The Little Mute Boy: autism in translation

In a previous  post I reflected on the way we keep some poems as talismans, pinned to walls and notice boards. This week I found a charm poem taped into one of my old notebooks.

The Little Mute Boy

The little boy was looking for his voice.             
(The king of the crickets had it.)                     
In a drop of water                                                   
the little boy was looking for his voice.

I do not want it for speaking with;                             
I will make a ring of it                                                    
so that he may wear my silence                            
on his little finger

In a drop of water                                                          
the little boy was looking for his voice.

(The captive voice, far away,                                          
put on a cricket’s clothes.)

The poem is by Federico García Lorca, a writer who has been important to me in recent years. I didn’t always care for poetry in translation; sound is as integral to a poem as meaning and I wanted poetry in its first language. But then, four years ago, a Lorca translation saved me.


I was in deep grief; not over Dylan, this time, but my daughter from whom I had been suddenly separated. One of the ways in which it affected me was that I found myself unable to write. I had written poetry all my life; hard times had not previously silenced me. ‘The blood jet’, as Sylvia Plath wrote: ‘ is poetry/there is no stopping it.’ And yet suddenly I couldn’t make a sound. Nothing made sense to me. I was inhabiting a world of confusion and doubt; finding the words from or about the place seemed impossible.

A poet friend, gently concerned, gave me a copy of Robert Lowell’s Imitations for Christmas that year. I might find reading poetry in translation helpful, he suggested, as it would engage my heart and mind differently. Soon after, he called round again, this time with a Lorca poem in the original and translation. My friend was taking a Master’s course in poetry and one of the exercises he had been set was to produce a version of the piece. Why didn’t I have a go too? If I could experience the poem without thinking too much about what it communicated then I might find I could catch its rhythm; perhaps the spirit of the language could restore me to sound.

 Canción del Jinete  /  Song of the Horseman

Córdoba  /  Córdoba
Lejana y sola.  /  Far off and solitary.

 Jaca negra, luna grande,  /  A black horse, a round moon
y aceitunas en mi alforja.  /  and olives in my pack.
Aunque sepa los caminos, /  Although I know the roads
yo nunca llegaré a Córdoba.  /  I will never get to Córdoba.

 Por el llano, por el viento,  /  Across the plain, into the wind,
jaca negra, luna roja.  / a black horse, a red moon.
La muerte me está mirando  /  Death is staring at me
desde las torres de Córdoba.  /  from the towers of Córdoba.

 ¡Ay que camino tan largo!  /  Oh what a long road!
¡Ay mi jaca valerosa!  /  Oh, my brave horse!
¡Ay que la muerte me espera,  /  Oh, death is waiting for me,
antes de llegar a Córdoba!  /  before getting to Córdoba!

Córdoba.  /  Córdoba.
Lejana y sola.  /  Far off and solitary.

That Christmas I read Lorca’s Horseman. Its melancholic rhythms and pace appealed but it was the moon which caught me. I remembered my Grandmother telling me to look up at the moon when I was away from home and remember she’d be looking too. I knew my daughter had, in turn, heard this from her Grandmother. Perhaps this moon, passed down the spindle side, was my song.

fall (my gone daughter)

dearest beloved 
grain moon     our same moon

my nut-eyed little bear (mater dolorosa)
a cotton square soaked in scent
the grainy aerial view
of woods where you’ll grow

if I’m sorrowful and red-eyed
my little bear has been sharp-clawed
torn us from the black earth
faces appear in the night     (and dissolve)

I stand aside
fruit moon     little blood-eyed bear
loss is hiding in your fur
fastening ribbons in our hair

falling leaf moon       our same moon
dearest beloved

*Grain (August), Fruit (September) and Falling Leaves (October) were Anglo Saxon names for the moon.

My version of the Lorca poem wandered so far from the original that I didn’t feel the need to provide an epigraph ‘After Lorca’. I can feel the DNA of the poem, though, in its structure (2, 4, 4, 4, 2), imagery and voice. And so Lorca saved me: the poem was my breakthrough back to sound. Later, fall (my gone daughter) would win a prize in the Ilkley Poetry Competition. By then my daughter had returned; one of my happiest memories is of her being in the audience for the prize-giving.

The cricket

diaries 001And because Lorca had saved me, my prejudice against translation faded. So when I encountered The Little Mute Boy one day I paid attention. The English version, translated by the American poet WS Merwin, delivered an instant strike to my heart. I was, as with De La Mare’s Sea Boy, transported into Dylan’s world.

