Dé hAoine 12 Lúnasa 2011


The Yeats Summer School was as inspiring as ever this year, not least because I took part in my first poetry workshop with Peter McDonald. The first step into the workshop was to send some of my poems to Peter via the Yeats Society in Sligo, and I was faced with the dilemma of providing translations for my poems written originally as Gaeilge. I decided not to think too much about it or I'd drive myself mad, so I read and translated my poems fairly swiftly and sent them off. The poems in question are 'Caoimhín Naofa agus an Chéirseach' and 'Béaldath'.

I wasn't sure how we would approach the reading of my poems in an English-language medium workshop, but as Peter is well-acquainted with the question of translation himself, there was little discomfort! I read the poems in Irish, and he read the translations in English. It must be said that Peter read them in such a way as to make them sound pretty amazing! 'Caoimhín Naofa agus an Chéirseach' didn't present us with any trouble in its English guise, though the words céirseach, glinn, lomán ('hen blackbird', silvery-noted [of voice], 'bare, stripped branch') to me lost their singular strength when they required more than one word to be translated. (Also the double-meaning of the word comaoin, but I didn't go into that at the time.) This doesn't seem to have been a problem in Peter's or anyone else's eyes. However, we did come across a puzzle in 'Béaldath'. Firstly with reference to 'youth' in the phrase 'teas na n-óg', which I had translated at the time as 'the heat of youth' (when really it's 'the heat of the young'). 'Youth' as a concept in English has different connotations, of which I'm not sure that I'm aware. [Ooh, clásal coibhneasta deas as Béarla ansin!] In Irish, I think the connotations of Tír na nÓg will always come to mind when you hear the genitive na n-óg! Or maybe that's just me? I like it, anyway. The real sticky issue we encountered was with the word smál, in the line 'ach d'fhág tú smál orm'. I had translated this as 'but you left a stain on me', with a note under the poem explaining the connotation of 'sin' in the Gaeilge, i.e. Muire gan Smál. Peter informed us that Mary was referred to as 'Mary without Spot' in Medieval English texts. (This I didn't know, even though I studied Medieval English.) 'Stain' as a word just didn't seem to work though, and this was our dilemma. I had to go away and think about it. I looked up a thesaurus for the word 'stain' - 'mark', 'blemish', 'blotch', 'spot', 'smear', 'soil', 'smudge'. Hmm, we already had 'smear'. 'Mark'? I'm still uncertain. But out of them all, 'mark' is the best of a bad lot. The complexity of the Irish word can't work in English. What to do??

Anyway, the bilingualism of my contribution to the workshop made for interesting debate. When asked why I found it so difficult to see my poems translated, I said that I was sick of seeing the Irish and Scottish Gaelic languages undermined by English translations accompanying them. To me (and to others), it suggests that the minority language can't stand on its own, that it can't be justified to be published on its own merit. I insisted that it wasn't a political thing, but it's a politico-linguistic thing, I suppose. Biddy Jenkinson came up as an example, of course. Joan McBreen said that Biddy refused to provide an English translation to one of her poems in an anthology that Joan was compiling, but agreed to provide one in French. When I heard this, I realised how silly it all is, really. French is a major language just like English, so it's the English the Biddy has the problem with, which is political. I'm not interested in that. I opened up when Peter put it something like this: you're killing the language by cutting it off from other languages, which are other life-sources. One poem in one language is a river flowing into the sea. It has been seen by some friends and colleagues of mine in Irish-language academia that this cutting off of Irish from other language cultures is doing the Irish-language studies more damage than good. To give the Irish and Scottish Gaelic languages a voice in modern literature, perhaps we need to be realistic and grow up. We all know the translations are not the same, but they offer a window in to the culture. Also, more readers may seek to learn the language if they can relate to the sentiment found in its translation. (For example, I'd like to learn German, so I can appreciate Goethe more.) 

Speaking of German, I was very grateful to be directed to Paul Celan amidst our discussion, whose parents died in labour camps during WW2. His use of German in his writing has been seen as an attempt to break the language, or remake it. He said "There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German." Wow.

Then there's the question of whether to use cúpla focal in an English-language poem. Why not? People put in French words all the time. Yeats started it, in a way - he was the one who brought in the Irish placenames into modern poetry. If you want to be political, you could say that the Irish words have a chance to invade the English! 

As Peter put it, creating a poem in one language and then translating it is 'a labour of birth and a labour of grief.' I like this analogy. It reminds me of the Mór Ríon, goddess of fertility and death. Bilingual Irish existence is a reality. Ireland will never again be lán-Ghaeilge, alas. So our language has to make friends, and stop alienating herself. This realisation has made it easier for me to be an Irish writer, and I'm sure it will make my writing more interesting too.


  1. Interesting. My view is slightly different, perhaps coloured through my close links with the Basque Country. There are of course upsides to being part of the international translated literature scene but it's way overused and overhyped in the Celtic fringe. But by translating everything, we reduce the instances where knowledge of language X is vital to accessing something. There are precious few chances of that for Celtic languages. We even take it to the level of publishing children's books with a dictionary or gloss inside.

    Perhaps we just haven't found the golden middle yet between making friends and saying "sod you, if you're too lazy to engage with my work in the original, then tough". Perhaps if we got into the habit of not translating an entire work but just a teaser.. the first stanza and a summary.

  2. I think discourse on minority languages is always going to be political. It's so complicated. When I read what I wrote again, the conclusion seems to be too simple and positive. That said, I do feel that the politics of a minority language can be destructive. As an Irish-language academic, I have been livid on occasions because I feel that 'ceist na teanga' forever governs the literature. I'm a literary person to the core, whatever my linguistic interests, and I can't stand that Irish-language literature is being pruned to fit a certain cause. Literature should be honest, and of good quality. The amount of crap that is being published in Irish, purely because it's as Gaeilge. I could easily get my poems published, but I'm reluctant to because I will admit that I'm only learning my trade as a writer, and that I will be forever learning Irish. I think if minority language literature is to thrive, it should be on quality and not quantity, and that it should relate and interconnect with the literature of the world. If the literature of a minority language is authentic, it will stand the test of time. If its voice has to be initially encountered with through another language as translator, so be it. Language is a mode of communication after all, and a door to different ways of thinking.