Crisis of Translation in Minority Languages

Poetry Ireland News July/August 2010

Ezra Pound said that the nature of literary translation lay in the vortex created between the original work and its transformation into the target language. This vortex [Dairena Ní Chinnéide] is like a tumultuous sea. Each word in the source language, specifically a minority language like Irish, makes several waves, each representing a choice of words in the dominant language. For a poet, the effort can lead to a near-drowning experience. The cultural validity of a word or phrase in the source language, in this case Irish, will usually never have just one apposite friend in the target language. One is left with a poetic choice: to try to convey full meaning with all its cultural connotations, or to choose a word that partially embraces the original source meaning but perhaps lose poetic flow, perhaps upsets the original’s rhythm and metre: one could compare this to a roof missing slates, or a mouth missing teeth.

As a minority-language poet, to translate is to attempt to capture the energy of these waves as they crash and break. For me, this means working on an original poem in Irish and, at that same moment of creation, transmitting the overall sense and rhythm into English while still writing the original. To leave the translation to a later time is to lose its essence.

By expressing yourself in the language of your birth, you satisfy a deep allegiance to your native tongue, your identity, your definition of you. As poets, we desire to have the reader see our culture as we experience it. Thus, the crisis of translation: damned if you do, damned if you don't. Sometimes I publish books in Irish only because there is a culturally imperialistic sense of shame in translating, in this case to English. Translation into any other language would be less fraught – French, Italian, Spanish. But to translate into English is almost a denial of your core identity.

I am a product of modern Ireland and English lies as naturally on my tongue as Irish does. The poetic impulse, however, is entirely rooted in the Irish language. In my translations I like to provide the English-language reader with an opportunity to drink from the well-spring of my creativity. I seek to explore the cultural nuances of my particular frame of reference, West-Kerry Irish written in a unique dialect that is at odds with the grammatical standard. This, too, adds its own complexities.

It was more by accident than design that I began to translate. I wished for an English friend of mine to enjoy this font of cultural knowledge and began providing him with translations – or, as I saw them, new poems or versions. These first translations were well-received. The more I realised that these translations, these creations from the vortex, stood strongly on their own and conveyed the sense of culture and song of the original poem, the greater the impetus to publish them.

I have travelled throughout Europe singing my poems, first in Irish and then in English translation. One of my most enjoyable experiences was at a festival in Slovenia where I stood onstage reading in Irish and the audience read a translation projected onto a screen behind me. This way I could sing my song in the language in which it was meant to be sung. The audience shared and enjoyed the music of the language. 

I translate most of my work into English in order to reach a wider reading audience. To sell 500 copies of an Irish-language poetry book in Ireland is considered quite an achievement. My first bilingual collection sold roughly its print run, 2,500. Therein lies the rub: I work twice as hard on in-the-moment translation as I do on the original text, but I’ve learned that this immediate transmission captures more of the cultural references and poetic flow than a translation left unguarded for a period of time.

The inner conflict between dominant / minority language is something every Irish-language poet will experience. We must swim in the vortex to best express our innermost feelings and to share our culture with the dominant English-speaking and -reading audience. Translation may be controversial but it’s a necessary evil. I for one will speak my language to my dying day, yet I’m pleased that in some small way the magic of the crashing wave is shared by those who don't have the gift of Irish. I will continue to let the waves of translation wash over my poems, and hope the flow reaches as many people as it can.

Recent publications from Dairena Ní Chinnéide include Poll na mBabies (Coiscéim) and the bi-lingual Máthair an Fhiaigh / The Raven’s Mother (Cló Iar-Chonnachta).

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