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When Your Characters Don’t Speak the Same Language by Audrey Mac Cready

Writing.ie | Member Blog

My current novel (I love that ‘current’ – you’d think I’d written dozens!) is set in Greece and I’ve had to face the conundrum of my characters speaking different languages.

Having lived in a country (Belgium) where people are at least bilingual, if not trilingual, I’m impatient with Anglophones who assume that the planet now speaks English. Irish people are behind the curve when it comes to learning foreign languages, which means we are inordinately influenced by American and British culture, economics, politics etc.

Which is why I didn’t want to assume my Greek characters could speak ‘Béarla’. My earlier drafts of the book had some people speaking broken English, which made them seem stupid. In some scenes, I had interpreters, or people who spoke both languages who acted as interpreters. It gets a bit tiresome, though, having to insert a line in scene after scene which explains how people are communicating.

I assumed that doctors, pilots and hospitality workers spoke a more developed form of the language, an assumption which carries an inherent bias, not to mention class considerations. Stereotypes, oh! dear.

Then I went to see ‘Translations’ by Brian Friel at the Abbey. Fabulous play, I loved it, even though it’s very sad. Friel pulled off a magic trick: some characters are speaking Irish to each other, the others English BUT they all speak English on stage. In the play, it’s clear that the English-speaking characters don’t understand the Irish-speakers and vice versa. Even though they are all speaking English! And, of course, these people don’t understand each other in more than in linguistic terms.

Friel is doing us the favour of translating the Irish, while maintaining the fictional reality of the play. Talk about living up to the title! He assumes we get it, without having the trick explained. Magic.

So, that’s what I’m going to do in my book. Everyone will speak the best English I can write, with the assumption that in fact, they are all bilingual and there is a continual interpretation going on. I may, or may not, include a note at the beginning to explain it. That’ll depend on my editor. Hello, publishers!

Of course, as a skill, translation is done on documents or text. Real-time speech between people is interpretation, as every translator and interpreter on the planet will tell you. Given that Friel has provided me with a solution to my multi-language conundrum, however, I’ll forgive him the title!

(c) Audrey Mac Cready

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