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A Bird Pipes Up

Billy Mills

My News for You: Irish Poetry 600 – 1200, edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires, Shearsman Books, 240 pp, £12.95. ISBN 978-1848614338

The corpus of Early Irish poetry is widely recognised as being both the earliest and in many ways the most interesting body of medieval European vernacular verse. It’s a tradition that has been well-served by translators in the century since Kuno Meyer’s Ancient Irish Poetry appeared in 1913, and such publications as the translations in Robin Flower’s Poems and Translations (1931), Gerard Murphy’s Early Irish Lyrics (1956), the first section of Kings, Lords and Commons (1959) by Frank O’Connor and A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry by O’Connor and David Greene (1967) have served to keep Early Irish poetry in the public mind.

These translator/editors have adopted a variety of approaches to presenting this verse to a general readership, but on the whole they have been surprisingly unreflective with regard to the act of translation and the relationship between version and original. Meyer included no originals and his sole comment on his methodology was to say “[i]n my renderings, I have made no attempt at either rhythm or rhyme; but I have printed the stanzas so as to show the structure of the poem”. In other words, he offers prose versions broken up by stanza without any justification. Murphy offers the original texts and a full academic apparatus along with prose versions he describes as being “as literal as is consistent with the writing of normal English”, again without attempting to justify or explain his decision. Greene and O’Connor in the Treasury include the Irish texts, lightly annotated with no glossary, and offer no insight into the rationale behind their prose versions at all.

Flower and O’Connor (solo) translate as poets, into verse and with no originals or annotation (although O’Connor does include explanatory headnotes for many of the poems he translates). Both men translate into regular, rhymed accentual stanzas, but with no explanation of their working approach. It is simply assumed that rhymed iambics are what constitute “poetry” in English and are therefore the appropriate medium for translation.

Geoffrey Squires’s My News for You is the latest addition to this tradition of keeping our earliest indigenous poetry alive for new generations of readers. Squires is a highly regarded poet and the author of a much admired volume of translations of the ghazals of Hafez, which won the 2014 Lois Roth Persian Translation Prize. In this book, he brings both his poet’s ear and his translator’s instincts to bear on a sample of the corpus of Early Irish verse.

In constructing this volume, Squires seeks to match the best of what has gone before. The book is not bilingual; however, five of the originals are included in an appendix. He also includes extensive notes that tease out both the complex contexts and linguistic difficulties of the texts he is working with. He is significantly more explicit than any of his predecessors in spelling out his approach to translation, which is “to make of these originals an equivalent poem in English”. While he does spend some time discussing Early Irish metrics, he is even more interested in how syntactic and grammatical differences between the two languages influence the kinds of decisions that face an English-language translator.

Chief among these is that Irish is primarily a verb-subject-object (VSO) language, while English is primarily subject-verb-object (SVO); think back to your school days and “tháinig mé ar scoil” (came I to school). This, combined with the fact that English is relatively analytic, Irish relatively synthetic, means that the translator will almost invariably need more words and syllables than the Irish original required.

Squires’s solution is to translate each poem in the way that works best for that poem, rather than to a single template or model. Consequently, some poems are rendered in more or less regular quatrains, occasionally rhyming, others into a kind of syllabic/accentual free verse where parachesis parallels the sonic patternings of the originals. One way of looking at how this works is to compare Squires’s rendering of the first two stanzas of one of the best-known of the poems he translates with earlier versions. The poem is “Messe ocus Pangur Bán” (it is worth noting that Squires omits the titles that most editors append to these poems without foundation) and the original reads:

Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fri saindán:
bíth a menma-sam fri seilgg,
mu menma céin im saincheirdd

Caraim-se fos, ferr cach clú,
oc mu lebrán, léir ingnu;
ní foirmtech frimm Pangur Bán:
caraid cesin a maccdán.

Flower renders these lines in what’ reads like a twee version of Revival Pre-Raphaelitism:

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
’Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
’Tis  to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

Murphy’s prose gives the sense, but he allows the word order of the original to lead him into occasional syntactic infelicities:

I and white Pangur practise each of us his special art: his mind is set on hunting, my mind on my special craft.
I love (it is better than all fame) to be quiet beside my book, diligently pursuing knowledge. White Pangur does not envy me: he loves his childish craft.

Frank O’Connor’s Kings version is more satisfactory; the slightly awkward rhymes seem somehow closer to the feel of the Irish, but “learning ardent” strikes entirely the wrong note:

Each of us pursues his trade,
I and Pangur my comrade,
His whole fancy on the hunt,
And mine for learning ardent.

More than fame I love to be
Among my books and study,
Pangur does not grudge me it,
Content with his own merit.

Squires reimagines the poem as a quiet free-verse meditation:

My cat and I are of one mind
he hunts mice but I too
hunt in my own way

indifferent to repute
I like nothing better
than to be seated quietly
at my books
diligently pursuing the truth
he is not put out because
he has his own small pursuits

The apposite use of Latinate diction (indifferent/repute/diligently/pursuits) serves to underscore the dignity of the monk’s position and occupation while patterns of assonance and alliteration serve as an English equivalent of the phonic patterning of the original text. Sometimes these patterns are local to a single line:

My cat and I are of one mind

At other times they run over multiple lines: repute/pursuing/truth/put/pursuits.

