Hartnett, in his poem Death of an Irishwoman,
loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a cardgame where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a childs purse, full of useless things.
I indicated in part one of this article, Hartnett,
in his A Farewell to English (1975), determined
to return to the Irish of his West Limerick heritageto
revive a legacy of those around Croom and his native
Newcastle West who two centuries ago represented the
last gasp of the bardic refusal to give up Gaelic
expression. His grandmother spoke bits of the Munster
Irish once spoken in 19c Limerick. Using English to
express his desire to recover Irish, the poet--as
Seamus Heaney observes about the poem extracted abovewas
setting out to kill the thing he lovedor rather,
loved-hated, and yet at that very moment he was giving
thrilling proof of how vividly the thing lived within
him. (Watching the River Flow: a century
in Irish poetry, eds. Noel Duffy, Theo Dorgan.
Dublin: Poetry Ireland/Éigse Éireann,
1999: 161-2). Hartnetts dilemma represents the
condition of those who choose Irish today, for none
of us accept it without this decision.
its erosion as a community language, we depend on
its flourishing in a hothouseits implantation
in school, nurtured in the Gaeltacht or an intensified
atmosphere of a accelerated sessionso, Irish
becomes threatened by the changes in climate. Our
global warming to English by Irish speakers has been
continuing for centuries; Hartnetts Limerick
grandmother and my two (as girls beginning the last
century on the borders of Roscommon-Mayo) kept a
childs purse of the scraps of Irish they
had picked up, but the house was robbed, its roof
caved in by the landlord, the natives evicted and
forced to adopt to the conqueror to speak his language.
Broken Irish, useless, became an easily
mocked Oirish. Hartnett heard the remnants of this
Irish; many more never have, or will.
my grandmothers might have walked to Douglas Hydes
family estate at Frenchparkthe Frenches owned
the plots their cousins worked. Without Hyde to collect
a song that nobody sings, Love Songs
of Connacht would have never been compiled, Hyde
would not have founded Conradh na Gaeilge,
and the Revival might never have inspired a revolution--partially
fought by gaelgoirí students, poets,
professors, and schoolmasters. The dying language
Hyde heard from his tenants and my ancestors led to
its urban survival. But how long can Irish live if
its roots rest in a transplanted garden?
endurance depends on those who wish to negotiate the
passage that translation itself preserves from the
words Latin origin: a crossing from side-to-side.
Irish has no monoglot speakers. Any parent living
on Inis Mór makes a decision to keep Irish
in the family, no less than those at Shaws Road.
Those who wish to adapt it, as did the father of the
accomplished bilingual poet and musician Ciaran Carson
in 1950s Belfast, decide to build their own backyard
hothouse. Carson recalls that he did not speak English
until the age of ten. His own poems twist English
into the shapes molded by his Irish and his native
citys dialect, while he has published recently
a version of Dantes Inferno that keeps
these rhythms as it renders medieval Italian vernacular
into an Hiberno-English ballad, he says, that made
sense to him as he walked the streets of his Belfast.
(London: Granta, 2002) Carson perpetuates Dantes
eloquence while refreshing it as relevant and immediate.
Translators face this choice whenever they criss-cross
the two sides.
you strive for opacitythe original can never
be captured in a foreign voice, so keep to the strangeness
when adapting the primary source? Or do you opt for
transparencya sort of linguistic relativism
that seeks to make the unfamiliar language as colloquial
as ones own native tongue, so you forget that
youre reading a translation at all? Michael
Cronins Translating Ireland (Cork UP,
1996) fluidly records this struggle within Irish literature
and culture. Like Hartnetts burglarised house,
Cronin too interprets the contest to be one that jumps
from pages out into politics, and involves power in
writers, since the collapse of the native languages
dominance over much of the island, approach this question
without their conquerors or compatriots 19c
romanticism. Forget about thatch and currachs. Condescension
towards Irish as backward, conservative, and Catholic
has crippled it during much of last century in which
it was compulsorily administered, as a castor oil
remedy for anglicisations cure.
