A hundred ways to describe a fool: Translating the Irish language with Mícheál Ó hAodha

Award-winning writer Niall Griffiths talks to poet and translator Mícheál Ó hAodha about the Irish language, nuances, dialects, and the challenge and joy of translating Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s 20th century classic into English for the first time.

Mícheál Ó hAodha is an Irish-language poet from Galway in the west of Ireland. He has written poetry, short stories, journalism and academic books on Irish social history, particularly as relating to the Irish working-class experience, and the Irish who emigrated to Britain. He is one of the very few poets since Ó Ríordáin to explore the metaphysical in the Irish language, his work encompassing themes of loss, longing, memory, love and forgetting – in collections such as Leabhar na nAistear (The Book of Journeys) and Leabhar na nAistear II. Recent translations include Seán Ó Ríordáin: Life and Work – Mercier: 2019) and This Road of Mine – Lilliput Press: 2020)

Niall Griffiths was born in Liverpool and has lived in mid-Wales for a long time now. Author of eight novels, a book of poetry, several works of non-fiction. The film of his third novel, Kelly+Victor, won a BAFTA. He has won the Wales Book of the Year twice, for the novels Stump, in 2004 and Broken Ghost in 2020. His work has been translated into around twenty languages and he has delivered readings from it all over the globe. 

About Exiles

Two Irish migrants on the cusp of new lives in post-war Britain. Two young people who dare to dream of a better life, and dance the music of survival in their adopted homeland.

Afraid that his wife and children will arrive over any day, Trevor is in a hurry to settle old scores with his rivals and to prove himself the top fighting man within his London-Irish community of drinkers and navvies while Nano seeks to escape the stifling conformity and petty jealousies of her peers and forget her failed love-match at home.

Will Trevor finally prove himself “the man” and secure the respect that he feels is his by virtue of blood and tribe? Does Nano have it in her to break free of the suffocating bonds of home and community and find love with Lithuanian beau Julius? Written at a time when the Irish were “building England up and tearing it down again”, and teeming with the raucous energy of post-war Kilburn, Cricklewood and Camden Town this novel is one of the very few authentic portrayals of working-class life in modern Irish literature.

Exiles by
Dónall Mac Amhlaigh and translated by Mícheál Ó hAodha is out now with Parthian Books

Are you a first-language Irish speaker? If not, when did you learn? And is there a large difference between ‘proper’ Erse and its colloquial equivalent?

I’m not a fluent Irish-speaker in the sense that I never lived in the Gaeltacht or attended a Gaelscoil (Irish-medium school). It is only in the last 20–30 years that the Gaelscoil became a common reality across the country and was accessible to people outside of the more affluent middle-class. Because of a complexity of factors today – including decades of emigration from the traditionally more-remote rural areas where Irish was/is the community language, internal migration within Ireland, urbanization and the dominance of the Anglophone world in all forms of media for hundreds of years at this stage – there are next to no children now who grow up in an environment that is monolingually Irish. The English language is constantly pressing in on Irish and many older people say that the Irish spoken by the younger generation is really a ‘creole’ or mixture of an Irish base with a lot of English words thrown in.

The Irish in Exiles is sweet. That’s all I can say to describe it.

How does the Irish of Exiles compare to the Irish of now? Are there phrases, particular words etc. that have now fallen out of use? Are Exiles and other coterminous works a kind of amber in which earlier versions of the language have been preserved?

The Irish in Exiles is sweet. That’s all I can say to describe it. It is the Irish spoken by the older generation in Ireland, the people who left Ireland in their droves in the 1940s and 1950s for pastures new – better economic opportunities for themselves and their children, better educational opportunities, better jobs, a better life if possible… It is a richer form of Irish than that which is spoken today – there is a greater fluency and flow to it than what you hear in the Irish of today – outside of the areas on the west coast and in the north where there are Irish speakers who have rarely left their own communities and for whom Irish was their native and primary everyday mode of communication throughout their lives. There are far less English-language words adopted into the speech and it is far less Anglophone-influenced.

I was struck by certain dialect words that I use myself, for instance ‘divvy’. Why did you use such, for want of a better word, Scouse-isms?

The reasons Scouse and the other varieties of English across the UK have so many words that look ‘Irish’ is because they did come from the Irish language originally. Maybe it was an element of the colonial mindset, but people often think that some of these words came into Irish from English but it’s generally the other way around.