What is it about the poem which works such magic on me? Mostly I think it is the way it makes me re-think the meaning of ‘voice’. Here, the voice becomes something which is concrete rather than an abstract concept. I like this transformation of sound into object; rather than feel frustrated by Dylan’s silence I can visualise it as a ring on his finger.

But such things can be lost, given away, stolen or bartered with. The idea of bartering with a voice reminds me of Ariel in The Little Mermaid who trades her voice for legs. In Lorca’s poem, however, a voice can be desired not in order to be used (‘for speaking with’) but simply to be worn as adornment or to be magically transformed into something else (a cricket for example). Not only does the ‘captive voice’ in the poem ‘put on cricket’s clothes’, it becomes king of the crickets. Crickets, of course, are famed for their night song; the stolen voice thus becomes more beautiful and magical than in the throat of a human. Because Dylan is so utterly absorbed by Pinocchio, the cricket in the poem also puts me in mind of Jiminy Cricket, the puppet boy’s conscience. The Lorca poem offers such comforts: from Dylan’s silence I can make crickets sing and golden rings.

El Niño Mudo

El niño busca su voz.
(La tenía el rey de los grillos.)
En una gota de agua
buscaba su voz el niño.

No la quiero para hablar;
me haré con ella un anillo
que llevará mi silencio
en su dedo pequeñito.

En una gota de agua
buscaba su voz el niño.

(La voz cautiva, a lo lejos,
se ponía un traje de grillo.)

 The sky is,

Once I’d appreciated translation it opened up new vistas especially as my daughter (with whom contact was re-established) had developed a passion for languages. The paradox of my children was not lost on me; one who didn’t speak and the other fluent in three languages. That summer I sent my daughter poems by Jacques Prévert, Pablo Neruda and Paul Verlaine. One weekend I received a rare phone call from my ex-husband, the tension in his voice palpable. Our daughter would not be able to catch the train that day to visit as planned; she had to stay and put something right. She had, it transpired, taken paint from her father’s shed and decorated a road. The road in question may be narrow and surrounded by lochs and mountains but it leads to somewhere not nowhere; in fact it is the only way into the community where my daughter was living. Everyone in the village had to travel that road, sometimes twice or more a day. The Verlaine poem (in pink) was not something you could ignore.

IMG_1477Le Ciel Est, Par-dessus le Toit

Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit,                                   
Si bleu, si calme!                                                     
Un arbre, par-dessus le toit,                                     
Berce sa palme.

 La cloche, dans le ciel qu’on voit,
Doucement tinte.
Un oiseau sur l’arbre qu’on voit
Chante sa plainte.

 Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est là,
Simple et tranquille.
Cette paisible rumeur-là
Vient de la ville.

-Qu’as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà
Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu’as-tu fait, toi que voilà,
De ta jeunesse?

IMG_1484Later, I would discuss the difference between public art and graffiti with my daughter; her lettering was impeccable and the poem beautiful, but what gave her the authority to decide what should be written on a public highway? What if someone painted an offensive poem on the road – about autistic people for example? Painting the poem, my daughter countered, was the most powerful act of community she had engaged in. As a result, she had got to know neighbours and people she had not previously spoken to. Out of her act came friendships and respect. No one in the village had expressed anything but support for her. Even so, her father was concerned that he would be liable for street cleaning if anyone complained; it was, technically, defacement of public property. So my daughter wasn’t able to take the train that day because she had to paint it out with bitumen.

 On the road

IMG_1560When my daughter painted the poem in the road I’d asked her whether she planned to leaflet the community with a translation: mais non, she’d replied. Soon after, my daughter returned to live with us. Sometimes I’d catch her muttering at me in words I didn’t understand: speak English please, I’d say. Perhaps my children weren’t such a paradox after all; I needed as much skill to translate my daughter’s speech as Dylan’s silence.

If poems are powerful because they help us see the world with fresh eyes, poetry in translation makes us look twice; it can take a second language, sometimes, to understand a mother tongue. Le Ciel Est, Par-dessus le Toit is a talisman for my daughter as The Little Mute Boy and The Sea Boy are for me. The influence of these poems endures: on a Scottish road, I’m told, pink paint is showing through bitumen. I like to think that, nearby, the king of the crickets is singing.

IMG_1513The Sky is, Above the Roof

The sky is, above the roof,
So beautiful, so calm!
A tree, above the roof,
Lulls its palm.

The bell, in the sky, that one sees,
Gently rings.
A bird on the tree that one sees,
Sings his complaint.

My God, my God, life is there,
Simple and quiet.
This calm rumour
Comes from the town.

What have you done, O you there
Crying continually,
Say, what have you done, you there,
With your youth?


Road art, and photographs of the road art, are by my daughter.


