Maria Tymoczko, ‘Retranslating The Tain’, [review] in Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 2009), q.pp.

Source: Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 2009), via q.pp. Find Articles [online].

A common reason for retranslating a classic is that a publishing firm wants the text in their list. Penguin obviously has a motive for publishing a translation of Tain Bo Cuailnge (hereafter TBC) which began to assume its canonical role in Irish culture at the end of the eleventh century and which has been the recognized centerpiece of early Irish literature in translation for more than a century. Penguin has an interest in winning some of the market share held by Thomas Kinsella’s The Tain, published to acclaim in 1969 by Dolmen Press and reprinted by Oxford University Press in 1970; kept in print by Oxford (currently $19.95), Kinsella’s version has been the standard translation of TBC and its ancillary foretales ever since. Penguin was also motivated to secure a translation of TBC as a companion volume to the Penguin selection of mythological and Ulster Cycle tales translated by Jeffrey Gantz under the title Early Irish Myths and Sagas, published in 1981. Moreover, early Irish literature is a good complement to Penguin’s investment in English-language classics of Irish literature. It should come as no surprise then that Ciaran Carson indicates in the acknowledgments of his new translation of TBC, also called The Tain, that Penguin Classics commissioned his version. Carson was ideally positioned for this commission - a native speaker of Irish, a poet, a northerner, and an experienced translator of medieval literature (The Inferno).

A mercantile motive for retranslation rarely stands alone, however. In addition a retranslation has motivations that are cultural, ideological, and political in the broadest sense. And though the commercial value of a translation is certainly important, the quality of a translation is generally assessed primarily by its cultural and ideological values. Because of the asymmetries between any pair of languages and cultures, no translator can capture all features of a source text. Translators must therefore make choices and those choices determine how the target text is constructed and how the source text and its culture are represented. A translator’s choices involve interpretation, making translation one form of rewriting (along with criticism, editing, and so forth), as André Lefevere demonstrated in Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame (1992). One can therefore examine a translation to see what vision the translator had of the source text, what the translator is communicating to the target audience about the text and its culture, how that communication is ideologically motivated, how the text is manipulated, and how the cultural and ideological motivations are instrumentalized in the word-by-word choices of the translated text itself.

Prima facie it’s reasonable to look for ideological factors in a retranslation of TBC at this point in time, whatever disclaimers Carson as translator might give about ideology. Carson’s work is the first translation of TBC by a northerner in Ireland since Mary Hutton’s 1907 translation, also called The Tain. Hutton, a member of the Belfast Gaelic League and a teacher of early Irish, presented Irish heroic literature in the guise of long-line verse epic with Homeric overtones. The translational silence from the north is clearly in part political, a product of partition, for TBC is the most famous story of the Ulster Cycle and Cú Chulainn is the chief heroic figure of northern Ireland. The political valence of the retranslation is heightened by the fact that Cú Chulainn was appropriated as an emblem by both Catholics and Protestants during the Troubles, figured in mural art, and used to incite “heroic” violence on both sides of the conflict.

There are elements of cultural politics behind this translation as well. During the 1970s and 1980s, as I remember from conversations with poets such as John Montague, Cú Chulainn was not in good odor among many artists in Northern Ireland: Cú Chulainn was seen as too “masculine,” too violent, and hence too compromised. Accordingly, Kinsella was criticized by some for having translated the heroic materials, it is no accident that Seamus Heaney’s Sweeney Astray is a translation of Buile Suibne, the story of a man who runs away from war. Carson’s translation indicates we are now well past those attitudes.

The cultural politics of Carson’s translation run deeper yet, beyond the obvious relevance to the Troubles. The heightened violence and the political conflict of the Troubles energized artists in Northern Ireland, of which Field Day and its writers, performers, and” publications are the most conspicuous sign. In addition, of course, there is the Nobel Prize awarded to Seamus Heaney. The spotlight shone on the writers of Northern Ireland deservedly, in part because of the timid response to the Troubles on the part of citizens and artists in the Republic.

A somewhat less savoury element of the cultural politics behind Carson’s work is what we might call the Irish culture wars since the 1970s: an implicit and often explicit attempt to oust the writers of the Republic from their preeminent position as the voices of Ireland. Many critics from the North during the last forty years have made a rather concerted attack on Yeats, for example, citing his conservative politics, despite the fact that most of the Northern Irish writers were given their start under British programs promoting regional British writing. Joyce, too, has been deformed by such discourses into a figure who eschewed nationalist views and the Irish cultural tradition. In this light Carson’s translation represents a reappropriation of early Irish literature for Northern Ireland and can be seen as competing with Kinsella’s translation in more than a commercial sense. It can be compared to the translational gesture behind Heaney’s Beowulf, which stands in part as an appropriation of English heroism for the (Northern) Irish.

