11 Oct 2015

Traduttore, Traditore

Sorley Maclean gaelic poet
Sorley MacLean
An old Italian saying has it that "traduttore, traditore " - to translate is to betray. 

The very translation of that short phrase communicates none of the alliteration and wordplay of the original.

My personal opinion is that prose is easier to translate than poetry. With prose this may be dependent on the style, but in poetry, there is almost always a certain compactness which does not lend itself to translation. 

Add to that all the issues of sound, wordplay, metre, brief allusions etc and you have a real problem on your hands. 

Even one of the most famous passages in the Bible, which has been mulled over continuously for nearly two millennia, causes issues. Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος (“In the beginning was the word”) states John 1. Logos is the term translated “word”, but it also gives rise to the English words “logic” and the suffix “-ology”, which gives an idea of the sheer range of its actual meaning. Archē (beginning) also has a much more complex meaning that the English allows.

Poetry often varies radically between languages – the poetry at the Eisteddfod, for example, is often written according to stringent rules. Welsh language metres do not work well in English, while many contemporary English-language poets seem to have abandoned strict metre altogether. English poetry is frequently dependent on a rhyme scheme. Italian poetry isn't - thanks largely to the fact that Italian words almost always end in vowels, and thus there is no skill in rhyming. Chinese poetry uses tones. Semitic poetry often depends on the internal structures of words. Old Norse poetry uses heavy alliteration, and kennings – nicknames for things which are often unfamiliar to modern readers.

This even applies between languages which are closely related. Many Scottish readers will be familiar with the poetry of Burns. Try rendering some of his work into Standard English. The "best laid schemes" might be the same in high-faluting English, but when they "gang aft agley", do they "often go awry"? "Go oft astray"? "Often go skew-whiff"? None of these properly capture the flavour of the original. This hasn't stopped people trying. Translations of Burns into Standard English have been attempted with mixed results.

In the other direction, there is also a highly irritating fashion now for fake translations of various foreign language authors into Scots. Fake translation? Well, there is a translation going on, but it’s from English into Scots. It’s not a direct translation. Some of these use an English translation as a crib, which is just about acceptable. Others are translating English-language translations, and trying to pass them off as translations from the original languages direct into Scots. Reading Kenneth Buthlay’s edition of A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle, I was reminded that this tendency is nothing new. In one or two places, MacDiarmid leaned somewhat heavily on someone else’s English translation, although he was genuinely a polyglot himself. But please, if you’re going to rip off someone else’s translation – at least credit them, and do not pretend it’s an original.

Needless to say, many of the poems in broader Scots that get published in our sundry books and journals tend to come with a glossary next to them, or beside them. This is all fine and well, as long as the glossary doesn't get in the way of the poetry or conveys misleading senses for the words. When I reread A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle, I left the copious notes and glossary alone until after I’d worked through the entire poem. I won't pretend to have understood every word, but I thought it better that way, since poetry is usually meant to flow, not to stutter.

And another thing – “tè eile” – the situation with Scottish Gaelic poetry is even worse. I say tè eile, but I could have said fear eile, which is its male counterpart. Both of these common-or-garden phrases have a double meaning - tè eile can mean “another woman” and fear eile “another man”. Thus you can see the difficulty of translation. The trouble is that poetry (and song) is traditionally the dominant form in Gaelic literature.

Not many people speak Scotland's own Celtic language. We know that. We're constantly told that ad nauseam. But that still doesn't solve the problem. Gaelic poetry is constantly betrayed by translation. The monolingual magazines Gairm and Gath have both bitten the dust, and the handful of magazines which will take Gaelic poetry nearly all insist on an English translation. It seems a hell of a lot of people are familiar with “Gaelic poetry”, but only through translation. As Sorley MacLean commented bitterly in Ris a’ Bhruthaich, this is not the same thing.

We have a double problem here. Most readers are ignorant of Gaelic, but would like to know what the poem is about. Hopefully, while some will go on to learn the language, they can't do so overnight. The other is that more modern Gaelic poets have been part of that masquerade. Every poem that they produce has to have an English twin. They write, they read everything twice. What they are often peddling is not Gaelic poetry, but English poetry which is somehow interconnected with Gaelic.

If you don’t speak Gaelic by the way, it is not completely impossible to appreciate a poem in the original. Most traditional Gaelic poetry was recited first, and written down later. This means that it is for listening to rather than reading, and relies on rhythms, sounds and even music. A non-speaker can pick up on these, and gain at least some enjoyment from them. Obviously, this works better with shorter poems.