Many words that you find in the north of England, to take just one region in the UK – words such as ‘meidhered/mithering’, ‘crack’, ‘clobber’, ‘gammy’, ‘gobby’, ‘gansey’ (Yorkshire) – you could go on and on – come from Irish originally. It’s the same in US English – ‘shebeen’, ‘galore’, ‘shanty’ (i.e. ‘sean-tí’, lit: old house). The number of Irish-language words that have been adopted into the varieties of English across the world is enormous in all honesty.

There are three different dialects in Irish – Ulster, Munster and Connacht – and about a hundred ways to tell someone they are a ‘fool’

I’ve heard it said that Erse has a somewhat narrow lexicon, and that ‘it’s impossible to make love in Irish’ (a direct quote from a pal). Do you agree with this? And is it an obstacle to overcome when translating into the huge mongrel tongue of English?

As regards the narrow lexicon, this is a huge myth that was probably promulgated under colonialism also – it is the opposite in reality. There are three different dialects in Irish – Ulster, Munster and Connacht – and about a hundred ways to tell someone they are a ‘fool’ (whether male of female) or to ‘go away and leave you alone’ or to insult someone or to describe the weather in beautiful fashion or to praise someone etc. etc. Irish is far richer and more multifaceted than English in this regard – at the end of the day, it is the oldest written vernacular in Europe. As you say, it is English that we perceive as the mongrel tongue from our standpoint over here.

Linked to the previous question is; it seems to me that you are tackling dialects within the Erse; in Exiles, as in life, the culchie has a different demotic to the Jackeen, within which are crystallised the dichotomies of city and rural existences. How do you transpose this into English? Is it a special problem? I notice, too, that you’re translating Seosamh Mac Grianna, who writes in an Ulster demotic. Are the Irish dialects markedly different to each other?

In pronunciation and sound, there are big differences in the Irish as spoken in Donegal, say, or in Kerry or Galway. But on the page, when written down, they are not so different really and you can tell where someone is from originally by certain words that they use or different accents, intonation and pronunciation. As regards the written form of Irish, there is still just a tiny fraction of the Irish population who can read a book in Irish and a far tinier cohort again (mainly academics) who can write the language. The ‘Caighdeán Oifigiúil’ (Official Standard) was only published in 1958, combining spelling reforms, promulgated a decade or so earlier with grammar standards. Revised editions of this official standard were published only as recently as 2012 and 2017.

The history of Irish as a Celtic language is markedly different than that of other Celtic languages, including Welsh, in terms of pride in the language, colonial attitudes inculcated by the Irish people themselves, the association. The Anglophone world came to dominate in Ireland hundreds of years really before similar processes began occurring in other minority-language strongholds such as Wales, the Basque Country etc.

Do you find it easier to translate into RP, BBC English than dialect English?

Not really. The Hiberno-English that I translated Mac Amhlaigh into is the type of English spoken by most people in Ireland over 40 years of age – it is the English spoken by Irish people. (Prior to the ‘uniform’ and very bland (really) mid-Atlantic vocabulary-speak and language which is spreading across the world today at a rapid pace – like a virus! – via tv, radio and the web).

The Hiberno-English of Mac Amhlaigh’s characters is about as far from BBC or ‘standard English’ as you can get because it is really the Irish language – as translated in people’s minds into English – by a people who adopted English en masse following the Famine in the late 1800s. It is not ‘proper’ English at all. In fact, in a certain sense, it probably isn’t English really at all.

You’re also translating from Cymraeg. Do you have a preference in working with Goidelic or Brythonic? Which is the more supple, or is that even a consideration? English is a plastic, malleable language; which is more amenable to that pliability, P-Celtic or Q-Celtic?

As regards which is more supple or malleable, I don’t really have a strong view on that. I learned to read Welsh by attending classes when I lived and worked in Wales for two years in the early 90s. After that, I read books in Welsh to try and keep my vocabulary going and my knowledge of the language ‘match-fit’ even when I was living in other countries such as England and France.

I asked the translator of my third novel, Kelly + Victor, whether he would use an Italian dialect in place of the Liverpudlian one of the original; Neapolitan, maybe, given that there are some similarities between the two cities. No, he answered, because if he did, readers would automatically think of Naples, not Liverpool. I understood that totally, but realised that certain elements –language politics, regional identities etc. – are inevitably lost in translation. I’m intrigued to hear your thoughts on this.

