Ceaití Ní Bheildiúin is an Irish-language poet whose Rogha Dánta / Selected Poems entitled Lig don nGiorria Suí / Let the Hare Sit, with English translations by Paddy Bushe, was recently published by Dedalus Press. Here she considers what it means to write in Irish, and to see her poems translated into English (her mother tongue), as well as many other aspects of the fascinating and complex relationship between the two languages.
How is it for you to be writing poetry in Irish, a minority tongue and a language which is not your first language? Conas a théann sé seo i bhfeidhm ar do phroiseas scríbhneoireachta?
I will answer this first question in Irish.
Sea. Gaeilge is ea an chré as a mhúnlaím mo dhánta. Tá sé deacair an chúis do seo a mhíniú ina hiomlán agus mé tógtha le Béarla amháin. Aithním go maith an bhéim atá ar Ghaeilge mar mhionteanga, go háirithe nuair a thagann sé chuig cúrsaí foilseacháin. Ach, chun an fhírinne a rá, fad a bhím i mbun mo chuid chumadóireachta, ní bhím ag cuimhneamh uirthi mar mhionteanga ach go bhfuil sí ina dara teanga agam. Trí Bhéarla amháin a bhí mo shamhlaíocht ag oibriú nó gur bhogas go Corca Dhuibhne im’ dhaichidí. Ansin a chromas chun scríobh as Gaeilge. Thuigeas go maith mar sin, gur i ndara teanga a bhíos ag saothrú ón tús.
Éilíonn an Ghaeilge am sa bhreis orm mar go maireann neamhchinnteacht ionam i gcónaí mar gheall ar mo líofacht sa teanga. Ach ní shamhlaím go mbeinn níos siúrálta ná seo in aon mhórtheanga a bheadh ina dara teanga agam. Fad a bhíonn dán á shaothrú agam, bailím chugam an réimse focal agus foclóra a bhaineann leis an ábhar, chun go mbeinn ábalta iad a láimhseáil le solúbthacht. Bíonn gá agam le foclóirí níos mó sa dara teanga ná sa chéad teanga – chomh maith le téacsanna údarásacha ón litríocht ar amanta, chun brí, úsáid agus litríú na bhfocal a thomhas dom féin agus a chinntiú. Ní bhraithim ar aon mhíbhuntáiste ó thaobh bheith ag scríobh i nGaeilge mar mhionteanga. Tá saibhreas neamhghnáthach i mbéaloideas na Gaeilge atá bailithe agus cláraithe chomh maith le saibhreas i gcanóin litríocht na Gaeilge, idir fhilíocht agus phróis, saibhreas nach mbíonn ar fáil i gach mionteanga. Ní beag an achmhainn iad seo don scríbhneoir. Foilsiúchán is ea scéal eile. Ní féidir braith ar airgead le dealramh, nó d’aon saghas, a thuilleamh as filíocht i mionteanga. Níl na léitheoirí ann.
Fuaireas mé féin báite i nGaolainn na háite tar éis bogadh go dtí Iarthar Chiarraí. Bhí tréimhsí ann tar éis mo theachta anseo ina raibh sraitheanna cheardlanna filíochta ar siúl. Bhí an chéad cheardlann trí Ghaeilge agam le Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Thaibhsigh mo chéad dánta chugam ansin trí cheo na neamhchinnteachta, gan líofacht ná siúráltacht sa teanga agam. Stiúraigh Louis de Paor ceardlann eile a fhreastlaíos air agus ina dhiaidh sin bhí sraith de cheardlanna le Bríd Ní Mhóráin ar siúl. Tamaillín ina dhiaidh sin arís, bhí Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill thar n-ais agus í ina stiúrthóir ar shraith cheardlann a lean ar feadh bhliain go leith. Bhíos san áit cheart ag an am ceart chun an Ghaeilge a phósadh isteach lem’ iarrachtaí scríbhneoireachta. Is dóigh liom gurb í an Ghaeilge a bhí dom’ sheoladh thar tairseach an neamh-chomhfheasa agus go raibh buntáiste ann dom bheith ag scríobh i dteanga a bhí úr dom. Bhraitheas leochaileacht sa Ghaeilge féin, a thuigeas a bheith oiriúnach don leachaileacht a bhí ionam ag an am, dea-thréith inti a bhí oiriúnach chun mo mhothúcháin a iompar.
An cuimhin leat i mbolg na hoíche
gur thánamar ar phram
bán, díomhaoin, ar thaobh an ché?
Pram ramhar cuartha den seandéanamh
is spócaí fé.
– ‘An Pram’ (An Teorainn Bheo, Coiscéim 2007)
And with the publishing of your poetry, are there particular considerations when it’s in a minority language? Cad iad na gnéithe le cur san áireamh agus tú ag foilsiú i mionteanga?
When composing a poem in Irish, I don’t think about its publication. I more imagine, if I think about it at all, that I’m communing with somebody who has an understanding of Gaelic, someone who’ll grasp what the poems are about. It’s when I’m editing and preparing for publishing that all my angst relating to who the final reader of these poems might be, flares up.
There are considerations for those of us who publish works in Irish which don’t arise for someone publishing in English or in any other major language. Firstly, when one writes in a minority tongue it means a limited readership. The publishing of poetry as opposed to prose also makes for a restricted readership, making publishing a doubly compromised proposition for the Irish language poet. Monolingual editions of original Irish language poetry find their market. Indeed they sell well among certain interested and supportive communities. Some Irish language poets and publishers are content to work within this sphere. How to augment this readership has nevertheless become an increasingly pressing question for others. Broadening the appeal of minority language poetry by making it available in a second language offers a way forward. The chief question that arises then relates to whether or not Irish language poems should have English translations published with the original poems. There is a growing demand for such translations to be provided alongside Gaelic poetry. It does facilitate a greater audience and readership. I was for a long time without translations and learned that a lack of them limits the range of the poems I could draw on for many publications and reading events. While many appreciate the access that English translations allow them to Gaelic poems, it also raises fears. Will the Gaelic itself fall further into the shadows of the major language when what we need is that light be thrown on the Gaelic and on the way of thinking which it is deeply rooted and inherent in the language itself.
