CAN a poem ever really be translated? RS Thomas likens poetic translation to kissing through a handkerchief, while for minority languages — such as Irish — there is the problem of translation subsuming the original, damaging the very linguistic diversity that a poem in Irish implicitly celebrates.
The Cork poet Louis de Paor covers this ground in the introduction to his latest volume, The Brindled Cat and The Nightingale’s Tongue, before positing his own solution: deferral. He writes that he prefers his poems to have a life in Irish before they are translated. “The more Irish language readers read in Irish, without the life support of English, the more they are attuned to the possibilities of the language,” he says.
So, with The Brindled Cat, there are dozens of poems stretching back 20 years, printed side by side with translations by de Paor, Kevin Anderson, Biddy Jenkinson and Mary O’Donoghue. Their life in English can now begin.
But why should a poet fluent in both languages enlist his own crew of translators? “Well,” de Paor answers, “although I am a native speaker of English, I don’t write creatively in English and the translators were able to see possibilities that didn’t occur to me.”
De Paor also admits that he gives in to the temptation to rewrite, rather than translate a poem, a proprietorial indulgence that his translators are loath to take. “They chastised me actually,” he says, “for taking such unconscionable liberties with myself. For me, the difference between the poetry traditions in Irish and English is that Irish allows certain things to be said plainly without losing intensity. Whereas in English, it can seem very flat to be clear and direct, so there is a temptation to tart it up a bit in English. The translators were able to remind that that’s not always the case and that it should be possible to achieve the same effect in English without misrepresenting the Irish.”
It seems unusual that a native English speaker like de Paor would find his poetic voice in an acquired tongue. “I wrote poems in Irish and English when I was 17 or 18,” he says. “They were terrible, but I found that what I was writing in Irish was really me, whereas in English it didn’t sound like me.”
De Paor came to Irish through school, and points to the likes of Sean Ó Ríordáin as formative influences who made him realise that Irish was a language fit for purpose to describe modern life. “Ó Ríordáin was electrifying,” he says. “And we liked him as much as we liked Thomas Kinsella and Liam Ó Flaithearta and Frank O’Connor. And Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne was as strange and compelling as Shakespeare!”
De Paor also cites the late Michael Davitt as a key influence. “To discover there was this poet from Cork city who was writing about this urban and suburban life that was so like mine was a revelation. His points of reference were in pop music; he was influenced by the Beatles and Bob Dylan… It confirmed to me that Irish was as open to the world as English, and adequate to the task of describing the experience of someone in a 20th-century city. And there was such a swagger and a panache to what he wrote.”
Davitt was among a group of Cork poets who founded and published the influential journal Innti. Other poets associated with the magazine were Gabriel Rosenstock, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Liam Ó Muirthile. Innti concerned itself with the introduction of modern themes into Irish-language poetry, and the works of its contributors have entered into school curriculums, a counterblast against the cliché of outmoded syllabi.
“I’ve often tried to work out,” says de Paor, “why so many of these poets came out of Cork, where there is no Irish-speaking suburb or street. There’s no community associated with Irish speaking in the city. And yet the city produced Seán Ó Ríordáin in the 1950s, Seán Ó Tuama in the ’60s, Michael Davitt and Liam Ó Muirthile in the ’70s, Colm Breathnach in the ’80s. Even now there are new poets in Cork still writing in Irish. It really is extraordinary.”
De Paor excludes himself form his list, but he is a true bard of Cork, the city forming a stage for some of his stark images, as in the pathetic fallacy of these lines from the poem Corcach, in which he imagines a river raining from the sky on French’s Quay and drowned dogs washed out to sea:
The format of The Brindled Cat helps the reader along in such poems, offering a bridge between the English and the Irish, a widening of the door for readers who maybe haven’t been so assiduous in keeping up the language after school. It’s also a concession to UK readers; the book being published by Bloodaxe is something of a coup for De Paor.
“It’s a big step forward for me to have a publisher from Britain,” he says. “I think it might be a first for an Irish-language poet. It gives me access to an audience beyond what I have reached.”
The reader is invited to brave the Irish versions, while leaning on the English versions, which tack close to their originals, but are beautiful in their own right — capturing de Paor’s knack for plain speaking that is never merely banal. There are surprises for the reader, in the discovery of unusual approximations between the two languages. Place names are, of course, an obvious example. We find Cork’s Grand Parade rendered as Sraid an Chapaill Bui.
There is a challenge to the anglophone reader in such discoveries — how much are we willfully forgetting if we choose not to read or speak Irish? Are we neglecting a path into a deeper understanding of this country’s past? As an academic, de Paor’s answer is a resounding, ‘yes we are’. He writes with an awareness that he is standing in the long shadow of Irish, one that covers far more of the lived experience of this country, than the newcomer tongue English.
“Ninety per cent or more of our lived historical experience has been though the Irish language,” he says. “English has no direct access to that experience. It can only translate it. I think part of our unease with Irish is that it makes us feel foreign in our first language, and nobody likes to feel foreign at home. But we are at least partly estranged, remote from a significant part of ourselves, if we insist on being confined to English. Pre-Famine Irish-speaking Ireland and post-Famine English-speaking Ireland are two different worlds. I can’t go back there, but as someone who has learned Irish, I can at least try to get closer to that past without which we are disconnected, disinherited of what is legitimately and uniquely ours.”