Inclusive Holidays: in praise of groups

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View from the shelter in Margate where TS Eliot is reputed to have written parts of The Waste Land

You’ve got a talent for holidays, a girlfriend observed in response to  my account of a trip to Kent with Dylan. I’d organised the visit as part of a ‘Retro England’ theme;  previous holidays had been planned around the themes of islands (Skye and Wight), dis/union (Wales, Scotland, Ireland), mines (Northumberland and Cornwall) and pilgrimage (Canterbury and the Pennine Way).

My holiday themes usually emerge from a consideration of possible locations based on Dylan’s love of steam trains, churches and zoos. Later I weave in connecting narratives from art and literature: in Margate it was Tracey Emin and TS Eliot; on the Yorkshire coast it was sea poems and Grimshaw; in Laugharne it was Dylan Thomas and Lynette Roberts; and on the Isle of Wight there was Tennyson. Finally I add terrain (coastline, caves and mountains) and tandem cycling to our holiday plans.

I enjoy pulling these various threads together in order to identify locations and themes. The purpose of the themes, I think, is that they enable me to engage with an ‘autism-friendly’ holiday rather than feel sore that I can’t travel to exotic locations, go on adventure holidays or take cultural breaks. Instead of a holiday being primarily about Dylan’s needs, a theme offers something for both of us.

Easy pairs

Dylan and my daughter cycling in Norfolk, 2010

Independent holidays are helpful for living with autism; they allow us to go where we wish and to do what we want, when we want. It means we don’t have to compromise by not doing something we like or tolerating something we don’t. But individualised themes are also hard work in that I must  research and organise travel, accommodation and activities.

I’ve always been an independent traveller so am used to such planning. Before my children were born I travelled in the Americas and Middle East and in the years before the Berlin Wall came down a girlfriend and I spent long hours visiting the embassies of Eastern Bloc countries while planning a grand tour of Europe. In comparison, organising autism-friendly holidays in the UK is a cinch.

Even within a small family unit, however, compromises must be made. While she was living with us my daughter became increasingly frustrated by our holidays despite my themes. Customising trips for three strong-willed people, I discovered, was challenging. Alone is simple. Pairs is fairly easy. Three gets tricky. Things cannot always be the way we want them when we’re part of a group – unless, of course, we have an ace to play.

The ace

Me declaiming on Tennyson Down, Isle of Wight, 2009

I am guessing my daughter would say autism can be an ace. I would probably agree with her. While our holidays were customised, they were designed around Dylan’s needs first and foremost. In time I came to accept the run of the cards and feel lucky if I managed to play a few of my own – but mothers are tolerant that way. This can be tough on siblings.

While Dylan-friendly holidays might have been hard for my daughter I must admit to having embraced the excuse they offered. As someone who dislikes having to fit into groups (or finds it difficult to fit perhaps) Dylan’s needs provided a useful smokescreen for my own. While accommodating an autistic son can be frustrating, it wasn’t as bad as fitting in with a group of non-autistic strangers. Holidays with Dylan might involve more trains and fewer museums than I would like, but groups demand compromises too and on balance I knew which I preferred. Or at least I thought I did.

The group

Relieved having driven The Quiraing, Isle of Skye, 2009.

In my last post I referred to a short break holiday which Dylan and I took earlier this year (I’ve written more about it here). Unusually, that trip was a group holiday. I booked the trip – a steam train holiday –  for Dylan (I was to be in a supporting role only). As well as appealing to Dylan’s interests a ready-made holiday had the advantage of everything having been done for us. The only problem I could foresee was that it had been done for twenty other people as well. But I could, I told myself, cope with the demands of a group for Dylan’s sake – it was only five days and if we hated it then we would at least have tried. In the event, however, the holiday was a success. To my surprise, some of the aspects of the holiday which we most enjoyed arose from the group nature of the trip.


Inverness 2014 019

Dylan practising his smile, Inverness 2014

1. Being in a group freed me to focus on Dylan rather than reading maps, planning, driving or organising activities.

2. Members of the group with experience in the care sector or a particular feeling for Dylan gravitated towards us while others wanted to engage us in conversation or simply observe. This was good for raising awareness of autism and advocating in the community.

3. The hotel staff were attentive to Dylan’s individual needs even though we were part of a group. One waitress in particular took special care of him; Agata kept Dylan’s blackcurrant topped up during dinner and made sure he got his meal first. She told me that she was enjoying Dylan being at the hotel; it made the dining room more ‘normal’ (by which she meant more like the world outside the hotel). I was grateful to Agata for modelling inclusive practice to hotel guests; the actions of another member of the community can be more powerful than those of a parent sometimes. The holiday pre-dated Dylan’s sugar-free diet as the photos of Agata’s Special Sundae Kit show.