It is a momentous event in any culture when a foundational text is retranslated - whether that text is a new contemporary English version of Beowulf or a Modern French translation of La Chanson de Roland. Translation of such a classic becomes a form of reconceptualizing the nation and retelling the narrative of nation, however much a translator might like to evade that burden. It is for this reason that such retranslations are usually greated with both fanfare and scrutiny by critics.

These are some of the contexts that can be used for evaluating Carson’s version of The Tain, but we should note first that translating TBC is daunting. Its content is extravagant, its form is intricate, its language is difficult, and there is no definitive “original” text to translate (deconstructive skepticism about the standing of “originals” is compounded in the case of early Irish literature because so many texts demonstrably go back to earlier versions). Translating TBC requires formidable competencies in Old Irish (or serious collaboration with a scholar in the field), unless the translator intends merely to rewrite an existing English translation, say one of the translations by Cecile O’ Rahilly accompanying her editions of the two early versions of TBC (”Tain Bo Cualnge “from the Book of Leinster, 1967; Tain Bo Cuailnge: Recension I 1976) or the translation by Kinsella. O’ Rahilly’s texts are the standard editions of the early Irish versions of TBC. Because each version has its virtues and its deficits, a translator must make choices at the outset about what to use as the source text. The earliest version from the end of the eleventh century (found in Lebor na hUidre and the Yellow Book of Lecan) shows clear signs of being a pastiche of elements dating from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, and it is acephalous, beginning in medias res; it has, however, its age to recommend it, as well as an appealing immediacy and intensity. The later version is a rewriting from the mid twelfth century found in the Book of Leinster. Though tamer and more turgid, this text is attractive because it is uniform stylistically, and it begins with the so-called “Pillow Talk” episode, which serves as motivation for the main action: the cattle raid on Ulster by “the men of Ireland”, a challenge that CO Chulainn must meet alone because the cursed Ulstermen are suffering the pangs of childbirth.

Among the problems of translating Old Irish into English are those of register (Old Irish does not map nicely onto English registers and hence at times can seem salacious or crude in translation, for example), repetition (probably a legacy of an esthetic that is oral in origin), inconsistencies and dublets, manuscript errors and uncertainties about meaning, and so forth. This is all compounded by a humorous vein to the narratives, by the violence and roughness of early heroic literature, by the hieratic rather than realistic mode of narrative, and by archaisms that are everywhere evident.

Evaluating Carson’s version of TBC involves attending to all these considerations, linguistic, stylistic, cultural, and ideological. A way to approach the task is through comparison with the early Irish “originals” and with other translations, where the the obvious candidates are those by Kinsella and O’Rahilly. Carson’s version is much easier to read than O’Rahilly’s translations, for she makes little attempt to give literary translations of the two versions, translating all the poems into prose and using locutions that are not always fully idiomatic in English. Like Kinsella, Carson offers a readable translation in vernacular English for a general audience. His language is often lively and even witty: “’It’s true what they say, girl’, said Ailill. ’Well-off woman, wealthy man’s wife’”. He can capture a modern sensibility simultaneously with the ancient one: “not one man in three escaped without a staved head, or a broken leg, or a burst eye, or without being scarred for life in some other Way”. Occasionally his lines hammer you: “Courage has a brutal core.” Carson disambiguates the vast cast of characters well, a characteristic particularly evident in the long series of descriptions that occur at two points in the tale. His treatment of the names is a good combination of maintaining the early spellings of the names and then translating their meanings even more boldly than Kinsella, occasional translation errors notwithstanding: “’I know them,’ said Cú Chulainn. ’Oll and Oichne, Big Man and Little Sprout, two foster-sons of Ailill and Medb.’” As a native speaker of Irish, Carson has an excellent ear for the word play in TBC.

For some readers these aspects of Carson’s work will be memorable, an important consideration for a translation that touches national narrative. Making its early literature memorable serves a country well and memorability is a strong feature of Kinsella’s translation, some of whose locutions (like “warp-spasm” for Cú Chulainn’s heroic distortion) have become by-words for his readers. This is a quality that Carson values and indeed in Carson’s note on his translation he says that without Kinsella’s translation there would be “no public consciousness” of TBC. (This is a statement true perhaps in Northern Ireland and the larger world, but certainly not so in the Republic which has raised its children since 1922 on popularized treatments of the old tales including TBC.)

