with peanut sauce and shrimp.”



  1. Gosh that’s lucky, I thought you were going to stroll into Chinese when I haven’t got my daughter here to ‘translate.’ But the language/accent/ terminology differences are apt.
    There again, when Nonna first visited [and the world was pretty much silent around here] her accent, different phraseology, emphasis, animation and ardent efforts, charmed the birds…..
    Best wishes

  2. Charlie still says some words with a midwestern accent, thanks to his first team of ABA therapists when we lived in St. Paul!

  3. It was very interesting to read this post.
    Translations is my favourite play. I can see how that scene could represent autistic and non-autistic interactions.

  4. Thanks Sharon—I am still thinking about the play and wish we could see it again!

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