It’s true I think that certain elements – language politics, regional identities etc – are lost in translation. Ironically however, I think more of this nuance is lost when you translate from one major language/culture to another – say Chinese to English or German to Italian – as the English used in Exiles is really the Irish language in a different ‘guise’ or masked beneath the dominant language English, so not as many of those nuances are lost, I feel. That said, I hope – particularly given the changing nature of the relationship between Ireland and England today – that Mac Amhlaigh’s book will be sought out in the future by the huge segment of the British population who have Irish ancestry or whose people were part of the Irish diaspora worldwide – that they can see how hard the people who came before them worked, how they tried to carve out new lives and new identities for themselves. Basically ‘cé leis thú’ – as we say in Irish – ‘Who do you belong to? Who are you? Where do you come from?’ I’m sure that this is a large part of what Mac Amhlaigh was doing in this book – he was writing a book about the past for future generations of his own people – if that makes any sense.

I hope – particularly given the changing nature of the relationship between Ireland and England today – that Mac Amhlaigh’s book will be sought out in the future by the huge segment of the British population who have Irish ancestry

What is the condition of Irish now? Does the language have a promising prognosis? From my experience, it seems that Erse, like Cymraeg, is gaining some currency amongst the young; it’s gaining the imprimatur of cool. Do you agree?

Irish became trendy about 20 years ago with the advent of a TV station in Irish and with the fact that Ireland was becoming a far more multicultural nation than before. It is still in a precarious position, however, with the areas/communities where the language is spoken as a community language shrinking all the time. The Irish language has become increasingly ‘invisible’ in official Ireland also: little used in the civil service etc. and the basic rights of Irish-speakers to use the language when liaising with the state are still denied them. While pride in the language has certainly increased as compared with previous generations (as helped by the arrival of other cultures and languages to Ireland with large-scale immigration in recent decades) and the old stigmas associated with the language – that it was the language of the poor, the uneducated or rural people, are certainly dying out – the linguists who are honest about the language say that Irish may have gone past the point of revival now as regards how many native and daily speakers of the language are left.

Irish writers in English are rightly praised and revered for the ways in which they experiment with the language, twist and batter it into unusual forms. Does this happen within the Gaelic also, or is it a product of transposition?

This still happens in the Irish language amongst the small cohort of writers and artists who have remained dedicated to the language and loyal to its art forms. I would argue that much of the dexterity and inventiveness amongst Irish writers who wrote in English – back to Joyce and Beckett and further back again – was actually a product of transposition as you mention, Niall. It is no coincidence that a writer such as Joyce – who had an extremely good knowledge of Irish; Nora Barnacle was a native Irish speaker from Galway – achieved a great deal of what he did in English partly because of the rich legacy of the Irish language culture that he inherited. Also, he was writing in English in the early 1900s just when English (a masked form of Irish in most cases) was really beginning to assume dominance amongst the majority of the population. A very interesting and insightful book on Joyce’s dexterity and integration of the Irish language into his English-language writing is Diarmuid Curraoin’s I Know That I Have Broken Every Heart: The Significance of the Irish Language in ‘Finnegans Wake’ and in Other Works of James Joyce (2013).

You can find out more, and order a copy of Exiles, here.


Friendly quicksand and tightrope walking – with Arunava Sinha

Leading Bengali translator Arunava Sinha talks to Welsh poet Natalie Ann Holborow about his ‘many voices’, translation as tightrope walking, and his plans to re-navigate Western gatekeeping.

Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction, non-fiction and poetry from India and Bangladesh into English. Winner of the Crossword translation award, for both Sankar’s Chowringhee and Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen, over fifty of his translations have been published so far. Modern Bengali Poetry: Desire for Fire was published by Parthian in 2020.

Natalie Ann Holborow is an award-winning writer whose debut collection, And Suddenly You Find Yourself was launched at the International Kolkata Literary Festival. She is co-editor of the Cheval anthology and is also a curator for Taz Rahman’s Just Another Poet project, a virtual poetry exchange showcasing work from Wales and across different cultures worldwide. Her most recent collection, Small, was published in 2020.