O’Rahilly’s translations obviously each present a single version of TBC in its entirety and her source text is clear in each case. Carson, however, like Kinsella, makes a pastiche of the two early versions, generally following the early version but adding bits from the twelfth-century version as well. Both translators also omit some elements and rearrange the order of episodes in the early version. In the case of Carson’s retranslation, therefore, one must assess how he has manipulated the early Irish source texts in relation to the choices of Kinsella. There is no single Irish source text that Carson simply translated or that tells the story as Carson has arranged it in his version, unlike, say, Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the source texts are clear.

A major distinction between Carson’s translation and those of his predecessors is that he prioritizes representing the “stylistic heterogeneity” of the early text with close English equivalents: this is where he sets his flag. He represents the early Irish syllabic poetry with short-line usually syllabically symmetrical rhymed poetry matching the stanzaic length of the Irish source and generally showing close formal-equivalence to the source poem; despite the formal constraints Carson set himself, the poetry is generally readable and pleasant. The following are two stanzas from a prophetic vision by the seer Fedelm.

His features are beautiful,
his form pleasing to women -
deadly handsome and youthful
in battle like a dragon.

That same courage can be found
in the famous Blacksmith’s Hound
Cú Chulainn of Muirthemne.
Who this is I do not know,
but this I know for certain -
he stains red his every foe.

Carson’s representation of the cadenced poems (the roscada) is less satisfactory: he represents the short cadenced lines as “prose poetry,” to use his phrase, leaving gaps between the lines; the result is long lines of English broken into seemingly arbitrary phrases which are difficult to read and unappealing to the eye.

play chess and draughts face to thee
with king and queen the field prepared
 and eager
for armies in iron companies no
 matter for what
stakes you play I know the game
likewise queens and women true what
 they say
the first fault theirs their sweet
 companionable wrath

Similarly his representations of the later alliterative style of prose (seen particularly in “The Great Slaughter” section) are neither as ornamented nor as over-the-top as the Irish itself.

This was the outfit:
first, the sleek deerskin runic,
soft and light as air,
supple and smoothly tailored
for maximum arm-movement.

Translational constraints have a price. Carson’s poetry is good and pleasant to read. but rarely powerful, moving, or passionate.

Kinsella’s translation is a master of form. He does not attempt to preserve the rhyme of the syllabic poetry, using instead unrhymed stanzas with symmetrical line lengths, alliteration, and off-rhyme. A fluent speaker of Modern Irish, Kinsella has a good ear for Irish and relies on alliteration in much the way the early poetry does; his awareness of the asymmetries between Irish rhyme and English rhyme may also have influenced his choice to translate the poetry to a modern English poetic esthetic eschewing standard rhyme as such. Kinsella’s translations of the same passages quoted above illustrate his approach.

A noble countenance I see, working effect on womenfolk; a young man of sweet colouring; a form dragonish in the fray. His great valour brings to mind Cuchulainn of Murtheimne, the hound of Culann, full of fame. Who he is I cannot tell but I see, now, the whole host coloured crimson by his hand.

Kinsella represents the roscada as short-line imagistic verse in stanzas of irregular length, a choice that is actually closer to the Irish metrics than Carson’s prose poems. Compare Kinsella’s version of the lines above, spoken by Ailill king of Connacht.

You play fidchell and buanbach
 with a king and queen
ruling the game
 their eager armies
in iron companies
 all around them
not even if you win
 can you take my place
I know all
 about queens and women
I lay first fault
 straight at women’s
own sweet swellings
 and loving lust

Likewise Kinsella’s representations of the alliterative style are both closer and more effective than Carson’s attempts, as we see in his version of the same lines Carson renders above.

This war-harness that he wore was: a
skin-soft tunic of stitched deer’s leather,
light as a breath, kneaded supple and
smooth not to hinder his free arm

As one can hear in the last example, Kinsella has a good ear for prose that reads well aloud in English, an appropriate attribute for a tale that was certainly told or spoken rather than privately read in medieval Irish culture. Thus, paradoxically and ironically, in the area where Carson attempts the greatest innovation compared to previous translators, Kinsella’s translation holds up well: forty years after publication, it continues to startle with its poetic vigor that moves the reader to laughter, sorrow, wonder.