Cronin notes, a mature context within which to consider
translation addresses imperialism. His quote from
Eric Cheyfitz illustrates this perspective:
must be in translation between cultures and between
groups if we are to understand the dynamics of our
own imperialism. For our own imperialism historically
has functioned (and continues to function) by substituting
for the difficult politics of translation another
politics of translation that represses these difficulties.
walks in Belfast from his Irish-language interior,
in which he may in part thinkgiven his boyhood
immersion--to his English-language exterior, in which
he writes, and in turn confronts Dantes 14c
Florentine-Tuscan demotic speech, which that poet
chose as an alternative to the learned Latin to pioneer
literature in Italian. Carson, like Harnett with his
own translations from beyond Irish and outside English,
represent the confidence of Irish writersthey
outwit the binary trap, the either/or choice. Difficulty
as I have earlier wondered, does this bode well for
Irish? The author Alan Titley, quoted by Cronin, refers
to the accomplished poet, published under the nom
de plume of Biddy Jenkinson, who refuses
to allow her work to be translated into English. Titley
finds that her defiance is proof that the work
is not the only criterion and that translation has
a huge effecta negative effect in the case of
Jenkinsonon the public. (176) Nuala Ní
Dhomhnaill, a page earlier, laments the ghetto
mentality and defensiveness engendered by an
Irish poets necessary survival at the hands
of her English-speaking audience. As Limericks
bards depended on a dwindling number of native patrons
two centuries before Hartnett, so Ní Dhomhnaill
cannot flourish unless the poetry she recites is muffled
by a host of nimble but disparate translators into
what poet John Montague calls a severed tongue.
Her work, published often bilingually, allows us to
compare, butas with Heaneys translation
of Beowulf, or Carsons Dantethe original
source diminishes if we do not hear its resonance
as well as our ownnativeEnglish voice.
is the inevitable difficulty that too few of us, by
accident of birth and parentage and geography, can
escape. Those on the H-Blocks created Jailic
to counter the Crowns repression. Few of us,
freely, subvert through Irish. We grow up prisoners
of our increasingly monoglot home environment. Ní
Dhomhnaill herself learned Irish as child in the Kerry
Gaeltacht only because she could be raised with her
relatives there; she was born in Lancashire. Carson
gained fluency from his fathers choice within
a Belfast more hostile to Irish-language initiatives
under a more repressive regime. Hartnetts chance
to hear his grandmothers childs
purse open up allowed him to hear Irish before
the tenuous connections back to the vernacular of
Limericks poets had finally been buried.
of us need translation to make sense of our Irish.
What Cronin implies and I extrapolate from his argument
is that we too often wait for another poet to build
the bridge into translation if we want to read Ní
Dhomhnaills verse. Jenkinson and Seán
Ó Riordáinwho Im not alone
in assessing as one of the best poets of the 20c,
as he subsumed modernism and existentialism into an
Irish stripped of piety or pretenseresist translation,
for this denies them their individuality. Translation,
for me and for millions of otherson the other
hand--has been my guided path across to the other
side, and I negotiate it as I stumble between the
two languages, the two terrains, the two mentalities.
I assert that translation, if it denies the easy illusion
of transparency, can remind those who may not be able
to ford the stream or tramp the bridge that the other
side is not the same as the one where we live. The
daily world of English brings with it an assumption
that any alternative way to believe, to dream, to
prosper, or to calculate is deviant. A globalised
world expects conformity; otherwise the keyboard on
which I type this would not be filled with red squiggles
under all of the Irish words (and some of the English)
I have transmitted to you. Even a fada represents
this deviance from the mechanised norm.
conclusion, perhaps this MS program stands as a metaphor
for translation. MS refuses to make a totally Irish-language
compatible system. Activists might lament this, but
others find innovative ways to bypass or thwart the
hegemony of our common MS system. Irish manages to
survive by adopting or undermining shifts in climate
or communication. We need less opaque media. TG4 may
never surrender subtitles, but what might advanced
and native speakers watch? For a confident Irish-speaking
communitys medium, we expect a fully monolingual
channel (a visual equivalent of RnG, which by its
nature needs no capitulation to English unless its
speakers use it themselves, as Irish itself takes
in anglicisms, and as it gives them to Hiberno-English)
can find its niche. Learners have Gaelic-L on the
net as a list, while those fluent have their own forum.
The slashes in lieu of fadaí, I admit,
are an ugly reminder of the differences and adjustments
needed to help Irish transplant, but these adaptations
remind all of us that translation can only go so far.
The integrity of the local, the communal, and the
organic furthers our resistance against the empire,
the corporation, the machine.
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