“these are translations for the poetry lover..”

The some-time odd jobbing band member and new poetry editor at The New Yorker magazine, Paul Muldoon, has had a busy year, but not too busy to collaborate with Irish language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill on a new dual-language collection of poems, The Fifty Minute Mermaid, published by Gallery Press. Niall O’Gallagher gives the collection a glowing review in the Guardian today.

From the Guardian review

The range of Ní Dhomhnaill’s Irish in these poems is dazzling. She weaves the official speech of scholarship and religion into a lively colloquial voice that lifts the poems into the contemporary and helps them breathe. This allows Ní Dhomhnaill to bridge the gap between the mundane and the marvellous. Muldoon’s response to her poems is both attentive to his subject’s modulations in tone and consistently inventive in his use of English idiom. Muldoon’s characteristic virtuosity is also on display. In the first of the three poems that opens the collection, “Mo Mhàistir Dorcha” (“My Dark Master”), he creates a version that mirrors both the form and the content of Ní Dhomhnaill’s text:

Táimse in aimsir ag an mBás,
eadrainn tá coinníollacha tarraicthe.
Réitíomar le chéile ar feadh tréimhse
is spás
aimsire, achar roinnt bliana is lae
mr a cheapas-sa.

Bhuaileas leis ag margadh na saoire.
D’iarr sé orm an rabhas hire-áilte.
“Is maith mar a tharla; máistir ag
lorg cailín
is cailín ag lorg máistir.”

I’ve gone and hired myself out. I’ve
hired myself out to Death.
We drew up a contract and set the
on it by spitting in our palms. I
would go with him to Lateeve
for a year and a day – at least that
was the deal

as I remember it. When I met him at
the hiring-fair
he inquired if I’d yet
been taken: “What a stroke of luck,”
he declared,
“when a master who’s set on a maid
finds a maid who’s set

on a master.”

While sentence breaks tend to correspond with line and stanza breaks in Ní Dhomhnaill’s poem, Muldoon’s are less tethered to these divisions and often run across into the next verse. Perhaps a result of his attempt to echo Ní Dhomhnaill’s end-rhyme, this adds a new element to the poem, replacing the song-like cadences of her Irish with a much freer, more colloquial feel.

Elsewhere, Muldoon’s facility with English idiom brings nuances out of Ní Dhomhnaill’s texts while remaining faithful to their style and character. Sometimes he loses her concision in the attempt – “Sin dúchas dhut” is given as “That’s the power of heredity for you!” – but more often than not Muldoon uses his counterpart’s poems as the springboard for pithy poetry of his own and admirers of his work will find much to enjoy. The language is crisp and lively, the turn of phrase surprising and his vigorous attention to rhythm gives these poems real verve, made more attractive by the colloquial energy of a voice which consistently avoids glibness.

  • Rory

    What a wonderful gift you have given us, Pete with this reference. All previous sins are forgiven – the future alas, as always, is uncertain.

    The challenge now for Sluggerites is to render a translation in English of “Sin dúchas dhut” other than Paul Muldoon’s rendering, “That’s the power of heredity for you!” that does not “lose(s) her (Ní Dhomhnaill’s) concision in the attempt” .

    I must say that even were the context, rhythm, metre and flow of Ní Dhomhnaill’s original or (more importantly) of Muldoon’s English translation available to me I would be most reluctant to make an attempt.

    Would any of our contributors more fluent in both languages than I care to risk a poetic translation in English of “Sin dúchas dhut” ? I promise that there will be no snide critique from this wretched ignoramus and the author of the best might yet wind up in The New Yorker which is a place like Heaven where only writers deemed worthy get to go before they die. They do often tend to die shortly thereafter I believe and some may find some gratitude in at least having had a short experience of Heaven once.

  • Pete Baker

    “All previous sins are forgiven..”

    Not necessarily, Rory. ;op

    But I’m glad you liked the post.

    I was struck, in particular, by the reviewer’s comparions between the Irish and English language versions of the poems.. as well as any potential ripples emerging from the entwining them in one volume.

    Here’s a previous post on translating between the two languages that might be of interest too.

    And I’d also like to see any alternative renderings of that particular quote.

  • Rory

    Thanks for that further back reference, Pete.

    “Things depend on how you say them, and who is doing the saying, and who the listening.” Indeed™

    Indeed, indeed. I must admit that when I say Ciaran Carson’s translation of Midnight Court I wince a little at that to which I am listening .

