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Raiders and Settlers

Clíona Ní Ríordáin

The Coast Road, by Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, Gallery Press, 120 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1852356903

The Coast Road is a landmark publication in the literary career of Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh. It brings together a selection of poems previously published by Coiscéim: Péacadh (Germination) (2008) and Tost agus Allagar (Silence and Disputation) (2016) in a single volume issued by Gallery Press. In keeping with the traditions of a bilingual format, the original poems figure on the left-hand page and the translations on the right. Two poems benefit from a double-translation: “Bóin Dé”, translated twice by Justin Quinn, and “Irrintzina”, rendered in English by both Peter Sirr and Billy Ramsell.

Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh’s poetry, cosseted and curated within the pages of a Gallery volume, is a lovely thing. We witness the variety of her compositional talent. Her poems move between the traditional and the modern, drawing inspiration from the Irish language tradition, with a poem such as “Mac a Leanna”, and its nod to “Bean a Leanna”, or again in “Ceathrúintí na n-Éan”, a poem which echoes “Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin”, the plaintive poem of disillusionment written by Máire Mhac an tSaoi. Yet “Ceathrúintí na n-Éan” also manages to summon up Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s versatile mer-women via Ní Ghearbhuigh’s swan-woman (éan-bhean), while reminding us also of the legend of the Children of Lir. The lines are filled with powerful assonances, and chillingly violent images, that both fascinate and horrify the reader. Ní Ghearbhuigh is also keen to ensure that the language is large enough to encompass jazz, New York, the French tongue, and, in a poem like the award-winning “Deireadh na Feide”, she reminds us of the fragility of the language in which she chooses to make her literary life.

Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh’s poems have been transported into English by no fewer than thirteen translators. One, Michael Coady, translates a single poem (“Eye of the Needle”). Others, like Peter Fallon, Alan Gillis, Billy Ramsell and David Wheatley, translate five poems each. There are also translations by women poets – Vona Groarke, Medhb McGuckian and Michelle O’Sullivan. Lurking in the background, with two translations to his name, is Paul Muldoon, conveyor par excellence into English of the poems of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Such a variety of voices invites invidious comparisons. By what yardstick should one measure the translations? Should one invoke that hoary old chestnut that torments all reviewers of poetry in translation: how faithful are the poet-translators (the category is vital here) to the poetic voice of Ní Ghearbhuigh? Can they be classified as “raiders” or “settlers”, to borrow Seamus Heaney’s terminology?

The strength of the volume lies in the absence of a definitive response. The poets do as they please, and adopt the strategy that suits their purpose. This laissez-faire approach is exemplified in Justin Quinn’s double translation of “Bóin Dé”. The first “Ladybird” is a respectful copy of the original. It follows the syntax and poetic structure of Ní Ghearbhuigh’s three-line stanzas, coaxing the readers back to the Irish originals, lip-reading the other language with us, and for us, in an agreeable and entirely successful companionship. The second “Ladybird”, however, has taken flight, in what Ciaran Carson has termed a “fetch”. The poem is compressed within the walls of the sonnet and it flutters enchantingly, in a display of virtuoso end-rhymes, showing nonetheless that the bóin dé has kept her spots in this linguistic operation.

Michelle O’Sullivan’s approach to the translation is one of compression. In “Bee-keeper” she distils the elongated original into a glassy sonnet-like structure. The isolated final line reminds us that the buzz of the original may not always be heard though the glass of translation. Alan Gillis is brave enough to reproduce the villanelle of “Grasse Matinée” in a very accomplished version of the original; although the feminine rhymes in “-aste” in English lack the satisfying orotundity of the Irish rhymes in “-all”.

David Wheatley’s sprightly translations capture the essential whimsy of a poem like “Ionsaí na Bé”. Both the poem and its translation strike the reader as an intellectual gambol through the territory inhabited by that other poetic duo of poet and translator, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Paul Muldoon, in a poem like “An Crann”/“As for the Quince”. “Ionsaí na Bé” is gleeful in its evocation of the fairies, and Wheatley’s accompanying “bucklepping” across the linguistic barriers captures the playfulness of the poem. And of course there is Muldoon himself, who in “Emigrant” chooses to erase the Hispanic identity of the migrant of the original poem, Englishing the two Spanish lines into a jaunty rhyming couplet, with a neat winning rhyme on “enough” and “muff”.

Such a publication as The Coast Road also raises the issue of the translational gesture of storage; the well-mannered curing of the corncrake (to quote Biddy Jenkinson) and its pickling into English, the language which Pascale Casanova has termed the all-encroaching langue mondiale. Yet the approach adopted in this volume, with its multiple translators, ensures that no one voices substitutes itself for the voice of the poet, no one translator drowns out the original. The interval between the publication of the volumes in Irish and the translations has allowed the work to be heard in its own time, with its own lilt, on its own frequency. Peter Fallon is be commended for reminding the English-language public that Irish-language poetry continues to talk back, obdurately, enduringly, enchantingly, as we can see in the very successful enterprise that is The Coast Road.

1/4/2017
Clíona Ní Ríordáin is professor of English at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, where she teaches translation studies and literature. Her most recent book is Jeune Poésie d’Irlande: les poètes du Munster 1960-2015, (Éditions Illador, 2015) co-edited and co-translated with Paul Bensimon. 

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