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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

“A house ransacked by soldiers”: Translation’s plunder and preservation

Seaghán Ó Murchú

Michael Hartnett, in his poem “Death of an Irishwoman,” concludes:

I 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 child’s purse, full of useless things.

As 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 heritage—to 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 above—“was setting out to kill the thing he loved—or 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). Hartnett’s dilemma represents the condition of those who choose Irish today, for none of us accept it without this decision.

With its erosion as a community language, we depend on its flourishing in a hothouse—its implantation in school, nurtured in the Gaeltacht or an intensified atmosphere of a accelerated session—so, Irish becomes threatened by the changes in climate. Our global warming to English by Irish speakers has been continuing for centuries; Hartnett’s Limerick grandmother and my two (as girls beginning the last century on the borders of Roscommon-Mayo) kept ‘a child’s 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.

Ironically, my grandmothers might have walked to Douglas Hyde’s family estate at Frenchpark—the 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?

Its endurance depends on those who wish to negotiate the passage that translation itself preserves from the word’s 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 Shaw’s 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 city’s dialect, while he has published recently a version of Dante’s 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 Dante’s eloquence while refreshing it as relevant and immediate. Translators face this choice whenever they criss-cross the two sides.

Do you strive for opacity—the original can never be captured in a foreign voice, so keep to the strangeness when adapting the primary source? Or do you opt for transparency—a sort of linguistic relativism that seeks to make the unfamiliar language as colloquial as one’s own native tongue, so you forget that you’re reading a translation at all? Michael Cronin’s Translating Ireland (Cork UP, 1996) fluidly records this struggle within Irish literature and culture. Like Hartnett’s burglarised house, Cronin too interprets the contest to be one that jumps from pages out into politics, and involves power in both situations.

Irish writers, since the collapse of the native language’s 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 anglicisation’s cure.

Today, Cronin notes, a mature context within which to consider translation addresses imperialism. His quote from Eric Cheyfitz illustrates this perspective:

We 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. (141)

Carson walks in Belfast from his Irish-language interior, in which he may in part think—given his boyhood immersion--to his English-language exterior, in which he writes, and in turn confronts Dante’s 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 writers—they outwit the binary trap, the either/or choice. Difficulty can reward.

Still, 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 effect—a negative effect in the case of Jenkinson—on the public.” (176) Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, a page earlier, laments the “ghetto mentality” and defensiveness engendered by an Irish poet’s necessary survival at the hands of her English-speaking audience. As Limerick’s 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, but—as with Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, or Carson’s Dante—the original source diminishes if we do not hear its resonance as well as our own—native—English voice.

Which 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 Crown’s 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 father’s choice within a Belfast more hostile to Irish-language initiatives under a more repressive regime. Hartnett’s chance to hear his grandmother’s ‘child’s purse’ open up allowed him to hear Irish before the tenuous connections back to the vernacular of Limerick’s poets had finally been buried.

Most 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 Dhomhnaill’s verse. Jenkinson and Seán Ó Riordáin—who I’m 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 pretense—resist translation, for this denies them their individuality. Translation, for me and for millions of others—on 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.

For 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.

In 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 community’s 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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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

7 June 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


“A house ransacked by soldiers”: Translation’s plunder and preservation
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Acquittal of the Bogotá 3 - Interview With Caitriona Ruane
Toni Solo


Da Big Gorilla
John Kennedy


John, Pat and Neil Sedakas
George Young


Volunteer Robin Livingstone
Anthony McIntyre


The Anti Racism Network (ARN), in the beginning …
Davy Carlin


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No More Lies


Can Irish Speakers Survive Reverse Colonialism?
Seaghán Ó Murchú


On the One Road
John Kennedy


The Wretched of the Earth at the Polls
Mick Hall


SS General
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In Solidarity with the Iraqi People
Ghali Hassan


Neo-Cons, Fundies, Feddies, and Con-Artists
Francis A. Boyle


Mis-reporting Venezuela: Hugo Chavez as processed by the "Independent" newspaper
Toni Solo




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