In addition to the sound patterns he deploys, Squires uses parallel constructions beginning with “I” and “he” to mark the similarity in difference that is at the poem’s core. These patterns are not accidental, and neither is the fact that they exist within structures that are as much “normal English” as anything Murphy could have aspired to, with no intrusive archaisms or inversions. The result is a version that achieves Squires’s ambition to make an equivalent in English that is a poem in its own right.

Murphy divides the poems he collected into monastic and secular categories, but the reality is that all the poems of the period, even those based on the mythological cycles, are suffused with a combination of both pagan and Christian sentiment in what Squires describes as a “symbiotic culture ... in which the two strands had become subtly intertwined”. The opening poem, “Over the seas comes Adzehead”, is an abusive curse against the unwelcome early Christian interlopers, but is collected in the Tripartite Life of Patrick and transcribed by a Christian monk. In “Pangur Bán”, the clear “moral” of the poem is that both monk and cat are fulfilling their designated roles in the divine providence; they are of one mind inasmuch as they exercise the crafts designated to them in the mind of God. This religious underpinning is true even of the short nature poems that are, perhaps, the works that resonate most with a contemporary audience.

Meyer was the first scholar to compare these poems with the Japanese tradition in the introduction to Ancient Irish Poetry: “Like the Japanese, the Celts were always quick to take an artistic hint; they avoid the obvious and the commonplace; the half-said thing to them is dearest.” To this Squires adds a caution against calling the Early Irish poems of the natural world “nature poems”, particularly the seasonal pieces, as they work “cumulatively, capturing not a single experience but the typical, essential features of the season”. It could be argued that this reinforces the similarity with the Zen-inspired haiku; in both traditions nature is viewed objectively, and the poetry is an attempt to capture a process or archetype in words, and not Romantic self-expression. The pathetic fallacy has little place in these poems. Squires catches the tone perfectly in his version of the poem generally known as “The Blackbird by Belfast Loch” (number 64 in his arrangement):

A little bird pipes up
from the tip of a bright yellow bush

sending out its call
over the estuary

a blackbird on a thick yellow branch.

My News for You presents translations of eighty-one poems or part poems, along with comprehensive contextual and textual notes, a glossary, a useful bibliography and, as already mentioned, original texts for five poems. The balance between accessibility to that strange beast, the general reader of poetry and those who require a bit more scaffolding is met nicely. The translations are consistently interesting and in the vast majority of cases Squires meets his objective of creating new, equivalent poems in Irish. There is always some question around the best, or perhaps the least-worst, way of translating poetry. I take the view that translating verse into prose leaves out almost everything that makes the original worth reading in the first instance. In these versions, Squires brings poetry to his versions of these important pieces in a way that few have tried and fewer still have managed.

1/9/2016

Billy Mills is a poet, editor, and critic. He was born in Dublin in 1954. He spent some years in Spain and the UK and currently lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardPressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009, and Imaginary Gardens and Loop Walks by hardPressed poetry in 2012 and 2013 respectively. His other writings on Coffey can be found in Other Edens and on his Elliptical Movements blog. 

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Niall Ó Ciosáin’s essay from 2015 on the contrasting historical fates of the Catholic church and the Irish language, “Gaelic and Catholic?”. Here is a short extract:

If we look back farther, over three or four centuries, we find that the fortunes of these two cultural elements have also been quite different, though their starting points were very similar. In 1600, before the final destruction of the Gaelic social and political order, the vast majority of the population of Ireland shared two features that marked them out from the culture and practice of the state in which they lived, and the state from them. These were religion and language, Catholicism and Irish. By 1900 the picture was very different. The Catholic church was a far more powerful force than it had been in 1600, with near universal rates of practice among its members, control over a wide range of the institutions of civil society, considerable influence in parliamentary and local politics and substantial wealth. Irish, in stark contrast, had relatively few speakers, next to no presence in politics and public life and was concentrated in peripheral regions and among some of the poorest sections of the population.

In some ways this contrast is surprising when we bear in mind a few of the practicalities as well as the philosophical difficulties of cultural change. Religious conversion would have involved changing from one variety of Christianity to another, and arguably entailed less of a cognitive shift than a change of language did. There were widespread and rapid conversions to different forms of Protestantism throughout Europe during the sixteenth century, and in some areas the population later reconverted to Catholicism. In Ireland, there were those who converted from Catholicism to Protestantism and occasionally back again, whether landowner and lawyer in the eighteenth century or starving poor in the nineteenth. Such rapid transitions are not normally possible in the realm of language, and language shift is almost always slow and final. Moreover, changing a spoken language needs to be a collective process as well as an individual one – it is not possible for an individual to switch languages unless many others do so as well. There are of course very strong collective elements in religious belief and practice, and there was frequent community opposition to conversion. Even so, purely individual conversion is conceivable, and indeed Protestant religions have always emphasised individual conversion. Individual language shift is much less likely.

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