March 2010 Reflection

Reflections on Translating

“If you could describe this year in one word, what would it be?” Michael asked late in the evening as we waited in painted shadows for our flight out of Brussels. We were at the end of a trip to the European Union to visit the Irish Permanent representation. I forget what I answered at the time, though it was probably something like “carbon-footprint” in playful reference to our impending journey on a floating CO2-emitter. Thinking back on it now, I might choose the word, “shenanigans.”

Shenanigans: mischief, trouble, high jinks, tomfoolery.

Although we have had our fair share of shenanigans – Romanesque nightclubs with Sir John Leslie (who can bust quite a move at a spritely 94 years young), haphazard handstands on the Giant’s Causeway, bleary eyed mornings attempting to reinvent the Brooklyn Bagel in Ireland – please don’t get the wrong idea!


Bellies full of food and laughter, Mr. Jon Brestoff and I enjoyed one of many wonderful conversations with Keith and his wife, Madeleine, our gracious hosts during our trip to Brussels. Through the whirl of words Jon and I found ourselves responding to how we had gotten on last night in the city.

“Oh we had some great shenanigans,” I said.

“Ah! Shenanigans,” responded Madeleine. “You’re already becoming familiar with the Irish.”
“I didn’t know that was an Irish word,” said Jon, tilting his head to the side and smiling.

I seconded the sentiment and the room flooded with laughter.

How fascinating that a word as unique as shenanigans can get lost in the twirl and tumble of tongues! Shenanigans is a prime example of the nuanced romance between American English and Irish English. Same word and denotation to both of us but entrenched in different connotations. To Jon and me, shenanigans was a word laid in the common domain. To Madeleine and Keith, a word rooted in the earthy peat of Ireland.

It is easy to think that both Irish and Americans speak the same language… until you arrive in Ireland. I had come across another example some time ago, right when I arrived on the island. Someone had been asking how I liked Ireland and Trinity, to which I responded quite emphatically, “Awesome, really awesome, I really like it.” At this point, my compatriot in conversation chuckled, gently shook his head and said something on the order of “No, that’s not awesome. You Americans always use words that are too extreme! Awesome is when you are playing in the all-Ireland Gaelic football championships and you win in the last minute. THAT is awesome.”

The inflation of meaning in words (just as a currency inflates) is a fascinating concept. Of course my conversationalist was right and I am seeing it more and more. If I were to have said to an American that my time so far has been good, it would have translated to “ok, nothing too special.” To my Irish friend, however, good or its Irish equivalent, grand, would have carried exactly the same weight of meaning that I intended to convey with the word, Awesome. It is as if we speak in currencies that have the same name, but different values and conventions, much like the American and Canadian Dollars. Precisely because the two seem so similar on the surface are misunderstandings particularly likely. Each person tries to use the currency at his/her own value resulting in both parties coming away with something slightly different than intended.

As I slowly learn a proper exchange rate while I live and swim in Irish culture, I feel like I am gaining something really valuable. Not only does sensitivity to these differences make it easier for me to make myself understood within and beyond the Pale, but it also deepens the understanding of my own language, culture and self. I could have a grand time contemplating the origins of this value mismatch (advertising, Hollywood, Bill & Ted etc.).

Of course there are the more obvious lingual differences as well. The first time I heard my flat mate, Ronnie say, “Ya, We had great crack at Dicey’s last night, you should have been there,” I did a double take; “good crack? Like the powder?” Ronnie chuckled and gently shook his head (as many people seem to do whenever I open my mouth) then said “Good CRAIC. It’s Irish. Means we had a good time.”

After exercising my ear and language cortex all this time, the lingual differences seem to be melding into second nature, as are the accents. I had not realized quite the extent this had been happening to me until my sister visited a few weeks ago. We went to see a play at the Abbey Theater in Dublin. At intermission, I asked her how she had found the play so far (good craic??) at which point she replied that she had been having an incredibly difficult time understanding the speech. During the second half, I translated for her!

All in all, I think that “shenanigans” is a great word to describe my time here. Encapsulated within and intertwined with good craic, is a testament to the translations of an intimate yet complex embrace between languages and cultures.

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