You noted in Desire for Fire that a translator ‘must be capable of having as many voices as the number of writers whose works they translate’. With over fifty poets in the book, how do you overcome the challenge of adapting to these different voices?

I think that whatever success I’ve had with this venture has been because many of these translations have actually been done over a period of years. I worked on at least half of the poems for about four or five years – just casually, not with any intention of putting them into an anthology. I would usually choose a poem and translate it when I felt in the mood for it and the words were flowing during different points in time, different periods of my life and possibly different states of mind.

Yet even with these poems, I still felt sometimes that it wasn’t working and that I’d have to return to it. You know how it is when it’s poetry – it’s very hard to do it mechanically. You have to be in the zone. Then you have to get out of that zone and into another one for another poem.

It was tougher when the idea for the book came up because it meant I had to finish enough of the poems for an anthology and in a much shorter period, and so I worked poet by poet. I’d work on each of the poems one after the other so I could be sure that each poem by a given poet all had that same voice. For the rest of it, I just tried to listen to the poems in my head. So much of it had to do with listening and thinking about how they made me feel when I listened. Then, when I worked on them in English, I would try and arrive at that same effect to try and create a divergence in the voices.

All translators have different metaphors for what they do. For me, you have to walk a tightrope and you can’t step off it. And while it’s a pretty thin rope, you can try a few tricks to balance yourself to make sure you don’t fall off.

The translator Kate Briggs wrote in her book This Little Art that the work of a translator is to ‘write a translation’. As a Professor of Creative Writing at Ashoka University, is translation closely linked with the process of creative writing for you or is it something else entirely?

Most of the courses at the university which I teach are to do with translation, so I don’t really write anything of my own. I used to play down the aspect of creativity in translation, thinking people were making too big a deal out of it, or trying to turn it into a creative art. It’s not – it’s a very different kind of thing.

All translators have different metaphors for what they do. For me, you have to walk a tightrope and you can’t step off it. And while it’s a pretty thin rope, you can try a few tricks to balance yourself to make sure you don’t fall off.

However, as I’ve gone on I’ve found that there is some sort of ‘creativity’ for lack of a better word, but along different dimensions – not where you’re groping for the material or trying to figure out how the words will come, but more to do with working in a very confined space. You can’t go beyond those very tight boundaries that the work has set for itself.

Working within those constraints brings its own kind of creativity. English is a more ‘wordy’ language than Bengali because it needs verbs and it needs articles, whereas Bengali doesn’t. Even the subject in Bengali does not need an ‘I’ as the verb ending will tell you that it’s first-person. So, sticking to those specific dimensions needs its own kind of lateral thinking.

What’s interesting about this is if you translate and then go back and write something that you’re conjuring out of your own head, it sometimes gets incredibly difficult. You start thinking about what’s in your head as a text and start translating it into the language in which you’re writing. I then find that the familiarity with the rules and requirements work really well in producing very tight, terse writing. This is especially great when writing in English, because we Indians tend to be much more florid in our use of the language, whereas English doesn’t naturally accommodate that.

I think, for that reason, translation has taught me to write more elegantly in English – whatever writing I do.

What, or who, inspired you to become a translator?

You know, I don’t actually have the answer to this. I read literature in college after a failed dalliance with electrical engineering. I realised in the space of about six weeks that this would be no way to spend what would be some of the best years of my life and switched over to literature the next year. Gabriel García Márquez had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and on reading his books – and One Hundred Years of Solitude in particular – I really woke up to the fact that they were translations. It didn’t originally register with me with other translations that they were not originally written in English, but for some reason – maybe because of the press around it – I woke up to the fact that this was not originally written in English and that these were somebody else’s words and language.

At that point, I thought, ‘Wow, can translation really do this?’ From there, I started reading translations and translating literature more and more. Pretty soon I was marvelling at phrases and sentence constructions that I had not encountered in works originally written in English. I did a few papers in college on translating poems across the ages and thought about doing it myself.

That was how it began, but I had no notion at that point that it would actually become something that I would be doing in a sustained way later on in life. I joined a magazine shortly after college and would translate one short story in Bengali every month. That was what started my practice as a translator, but my first big break came when the author of one of the stories I’d translated asked me if I would translate his novel, which was a very well-known novel among Bengali-speaking people called Chowringee.

