The Morality of Translation and “The Blind”

17 Apr

Writers grapple with many difficult questions in their profession. Writers of poetry and prose, story and song all have similar mountains to navigate when creating their narratives. How do I engage a reader of my novel or the audience of my play? The same stories of love, trial, rivalry; of war, spite, and revenge, all have been told before. One of the questions I’ve found the most difficult to answer is whether or not my protagonist will be defeated. Will he or she die? If he does, will it be on his terms? Will she have earned the sleep of the just? Will she compromise her morals? We have to choose whether to let our young opponent win the chess match. Do they learn more from their mistakes in the face of defeat or will they benefit more by the encouragement engendered by success?

It was this stream of thoughts that brought me to question the morality of translation. In the chess match offered above, the more skilled of the partners has the choice of winning or losing and every time he navigates the implications of either option. He, like a writer, has the opportunity to create a reality for someone else. This is where the dilemma exists.

A conversation between two speakers; one French, the other Russian. Between the two is a translator, fluent in the native tongue of each conversationalist. As the conversation persists, the translator must relay as accurately as possible the words, the inflection, the idiom of each speaker. However talented our translator may be, there will undoubtedly be words in French without an equivalent in Russian. This, again, is where the dilemma exists. The translator must choose new words with new connotations to continue the conversation. The final decision on what words to use lies upon the translator alone. This discontinuity can be benign in small-talk or crippling in negotiation.

I began to think of a larger metaphor for this, some story that could be told to engage an audience and explore the morality of such translations. I came first to a love-story. A writer and his partner, afoot in the world. The partner is blind of sight and the writer relates the world to her with poignant, descriptive poetry. This, a direct metaphor for translating the world to another. The writer would be honest but eloquent. He would, in any case, truthfully relate the image to his partner no matter the beauty or disgust of the scene. He would stick to his moral code of honesty. He would be devout, that is, until the end. In the end of the story, he would fail. He would be presented with something to translate for his partner and it would be the ultimate test of his resolve. Perhaps before their execution, they are presented with a grotesquely horrific image of the world. The writer would choose beauty to translate over the reality. He would lie to her. He would be defeated.

This idea was floated in and out of my mind for a few of my weeks here in Dublin. Every now and again, I would explore some other possibility or aspect of it. It remained dormant for a while. Then I read Sean O’ Casey. Juno and the Paycock presents to us the world of Captain Boyle whose world is constantly being penetrated by the outside world. He manages the intrusions with pure denial. In his monologue and actions, he assumes control over his own life, where in reality he has none. In his denial, he affects his family around him; he perpetuates his delusions of grandeur and ignorance within his family. He translates the world for those around him.

Light bulb moment.

I started writing again, this time with new characters. A father and a daughter this time. The father a translator for his blind daughter. They are somewhere in Irish history, but where? After visiting Belfast, it came more clearly. Hearing accounts from Ex-Political Prisoners of children being killed and of families hiding in their homes for fear of being killed for their religious or political persuasion, I knew that the family would be living through the Troubles. More precisely, in the early 1970s in a Catholic neighborhood in Belfast, near the beginning of the more intense violence.

The father character, Frank, would be loosely based on O’ Casey’s Captain Boyle. He would provide benign explanation for the horrors occurring outside to his young daughter whose blindness holds the truth as a secret. Maggie, the daughter, accepts her father’s stories for truth. She is our insight into the Irish mentality of non-action, of preferring a narrative rather than reality. This idea comes from the romantic poetry written by Yeats and other poets about the West of Ireland and of the beauty and quality of experience of life there. We know from Irish history that the West is often neglected politically and has experienced intense poverty and oppression yet this is ignored in preference for poetic verse.

Another character is essential. He is a son, Sean (named after Sean O’ Casey himself.) Sean is fed-up with his fathers lies and is reaching a breaking point. He reminds us of the Irish mentality of building resentment and finally exploding without much ground to stand without the context of history. We’ve seen this in the current Water Charge protests around the country and in the 1798 and 1916 uprisings by Irish nationalists against British rule. Sean is arrogant and angry and loud, but aware and human.

A rehearsed reading of my one-act play, entitled The Blind, was performed exceptionally by fellow Lewis & Clark students on the last day of classes in the Black Box theatre at Dublin Business School.

This play served as a culmination of what I’ve learned of Irish Life and Culture; of art and history. Attached is a Word file containing The Blind.

Cheers for now,
Greg Geraldo

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