Turning Inside and Out: Translating and Irish 1950-2000

By Titley, Alan | Yearbook of English Studies, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Turning Inside and Out: Translating and Irish 1950-2000


Titley, Alan, Yearbook of English Studies


There is no need to recount the history of the wheel when writing about the invention of the motor car, but there is no harm in reminding ourselves that the history of translation in Irish is almost as old as literacy in the language. Versions of Lucan's Pharsalia, The Destruction of Thebes, the Aeneid, and the Odyssey were being written by the ninth century. (1) This tradition of translations from the classics continued with vigour until at least late into the fifteenth century (2) and was followed by equally copious translations of romantic material from English and from French unto the seventeenth century. There were also, of course, many translations of medical, philosophical, scientific, and religious works until the great rupture of the sixteen hundreds. (3)

This is to say, that Irish intellectual and literary discourse was part of the greater world in that unselfconscious way in which people accept themselves as normal until it is forced upon them that they are not. Conquest implies the non-application of normality to the conquered and when translation began to emerge in the late eighteenth century, it appeared as a revelation of the native to the uppers. This was particularly true because translation was going the other way. For a thousand years, the literature of the world was being translated into Irish. From the eighteenth century it was being translated out into English and other tongues, demonstrating that the power relations had entirely reversed. Translation is always a reflection of the power relations between languages and peoples. Walk into any bookshop in an English-speaking country and the number of translations from any other language, apart from old classics and the occasional exotic choice, will be between minimal and zilch. Browse in a bookshop in, for example, a Scandinavian or a Balkan country, and the number of translations, particularly from English, smacks you in the gob. I have never been in any bookshop in any country in any continent where I have not seen a translation of Frank McCourt's execrable classic Angela's Ashes. The only consolation is that the translation must surely be better than the original.

When the Irish revival came about--that broad general movement which energized the country and resulted in the Irish Free State--there was a sense in which it was believed that a modern literature and a new society could be brought about only by the translation of the works of the world into Irish. In those early years of the revival, classics such as Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe were translated into Irish, and indeed into an Irish which was the most Irish of Irishes, so that you would never suppose that the sun shone ever upon La Mancha, nor that Crusoe's island was not Cape Clear without its inhabitants.

These examples were the exemplars of the project of translation which An Gum, (4) the publishing branch of the Department of Education, followed since its foundation in 1926. An Gum set about providing reading material for the new Irish-speaking public which was being created by independence and by the infusion of literacy in Irish throughout Ireland. In theory it seemed like a wonderful scheme. It paid reasonably generous money for writers to churn out classics in Irish, and most of the prominent Irish literary figures of the first generation of the new Irish Free State were involved with the scheme. Mairtin O Cadhain translated that most garrulous of writers, Charles J. Kickham, but bested him in loquacity; Seosamh Mac Grianna matched Joseph Conrad over many rounds; and Sean O Ruadhain de-Victorianized Dickens, as far as that could be done. Popular garbage was also produced, like the sleuthish stories of Freeman Wills Crofts and E. C. Bentley. While much cynicism has gathered around the work of An Gum, it cannot be denied that they did provide valuable reading material of both a high and a low order for the new Ireland, and they also provided training in literature which became exponentially valuable in the decades that followed its golden-paper age. …

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