Following Heaney, Carson often uses Hiberno-English to flavour his translation and give it character. He also uses very contemporary vocabulary to instill dynamic equivalence into the narrative. Examples include, “wipe them out,” “I feel it in nay bones,” “get us out of this fix,” “I’ll tackle him,” “’they’re out on a limb,” “for pity’s sake,” “it’s a deal,” “ran amok,” and so forth. At times the vocabulary even borders on slang: “snuff out,” “the wrong class of work,” “whatever it takes,” “he took off,” “called him out,” “a jumped-up little imp.” It seems likely that Carson made these choices in part to deal with asymmetries of register between early Irish and modern English, as discussed above, but such modernisms are often tempting to a translator trying to give life to an old text. This virtue has its flip side of course because the register of the translation ends up reading as uncontrolled. The contemporary vocabulary and slang also mean that the translation will date faster than a text with a more standard word hoard; it is unlikely that forty years from now Carson’s version will still feel fully current or comfortable.

More serious is the fact that using lexis to move the text into the present tends to dampen the acuity of Carson’s representation of early Irish culture: the translation method tends to domesticate TBC rather than allowing it to speak its difference with respect to material culture, mores, values, customs, social structure, and the like. We see a trivial example in his translation of the rose above where the medieval games fidchell and buanfach are translated as chess and draughts. At times the modern locutions bring in distracting contemporary associations: “bragging,” “martial arts,” “guerrila tactics,” “sniping,” “fired a stake,” “comrade Laeg,” “wear a badge,” and “kitted out,” for example, each inserts a set of associations that takes the reader far afield from the techniques of medieval Irish warfare and the ethos of early Irish heroic culture with its emphasis on honor. In this regard both O’Rahilly and Kinsella open the door more widely to the Middle Ages and the conditions of life in early Ireland than Carson does.

The scholarly basis of this translation is naturally much thinner than that of the translations of Cecile O’Rahilly (who was a noted scholar of early Irish and whose notes to the editions are extensive), but it is also thinner than that of Kinsella, who worked closely throughout with Proinsias MacCana (particularly in regard to the translations of the cadenced poetry, the roscada). One sees Kinsella’s scholarly commitments in his notes as well, which give the reader more information about the manuscripts that he relies upon and which more frequently acknowledge specific additions, omissions, and reorderings of the translation in relation to his primary text, the earliest version of TBC. One can thus often though not always easily locate the translation with respect to the specific passages of the Irish texts being translated. None of this is possible in Carson’s translation; to see the textual basis of his work, a reader must invest considerable effort comparing his text to the early manuscripts edited by O’Rahilly. Carson has notes but they do not deal with issues pertaining to his use of the Irish manuscripts as such. Many are plot summaries of the foretales to TBC which Kinsella translated in the first 50 pages of The Tain. Moreover, Carson’s notes seem to peter out: after 14 pages of notes on the first half of the book, there are only two pages for the last half.

Carson tells us that “my original copy of the Oxford paperback edition of 1970 of [Kinsella’s Tain] is on my desk, as it has been throughout the process of translation”; moreover, he writes, “I checked every line of mine against Kinsella.” He acknowledges that “there are inevitable occasions when my words do not differ a great deal from his.” In fact Carson uses Kinsella verbatim at times, even when there are many other possible word choices. Sometimes whole paragraphs and whole poetic stanzas differ by just a few words. For example, Kinsella translates,

I have heard that Ailill caught him off
guard when he slept with Medb, and stole
his sword and gave it to his charioteer to
keep. A wooden sword was put in the

Carson renders the passage in almost the same words.

As I heard it, Ailill caught him off guard
as he slept with Medb, and made off with
Fergus’s sword, and gave it to his
charioteer for safe keeping. A wooden
sword was put in the scabbard.

Occasionally Carson takes a very striking locution from the earlier translation, for instance following Kinsella in translating Fedelm’s prophecy “Atchiu forderg, atchiu ruad” as “I see it crimson, I see it red.” Here forderg is literally, “very (bloody) red,” referring to the red of newly-shed blood, and ruad is the darker red of blood stains. “Crimson” does not appear as a translation for forderg in the Dictionary of the Irish Language; it would be surprising in the extreme for two translators to independently settle on crimson as a translation of forderg.