I’m not a monoglot. Why can’t I provide translations with each of my poems and be a poet in two languages? I‘ve been asked this particular question more than once. I feel expected to conjure up English translations of my poems without a problem. Gaelic poets each react differently to this pressure. We can have certain insecurities about our work when it’s suggested that it needs the support of another language. It can feel threatening. And providing a translation in another language is a daunting proposition for many poets. Keeping the Irish language fairly and squarely in the picture, by presenting the Gaelic poem alongside its translation on the page, goes someway towards holding the ground for the Irish poem. Line-for-line style translations can be very much appreciated by readers with an interest or a fluency in the minority tongue and can enhance for them the experience of the poem. Some poets work bilingually, they themselves translating between the languages as they go, creating conjoined-twin poems, Irish and English. For others it is how to summon up translations. For my part, I have translated a few of my poems to English. It really does take time. Often longer than the writing of the original poem. And my translations only lead me to feel insecure in two languages instead of one. I worry as to how they sit as poems rather than being able to abandon them as translations made to facilitate the access to poems. Unfortunately, readers often judge a translation for its poetic merit and reflect that onto the original poem. Yet, if we do go for it, I know that translation to English opens up a whole new universe for a poem to live in.
Is it disconcerting for you to find your thoughts brought over to another language? An gcuireann sé isteach ort do smaointe bheith aistrithe go teanga eile?
Tugann an t-aistriúchán spléachadh eile dom ar mo dhánta féin. Cuireann seo sceitimíní orm.
I have found being translated exciting – even though I was wild with doubt and uncertainty about that possibility until recently. I’m now very pleasantly surprised by the translations of my poems by others. They mean that I read my own work afresh. Sometimes I catch a stirring of the Irish poem under an English translation and recognise that the Irish poem is alive in the skin of the English one. This can all be so reaffirming.
The option to work with a person who is both a translator and a poet, with a fluency in both Irish and English, always sounded to me like the ideal thing. I finally did get this option and it has worked out well in my case. I’ve two volumes of poems out there now which are presented bilingually. A good relationship with my translators has allowed for wholesome discussion around the intentions of my original writing and the scope for various interpretations. These discussions have meant that my involvement and consent have been drawn into the translations in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling dispossessed of the poems but rather enriched by the effect of the mirroring of them. The presentation of English translations alongside my Irish poems has meant that each original poem is platformed in a new light. Line for line transpositions are in the main what have been provided. While not always possible, when these work they give a transparency to the relationship of the two versions of the poem. I’ve found new resonances in my own work through these translations.
It’s true that not everything can be carried over to another language. There are losses. But I find that the gains can be more than compensatory. Translation can add a new perspective, even a new layer of meaning, or give an aspect of the poem a shine. If this turns out to be ‘overcolouring’ the original it can be reined in – especially where there’s a cooperative process between translator and poet in progress. And if translation doesn’t provide the very same experience as in Gaelic, it should provide a parallel one. The process of translation can also be a means of investigating a poem’s integrity and credibility. It has the potential to question the original, to identify flaws. It may, on the other hand, fully endorse it. While I can worry that a translation will show up a weakness in the original poem, once a poem is endorsed, it’s really helpful. I feel verified as a poet by the recent translations of my work. I also feel more certain that there’s no betrayal of the Gaelic tongue with these interpretations for a new readership. I see that the English translation can be an invitation to visit the original poem. A call to those apprehensive but curious about Irish. As Meg Bateman has said, “Translation can be a door ajar.”
It was Paddy Bushe, both an Irish language and an English language poet as well as an experienced translator, who made the English translations for ‘Let the Hare Sit / Lig don nGiorria Suí’, Dedalus Press 2022. This comprises a selection of poems drawn from my four original Irish language collections (published by Coiscéim) and is presented as a bilingual edition. Through this translator’s consultations with me I found trust in the process.
Fo-amhrán thíos fúm
sa ghorm dhorcha, faoi ghloine
a leánn. Leá a scuabann uainn
na huile nasc idir chuimnhe is an saol
– ‘Gúna mo Mháthar’
There is an undertone of song
in the deep blue, under glass
that dissolves. Dissolves all
the ties of life and memory.
– ‘My Mother’s Dress’
Another very positive translation experience for me has been with the translator David Knowles, and this has also culminated in a publication, ‘Translating Brandon Mountain / Agallamh leis an gCnoc’. Again, it was the cooperation between translator and poet which yielded a more than satisfying result, this time in a short selection for a limited edition by Ponc Press 2022, printed on a Heidelberg printing press.
Díríonn siad a gclochamharc
i dtreo na gaoithe i gcaitheamh an lae
ag ligean don ngiorria
’s don gcaora stánadh isteach tríothu
go dtí an taobh eile.
– ‘Súile faoin Spéir’
[They]… pan their stony gaze
to the daytime winds
letting the tranced hare
and the statued sheep gaze through
to the fabulous elsewhere.
– ‘Eyes to the Sky’
This has all confirmed for me that a good translator will find and reflect the sound and sense of a poem and create a parallel realm within a translation. I think we must trust translators and allow them to be brilliant, knowing that the translation of any poem to another language anticipates a new, and sometimes eager, audience.