The Shock of the Old: Translating Early Irish Poetry into Modern Irish

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TWENTIETH-CENTURY readers of English without a knowledge of Old Irish (ca. 600-900 A.D.) or Middle Irish (ca. 900-1200 A.D.) were given reasonably good access to early medieval Irish poetry through the medium of the translation anthology. Through the efforts of Kuno Meyer, Robin Flower, Gerard Murphy, Frank O'Connor, and others, a good amount of early Irish verse written between the seventh and twelfth centuries was made available to English-language audiences. (1)

But what of translation of this poetry into Modern Irish? Who undertook this task, for what reasons, and to what effect? From the very beginnings of the Gaelic Literary Revival, there had been calls for the translation of medieval Irish literature into Modern Irish. The ordinary reader of Modern Irish would not be able to make much sense of an early medieval Irish story or poem. Thus, at the time, in order to access a substantial portion of the medieval literary tradition, a Modern Irish speaker would generally turn to English translations provided in more or less scholarly editions or to the more literary reworkings provided, again in English, by the likes of Lady Gregory (1902, 1904) and Standish O'Grady (1878-80, 1894). Learning the earlier forms of the language was a daunting task, not one that the average reader of Irish with an interest in the earlier literature could be expected to undertake. This meant that the Irish reader's experience of older Irish texts was essentially mediated by English.

In 1900 the perceived need for translations directly from the ancestral language into Modern Irish was formally acknowledged by the Oireachtas (2) in the institution of a prize for "the best modernized version of a tale or episode from Old or Middle Irish" (O'Leary 1994:233). Philip O'Leary has identified three main rationales for such modernization: (1) an awareness of the linguistic, historical, and cultural value of the early literature; (2) ideological grounds; and (3) a view of medieval Irish literature as providing a model for modern writing in Irish (1994:268-70). It is hard to disentangle the three, and separating them risks reductionism: for example, there is certainly an ideological element to the belief that medieval Irish literature is intrinsically valuable and that it can provide a model for contemporary authors. Speaking of the period 1922-39, O'Leary writes that

   what Gaelic activists wanted was for native scholars to use their
   learning to enrich contemporary Irish reality by restoring to the
   nation an authentic and accessible sense of its own past. In
   practical terms one of the central features of this project would
   be the immediate provision of competent Modern Irish versions,
   translations, of the full range of earlier Irish literature.
   (1998:201)

The translation efforts undertaken on this front were almost exclusively from the prose tradition. Until the mid-twentieth century, verse seems to have been more or less ignored. The great early Irish prose narratives such as Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cuailnge, modern "Cooley") were seen as constitutive of and more essential to Irish national identity than were the religious, personal, and love poems from the same period. Therefore earlier translation efforts were centered on the prose, but by mid-century, with Irish political independence a reality, it was possible to turn to works that could not be so easily pressed into the mold of a heroic national ethos, such as lyric verse. (3)

We will focus here on the translations done by two men, both of them significant figures in the mid-twentieth-century Irish literary world. Tomas O Floinn published two collections of Modern Irish translations from Old and Middle Irish: Athbheo (Alive Again or Revival) (4) in 1955 and Athdhanta (Re-poems) in 1969. Sean O Riordain provided the Modern Irish translations for an edition of a collection of early medieval Irish religious verse entitled Ri na nUile (King of All Things), prepared by Sean S. …