    Enfeebled by folly, or cardiac rage –
    Your wherewithal racked by financial disease

    “Cardiac rage”? “Financial disease”? – please try harder, I shout.

    and as for “lightly galloping deer” and “squadrons of ducks” – whatever the hell they might be I could happily live without having encountered them. But even more grating was the failure of rhythm in the metric pulse that allowed for such awkward inelegant shoe-horning as:

    Yesterday morning, a cloudless blue sky
    Bore the signs of another hot day in July;

    which seemed most informed by much too openness to the influence of doggerel, which might not be all bad but certainly sounds bloody awful here.

    It is not necessary to be fluent in the language from which one is translating so long as one has the assistance of one who is so familiar and that one has a feel and empathy for the rhythms of the language and the nuance of its culture but it is really helpful that one has an understanding for the rhythms and nuances of the language into which one is translating. I simply don’t accept that ” awkward hodge-podge” can be passed off as “modern translation” in any language. But perhaps it gets better as he goes along.

    Which, I suppose, is more than do I betimes.

  • Rory

    If I compare Ciaran Carson’s translation of the first lines of The Midnight Court ( Chúirt an Mheadhon Oidhche), here:

    Part One

    ‘Twas my custom to stroll by a clear winding stream,
    With my boots full of dew from the lush meadows green,
    Near a neck of the woods where the mountain holds sway,
    Without danger or fear at the dawn of the day.
    And the sight of Lough Graney would dazzle my eyes,
    As the countryside sparkled beneath the blue skies,
    Uplifting the mountains, arranged stack on stack,
    Each head peeping over a neighbouring back.
    It would lighten the heart, be it listless with age,
    Enfeebled by folly, or cardiac rage –
    Your wherewithal racked by financial disease
    To perceive through a gap in the wood full of trees
    A squadron of ducks on a shimmering bay,
    Escorting the swan on her elegant way,
    The trout on the rise with its mouth to the light
    While the perch swims below like a dim speckled sprite
    And the billows of blue become foam as they break
    With a thunderous crash on the shores of the lake,
    And the birds in the trees whistle bird-songs galore,
    The deer gallop lightly though woods dark as yore,
    Where trumpeting horsemen and hounds of the hunt
    Chase the shadow of Reynard, who leads from the front.

    with that of Noel Fahey’s translation , here:
    Part 1: The Prologue

    Twas my custom to stroll with the river in view
    Through the fresh meadows covered with dew,
    By the edge of the woods on the wild mountain- side
    At the dawn of the day I’d cheerfully stride.
    My heart would brighten Loch Graney to spy,
    And the country around it, to the edge of the sky.
    The serried mountains were a delight to the beholder
    Thrusting their heads over each other’s shoulder.
    Twould lighten the heart wizened with years—
    Triflingly spent or drenched with tears—
    Of the bitter outcast without wealth or goods
    To catch a glimpse o’er the top of the woods
    Of the ducks paddling by in the pellucid bay,
    Escorting the swan on her stately way,
    Of the fish in joyous arching flight
    And of the perch, a speckled spritely sight,
    Of the blue surging swell on the tinted lake
    Crashing ashore with a thunderous quake,
    Of the birds in the trees merrily singing,
    While the deer through the woods are nimbly springing,
    To see the huntsmen with bugles blaring,
    As after Reynard the hounds are tearing

    and in Irish:

    Chúirt an Mheadhon Oidhche
    Ba ghnáth mé ar siúl le ciumhais na habhann
    Ar bháinseach úr is an drúcht go trom,
    In aice na gcoillte i gcoim an tsléibhe
    Gan mhairg gan mhoill ar shoilseadh an lae.
    Do ghealadh mo chroí nuair chínn Loch Gréine,
    An talamh, an tír, is íor na spéire
    Ba thaitneamhach aoibhinn suíomh na sléibhte
    Ag bagairt a gcinn thar dhroim a chéile.
    Ghealfadh an croí bheadh críon le cianta—
    Caite gan bhrí nó líonta le pianta—
    An séithleach searbh gan sealbh gan saibhreas
    D’fhéachfadh tamall thar bharra na gcoillte
    Ar lachain ina scuain ar chuan gan cheo,
    An eala ar a bhfuaid is í ag gluaiseacht leo,
    Na héisc le meidhir ag éirí anairde
    Péirse i radharc go taibhseach tarrbhreac,
    Dath an locha agus gorm na dtonn
    Ag teacht go tolgach torannach trom,
    Bhíodh éanlaith i gcrann go meidhreach mómhar
    Léimneach eilte i gcoillte im chóngar,
    Géimneach adharc is radharc ar shlóite
    Tréanrith gadhar is Reynard rompu.