The usual format for Scottish Gaelic poetry publishing consists of the original poem, with the English translation alongside or facing it. The translation is usually printed in the exact same font size and given equal prominence. There are issues with this – for one, many Gaelic speakers are learners. The temptation for the learner is to read the English rather than the Gaelic – almost unconsciously. Secondly, when appears to be a line-to-line correspondence then the reader assumes that one line directly refers to the other. In fact, Gaelic has a radically different word order to English. Traduttore, traditore indeed.

Needless to say this constantly puts Gaelic poetry in an inferior position to that in English, or even Scots. There are ways and means that this issue can be dealt with, and I shall come to that soon, but first, I want to go through a couple of short extracts from An Tuil, a collection of modern Scottish Gaelic poetry, which demonstrate the problem. Neither of these are bad translations at all by the way.

Neil Ross’ Dunkirk demonstrates some of the more minor issues in its very first line:

Siud am baile mu dheireadh, Dunkirk, an làmhan nan Càirdean

This is translated in the book as “Now remains Dunkirk alone in the hands of the allies”. Even a non-speaker can see that a couple of commas have gone astray. The literal translation is something like this – “There-is the town at last, Dunkirk, in hands of-the Friends”. Obviously, that needs tidying up, and does not read well. “Allies” is obviously a better translation in this context than “Friends” for one, especially given the fact it’s capitalised. And that’s just one line.

An Cuilthionn (the Cuillin), is arguably Sorley MacLean’s greatest poem, although there, are of course other strong contenders. It is an epic poem, dealing with the threat of Fascism to Europe, making references to figures from local history, radicalism, and mythology, although MacLean is as likely to refer to ancient Gaelic mythology, as its Greek equivalent. In the section this verse comes from, MacLean mentions various countries, and what they have been through -

‘S mise Clio na Gréige,Chunnaic mi daorsa le creuchdanAgus Metaxas na bréigeA dh’ainneoin gliocais is èigse

The book translates this as

I am the Clio of GreeceI saw slavery and its woundAnd false MetaxasIn spite of wisdom and philosophy 
Now this is a decent translation, as far as I can tell. But it is only by looking at the original that you can see the rhymes – “na Gréige” (of Greece) with “na bréige” (of the lies), and indeed “èigse”.

This small verse contains further complexities. Èigse is defined by Dwelly’s Dictionary as “art, science, knowledge”, i.e. all the boons of ancient Greek civilisation. “Daorsa” (repression, captivity) is the dark opposite of “saorsa” (freedom). “Creuchdan” carries with it Biblical overtones. Some things are crystal clear – Metaxas, the notorious dictator of Greece, and Clio, although I’m afraid, many readers will be as likely to think of a type of Renault, as the ancient Greek muse of history these days.

Grave of Sorley MacLean
Grave of Shomhairle MacGill-Eain
Many Scots write in Gaelic, or Broad Scots, because they wish to continue on a tradition, or even as an act of cultural defiance. It is an irony then that poetry in both languages seems to be so tied to Standard English. Both are being heavily watered down as time goes on – contrast the deep Gaelic of Sorley MacLean which contained only a few English loanwords with the ten, twenty minute sections of English dialogue on Radio nan Gàidheal and BBC Alba, or what passes for “Scots” these days.

So what are the solutions to these issues? Obviously, we do not want to shut non-speakers out of Gaelic poetry, but we do need something which is going to promote the original over the translation. The most obvious solution is to put the translation into smaller print than the original, emphasising that it is secondary to the Gaelic. Another, more radical, answer is to separate the translation from the poem altogether, and to put it somewhere it can’t be seen in combination with the original – reminiscent of what newspapers/magazines do with the solutions to their puzzle page. A third solution – and I quite like this – is to put the translation into prose form. With this, there is no confusing the translation with an original poem, and it also reduces the temptation for the reader to associate one line with its Gaelic neighbour.

These are all things I’d like to see considered. I believe Poets’ Republic is shortly going to be printing Gaelic poetry in each issue. Perhaps their new Gaelic editor, Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, might like to help the magazine take the lead in this.

The Image of the grave of Shomhairle MacGill-Eain is uploaded to Wikimedia Commons and is the work of John Allen (also at G+) and reused under CC ASA 2.0 License