Carson’s dependence on Kinsella almost certainly makes his translation weaker than it would otherwise be. A translation is not just about words - the transposition of the words of one language to specific words of another. A translation is also an interpretation of a text - a vision or conception or reading of a text. the interpretation constitutes a kind of argument about the source text, and that critical argument has cultural, ideological, and political valences, as we have seen. There are intellectual valences (and questions of intellectual property) in translations as welt. It would have been interesting to see a Northern Irish writer translate TBC in a way that reflected the lived and felt history of the last 40 years. Instead of beginning with the humorous “Pillow Talk” introduction that Kinsella chose, which motivates the cattleraid by a marital conflict, Carson might have left the opening acephalous, reminding readers that long-standing conflicts are always already in medias /es and can flare up unexpectedly with no clear “beginning”. Alternatively he might have begun by giving the story of the two swineherds from the sid whose implaccable competition and enmity get reborn and embodied in the two rival bulls that figure in the structure of TBC: the Finnbennach, the white-horned bull of Connacht, and the Donn Cuailnge, the dark bull of Ulster. Because the purpose of the cattleraid is to secure the Donn Cfiailnge for Medb of Connacht and because their fight ends the tale, such a choice would have suggested that massive conflicts are usually inherited products of history and even perhaps fated on a level beyond individual human beings. Or again Carson might have begun with the ending of Echtra Nerai, “The Adventure of Nera”, where after watching one bullfight, Medb decides she wants to see the Finnbennach and the Donn Cuailnge fight, implicitly motivating her raid to secure the dark bull of Ulster. As history shows, the arbitary decisions of powerful leaders can have immense consequences for their people. Any of these approaches would speak to the Troubles Northern Ireland has just lived through, as well as to many conflicts throughout the world at present, giving Carson’s work a situated edge. We might also have expected from him more attention to the pain and pathos of the hero - who is after all a lad of 17, who ends up killing his friends and setting up enmities that lead to his own death, a parallel that could not fail to speak to Ireland and the world in our time.

In Walter Benjamin’s words, such choices would have given a greater afterlife to TBC, continuing its ability to speak to readers anew. Instead of creating his own vision of the text, however, Carson page-by-page has followed Kinsella’s concept and arrangement of TBC, with only minor differences. What is actually translated by Carson is very close to Kinsella’s material, but this content is not simply owed to the manuscripts of TBC they both have in common. Carson takes Kinsella’s choices about how to use and arrange the manuscript texts as the foundation of his work. Carson’s methods suggest that his retranslation was for him as much a mercantile endeavor as a serious grappling with a central narrative of Irish culture.

In many ways TBC has been an unreadable text for moderns and accordingly most translations of it in the last 150 years have been heavily refracted. Kinsella had a brilliant vision of TBC that made close translation of its texts accessible and appealing to general audiences at the end of the 1960s; in a sense his translation was thus a brilliant argument about the medieval tale. He has given a translation that is funny and serious in turn, that has wit and dry humor and slapstick, that comments o,1 and questions the heroic ethic in a self-reflexive manner, that has elegance of style and dazzling formal qualities, and that represents early Irish culture in a remarkably perspicuous manner. Kinsella’s translation is racy - verbally, sexually, scatalogically - and irreverent, reflecting qualities that Yeats and Synge and others valued in Irish culture and Irish literature, and that Joyce and Flann O’Brien perpetuated. The translation was startling and shocking at the time he published it: it was both dislocating and exhilarating to see an unapproachable story that had always been treated with piety and reverence actually appeal to modern sensibilities. Kinsella inade a delicate pastiche of two manuscripts, generally following the earliest version of TBC but importing bits from the second version that suited his vision of the story, constructing a fine balance of the bawdy, serious, and poetic. It was quite a juggling feat, worthy of inclusion in Cú Chulainn’s own repertory.

Because with very few deviations Carson moves back and forth between the two early manuscripts of TBC in precisely the way Kinsella does, Carson essentially reproduces Kinsella’s conception, vision, and reading of the text. In translation as in scholarship, one can view this sort of reproduction in a number of ways - as coincidence, as plagiarism, as imitation, as refraction or rewriting, as borrowing, as a knock-off, as fair use, as piracy, as sloppy attribution, or as watering-down. However one views it, the source text of Carson’s translation seems to be as much Kinsella’s Tain as the early Irish words in the two medieval Irish versions of TBC. For the small difference in price, you might as well buy Kinsella’s version itself and get the Louis le Brocquy drawings in the bargain.

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