Red October and the Transhlation Convention

by Tom Ingram

Sean Connery is Scottish.

I know. Crazy, innit?

His voice is easily recognizable anywhere, to the point where it’s not so much a Scottish accent as it is a Sean Connery accent. And he’s not good at faking other accents. As you might expect, this causes a problem when he plays anyone other than James Bond. His role in The Hunt for Red October has been much derided because he plays a Lithuanian submarine captain with that unmistakeable broad Edinburgh burr. But is it really so bad? Let’s take a deeper look.

It’s a common practice to show characters speaking in English (often with a fake accent) with the understood implication that they’re really speaking German or Russian or whatever. TV Tropes calls this the Translation Convention. It’s a useful device because you can’t expect your entire audience to be familiar with languages other than English.

This is used pretty well in Red October, where the Soviet officers speak in subtitled Russian for the first few minutes before switching to English. Thereafter, none of them try to do a fake Russian accent. There lies the first point in Sir Sean’s favour: everybody is speaking in their natural accents aboard the Red October. The only difference is that most of the actors are American or English, so we don’t notice it when they do it. It’s only because Connery’s accent is “marked” that he’s singled out.

The second point is actually a bit of brilliance on the part of the casting people. Captain Marko Ramius was not Russian like the rest of his crew. He was Lithuanian. It stands to reason that he would speak Russian with a noticeable Lithuanian accent. If, under the Translation Convention, Russian accents are being rendered as English and American ones, why shouldn’t a Lithuanian accent become Scottish?

This is a plot point in the novel, though not in the movie: the fact that he’s not Russian has worked against the Ramius family, and it still counts as a strike against Marko after he becomes the Soviet navy’s best captain. He is noticeably “other”, and giving him a noticeably “other” accent in the movie was a subtly intelligent idea.

Apart from that, I don’t think anyone is arguing that Sean Connery isn’t perfectly suited for the role in every other possible way. The way he walks around the ship in his second scene is perfect. He stands a few inches taller than everybody else, and the way he carries himself leaves you with no doubts about who is in charge. His severe look, with the sharp eyebrows and beard, along with his cool, collected manner all come together to make an excellent performance before he even opens his mouth. Connery hit it out of the park, accent or not.

The Translation Convention is a good thing. It lets us have foreign characters without having to learn a new language just to watch a movie. If we’re going to have non-Lithuanian actors playing Lithuanian characters, then we all have to learn some suspension of disbelief. If we can accept Tim Curry as a Russian doctor, surely we can accept Sean Connery as Marko Ramius.