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The Irish Novel That’s So Good People Were Scared to Translate It

19 March 2016

From The New Yorker:

In 1948, the Irish-language writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain received the kind of rejection letter a novelist might dream of getting. He had submitted his foul-mouthed first novel, “Cré na Cille” (“Churchyard Clay”), to his publisher, only to see it denied on the ground that it was too “Joycean.” This wasn’t meant as a compliment: it was the prudish publisher’s way of calling the book bawdy. A furious Ó Cadhain (pronounced O’Kine) took the novel elsewhere. In 1949, the Irish Press serialized it nationally over seven months, and the following year, the boutique publisher Sáirséal agus Dill released a bound version. The book became the talk of the Irish-speaking world. Young Irish speakers read it aloud to their illiterate grandparents—in Galway, according to one writer, college students passed the thrice-weekly Irish Press installments from hand to hand, and scrounged to buy the book when it appeared in stores.

Today, “Cré na Cille” is considered Joycean in a less euphemistic sense. A dust-jacket blurb from Colm Tóibín declares it “the greatest novel to be written in the Irish language, and among the best books to come out of Ireland in the twentieth century.” Scholars of Irish writing have hailed it as “a masterpiece” and “one of the most outstanding works in contemporary European literature.” “No superlatives can exaggerate its importance,” one early reviewer declared. Ó Cadhain, the critic Seán Ó Tuama wrote in 1972, produced “the most consciously-patterned and richly-textured prose that any Irishman has written in this century, except Beckett and Joyce.”

But for almost seventy years, Ó Cadhain’s greatest work remained inaccessible to nearly all Irish readers, because it was written in Irish Gaelic, a language vanishingly few of them speak, and it had never been translated into English. As if in overcorrection of this historical lapse, Yale University Press, together with the Irish-language publishing house Cló Iar-Chonnacht, has now put out not one but two English translations. For the first time, English speakers untutored in the Irish tongue can experience the exquisite vulgarity of Ó Cadhain’s book, and perhaps begin to understand the exalted standing it has had among Irish readers for decades.

. . . .

At the same time, Ó Cadhain knew that writing in a language that few read limited his audience. “The writer in Irish, whether good, bad, or indifferent,” he declared in a 1969 lecture, “is writing for his own people and only for his own people.” Ó Cadhain’s “own people” very much resembled the characters of “Cré na Cille,” and he was fiercely dedicated to them. Born in 1906 to poor, Irish-speaking farmers on the country’s rugged west coast, Ó Cadhain escaped the hardscrabble life of many of his peers to become a grade-school teacher. An avowed socialist by his early twenties, he co-founded an activist organization that fought for the land and language rights of the country’s small, disenfranchised population of Irish speakers.

He also joined the I.R.A., an affiliation that caused him no end of trouble: in 1936, a priest who disagreed with his activism sacked him from his post as principal of a country school; from 1939 to 1944, the government held him in a prison camp for political dissidents. But he never relented, rousing crowds at protests even as his health failed him. In Ó Cadhain’s view, the threat to the language from government neglect and emigration was existential, and the outlook bleak. Toward the end of his life, an interviewer asked him where he thought the country was headed. “If we lose the Irish language, we lose our native literature,” he said, looking morose. “We’ll be finished as a people. The vision that every generation of Irish people had will be at an end.”

. . . .

Sixty-six years is a long time to wait for an English translation of a book written and published a ferry-ride away from England. Why the delay? Rumors have long swirled that Ó Cadhain, angry at the social and cultural dominance of the English language, refused to permit a translation. But such a steadfast refusal seems unlikely: the original contract that Ó Cadhain signed addressed the question of translation, defining the payment he’d receive for one. It also included a provision, standard in the publisher’s contracts, imposing a two-year moratorium on translations after the original was published—and stipulating that a translation could be released only if the publisher felt satisfied its quality wouldn’t “diminish the author’s reputation.”

In fact, after the two-year period passed, Sáirséal agus Dill, Ó Cadhain’s publisher, took concrete steps toward putting out a translation. In the early nineteen-sixties, a contract was sent to a young woman who’d submitted a sample translation as part of an open contest. (A letter from the woman’s mother eventually came back: her daughter wouldn’t be able to finish the translation, she wrote, as she’d just entered a convent.) Sáirséal agus Dill next tried to entice the poet Thomas Kinsella to translate the book; though he was honored they’d considered him, Kinsella wrote in a 1963 letter, he was “sure it would be a very difficult job, especially since we’re talking about ‘Cré na Cille.’ It’s not an exaggeration to say it would take years.” Shortly after, a man whom Ó Cadhain had met in prison agreed to take up the task, with the help of a native Irish speaker. When he finally submitted his manuscript, in 1967, the publishers were shocked: the characters were speaking, inexplicably, in Dublin dialect. They rejected him judiciously. “While we expect to publish it sometime, if [the company] survives,” one of the editors told him, “we cannot currently offer any date.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and thanks to HN for the tip.

Books in General, Non-US

3 Comments to “The Irish Novel That’s So Good People Were Scared to Translate It”

  1. “… and stipulating that a translation could be released only if the publisher felt satisfied its quality wouldn’t “diminish the author’s reputation.” ”

    Seems it was too good for its own good …

    “Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect.”
    –Mark Twain, on English as She Is Spoke

  2. I could get deeply offended at my ethnicity being described in terms of a bigoted Marxist terrorist as a shining example.

    Fortunately, I have better uses for my time.

  3. The O’Bservers object?

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