Inverness 2014 097

Agata’s Special Sundae kit


4. In a group others keep an eye out for you. As I am used to travelling alone with Dylan, sometimes without anyone being aware of where we are or what we are doing, this felt strange. As I get older and less able to manage independent travel with Dylan, I might appreciate the safety of numbers.

Inverness 2014 049

Harry Potter Viaduct, Fort William to Mallaig line

5. There are benefits in numbers at any age, however; I’m not sure that I would have recognised Harry Potter’s bridge if I hadn’t heard another member of the group say that is what it was. I learned a lot from others during the holiday and realised that what Dylan learns is usually limited to what I happen to know. 

6. In a similar vein, we did things on the holiday which I might not have done without the group; because the itinerary was not mine, it offered opportunities for Dylan and I to engage with different activities. This was good for both of us.

7. Being on a group holiday meant that I came home with photographs of myself and Dylan. Offering to take our photograph was something which people – even those who weren’t sure how to interact with us – felt comfortable with and wanted to do. For me this was a treat as I have few pictures of Dylan and I together. The concept of ‘witness’ is something which interests me; since my daughter moved away it has felt as if Dylan and I live unwitnessed. For once we had some evidence.

There were also things about being part of a group which were tricky:

1. Because the itinerary is fixed there is a lack of flexibility about a group. This was sometimes challenging for Dylan and I who are used to spending shorter or longer periods in locations depending on how interesting we find them.  Dylan always wanted more rather than less time.

2. Because of this we were usually last back for the group rendezvous, something which may have been frustrating for others. I had few strategies, however, for encouraging Dylan; if he was absorbed in a second hand bookshop (as he was on one occasion) then he saw no reason why he should leave until he had finished. In order to be punctual I had to be canny at managing our stops.

3. One timing issue which neither I nor Dylan had any control over was in relation to toilet stops. It takes longer to stand in line for the disabled cubicle (I have written about the challenge of disabled toilets here). Dylan and I rarely had long enough in the time allocated and were often late back to the group. Having said that, the reason for this was obvious and no one ever expressed their irritation (at least not to us).

Inverness 2014 079

View from the window, Eilean Donan Castle

Looking back

Although a group holiday may not seem an obvious choice for someone autistic,  the advantages  outweighed the disadvantages for us. As well as the benefits for Dylan I was able to claim some of my own. I relaxed more than I do when I am in the driving seat. I read more books, rested more and enjoyed more conversation than usual. Providing it has autism-friendly elements, such as structure and focus, a group holiday can be a good option, especially for a lone parent.

Looking back I would say that the key benefit, however, was that Dylan learned something about accommodating others and that others learned how to accommodate him. For me, this is advocacy in action. Inclusion in the community is, ultimately, about the quality of our interaction with others and I enjoyed watching Dylan make his way among the group and establish his own relationships. I was especially touched by the way members of the group responded to Dylan as an individual, as they got to know him, rather than as my disabled son.

An unexpected treat was that Dylan and I were not only welcomed by the group but befriended by a couple, Hazel and Hector, whose company we enjoyed during the holiday and with whom we have stayed in touch.  Dylan, Hector said to me as we said goodbye, is an exceptional young man.  Through some of the troubles of recent months I have run those words through my head, gratefully.

Looking forward

Dylan and I took the holiday directly before the emergence of some behaviours in Dylan which are giving cause for concern (you can read more about this here and here). I don’t think those things are linked but I sometimes make the link when explaining the changes in Dylan to professionals; it provides a useful timeline because I know that when I took Dylan on the holiday last May there hadn’t been any incidents. Given recent developments in Dylan’s behaviour, I can’t imagine embarking on such a holiday now.

october 2014 003That makes me sad, especially as it is the thing which Dylan keeps asking me for. I think the holiday must have been one of his lifetime highlights as he leaves brochures from the holiday company on my desk constantly. He ‘reads’ a brochure every morning before leaving for his day centre. Every night he says ‘train’ to me and makes the makaton sign. I say ‘yes, train’ and take him on day trips at weekends – he likes them, but I know there is an edge of disappointment that it is not quite what he had in mind.

This week I found a postcard of Harry Potter’s bridge propped up on the piano. I have no idea where it came from; I don’t remember buying it while we were on holiday though I guess I must have done. Certainly I don’t know where it has been kept since. Dylan clearly knew – clever of him to be more specific about the clues he is leaving for me: not any steam train, mummy: this one. If there are circumstances that can draw the best of us out then maybe a group holiday is Dylan’s;  I flicked through the brochure the other day, wondering if I might be able to find something short and safe enough to chance.