As a translator, you’re the first and the closest reader of a text. You’re probably reading it even more closely than the author themselves

You were twice the winner of the Crossword translation award, for Sankar’s Chowringhee (2007) and Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen (2011) and winner of the Muse India translation award (2013) for Buddhadeva Bose’s When The Time Is Right, as well as being shortlisted and longlisted for many others. With 56 published translations so far, you’ve accomplished an impressive amount. What’s been your proudest achievement?

That’s probably a book that’s coming out later this year. It was the most incredibly complex book called Khwabnama, The Book of Dreams. It’s by a writer in Bangladesh whose entire reputation is based on just two novels that he wrote – including this one. I hesitate to use the word ‘challenging’ because it’s so overused with translators, but it genuinely was like doing one of those ultramarathons except that it wasn’t a marathon but a constant obstacle course. I was constantly jumping over, under, around and in between things with the language. In cases like this, you’re always unsure whether you’re successful in getting some of it into the new language but it was incredible working on it. Whether it’s been done well or not, I can’t tell just yet, but it was so absorbing. I was so immersed in it that I think I forgot about the existence of the entire world during that four-month period in which I completed the first draft of around 190,000 words. I went into it in May and emerged in August – and I have no idea what happened to the world in between those times.

As a translator, you’re the first and the closest reader of a text. You’re probably reading it even more closely than the author themselves and it draws you in multiple ways. As a reader you notice its content, form, rhythm and sound. However, as a translator you’re also thinking about how to take all those things across to a new language. You’re more keenly aware of all the elements.

If there exists a ‘friendly’ version of quicksand, then that’s what it was – the kind of quicksand that will suck you in but won’t kill you. After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I think translators get their greatest joy not from the fact that people know their names, but that people read their books

Do you feel the work of translators is acknowledged enough?

In India, oddly enough, I feel it is. Here, there is great awareness of translators and the work that they do. We even get our names on book covers without asking, so that’s quite remarkable – in fact, sometimes I think it’s overdone in the sense that there’s too much attention drawn to the words of the translator. Sometimes that distracts a bit from the value of the work. 

The rest of the world? I’m not sure. In translation circles that I’ve been in, there is of course great acknowledgement, but beyond that I think translators should also not expect more than their fair share, which may not be as much as many of us think it is. We wouldn’t be here had the original work not been there in the first place.

However, I think translators get their greatest joy not from the fact that people know their names, but that people read their books – especially as people read their books as though written by the writer themselves. Imagine the joy that Gregory Rabassa would have had knowing that more people would have read One Hundred Years of Solitude in his words than in Gabriel García Márquez’s.

For a translator, that’s the greatest acknowledgement.

I keep going through my own translation list and shaking my head because so many of them are dominated by men – and by privileged men at that…

Finally, what’s next for you? Any goals or ambitions you are working towards at the moment?  

I’m currently working on a couple of things that go beyond my own work as a translator. One is that we are trying to build a Centre of Translation at Ashoka University, where I teach, to create a locus for translation practice – and theory, although my focus is on the practice – in South Asia and then perhaps for the rest of Asia as well.  This is so that translation into English and other languages of South Asia can gather some momentum and attract people who want to work in translation. People will be able to work on both short-term and long-term projects and form a community.

The other thing I will be doing is finding an alternative model to get translations from South Asia to be read by people around the world. The gatekeepers of publishing in the West have a certain set of requirements of their own, and perhaps South Asian literature doesn’t quite fit into those requirements right now. However, given that we live in a world that’s so connected in so many other lateral ways, maybe going through those gateways of formal translation is no longer the only option. I’m hoping, with the help of many other people, that I’ll be able to work on something along those lines.

As for my own translation, I want to be able to translate many more works by women. I keep going through my own translation list and shaking my head because so many of them are dominated by men – and by privileged men at that – so I’m looking to expand the pool of people I translate to include people who have not got as much of a voice. I also hope to be able to build a small pool of translators from within these communities to translate their work. They do not need people like me to take over and say: ‘Now I have access to it, I am going to do you the favour of translating your work so that lots of people can read it.’

I think it’s more important to be able to enable people to have access to translators and this is something that I’m hoping to do over the next few years.

You can find out more about Arunava Sinha and his work here, and check out Modern Bengali Poetry: Desire for Fire here.