    I think you might get a flavour of my meaning. I certainly find Fahey’s translation much more appealing.

    In any case Fahey’s translation, which was a labour of love carried out with the express intention of having both the original and his translation side-by-side, line-by-line(with lots of notes on the how’s and why’s) available freely on the internet. He deserves much praise for his effort.

    And you may find it here:



  • Nevin

    Is there a typo in “Sin dúchas dhut”

    That’s nature, that’s life?

  • Rory

    I do not have the context, but what about the good old boring everyday English cliché, “Such is life”, or Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s perennial observation, “So it goes”?

  • susan

    Rory, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read Carson’s own piece in the Guardian about translating Merriman, a link within the Guardian article Pete linked? It goes a long way towards explaining Carson’s choices.


    Reading Carson’s translation — here now on Slugger, I’m just not that literate — I was struck by the relentlessness of the rhythms reminding me exactly of children’s rhymes ( i.e, ’twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas, and all through the HOUSE…”_ Whem I read Carson’s article, I learned that was his intention, and Carson’s vision of Merriman as a fiddle player and an entertainer enhanced my enjoyment of both the original and Carson’s translation because I pictured Merriman going for the laughs and not being above or afraid of a bit of doggerel in the never-ending, older-than-even-the-hills Irish endeavor of trying to be heard over all the drinking and the chat.

    But I really learned from your contribution, too, Rory. Often I am grateful Slugger O’Toole does not have an audio portion, but this thread is one of the times I wish there was. :o)

    Thank you for another heart-breakingly lovely thread, Pete. It sounds like an exquisite volume and I hope some lucky person gets it for Christmas.

    For you and for Rory, here’s an audio link to one of the growing number of bilingual poets writing both in English and Irish I really like. Her name is Dairena Ní Chinnéide, and when I went looking for her just now I learned she is also one of official Irish interpreters for the European Parliament.

    But try not to let that distract you. I apologise in advance for the sound quality — remember what I said about the struggle to be heard over all the drinking and the chat never ends.


  • Rory

    Thank you, Susan, for the link to Carson’s approach to his translation. I did just before dinner compose a long response to your post with much presentatation of quotation from both Carson and Fahey and lots of “compare and contrasts” and all that mehujah and I was rattling away “like a three dollar whore” (if you will forgive a lift from a Sam Peckinpah screenplay, whom don’t please judge a mysoginist, rather a man much fond of the company of the the outspokenness of rough men).

    After more than thirty minutes of merrily typing and copying and pasting and artfully editing I attempted to submit to no avail and lost not only the plot but the whole bloody composition (and my temper and, almost, the dinner I was preparing for the dear ones which narrowly avoided a fling into the abyss) and I don’t have the heart for the moment to attempt to recollect all my thoughts of that wasted time other than to say that I do appreciate very much your reflections on Carson’s translation and that my observations were no more than an expression of quirky personal preference and based only on my reading of that short excerpt to which Pete graciously (as ever) provided a link.

    I’m off shortly to meet a friend for pre-Christmas drinks and an attempt to recruit him into a collaboration with Comhaltas Ceolteorí Eireann for a “words and music” celebration towards next St Patrick’s Day and all this whittering on in the mode poetic has really helped prepare my mood and your kind and helpful remarks (and the good old Protestant Work Ethic efficiency which Pete tempers with such grace and courtesy) has armed me for a fray I relish.

  • Pete Baker

    Thanks Susan.

    And thank you for the link too. The microphone for most important invention? ;o)

    Good luck in the fray, Rory.

  • susan

    Rory, I have to admit I was temporarily stunned into silence last night at the thought of a “three dollar whore.” Imagining the sheer effort involved in earning enough at that rate of return to put even one decent dinner on the table for the family boggled what is left of my mind.

    But I’m sorry (genuinely) your thoughts on Carson and Fahey were lost, as they would have been good company as I was up most of last night trying to sort out matters far more mundane. I hope you go after the CCE with (oratorical) guns blazing and see your vision realised. And look out for them squadrons of ducks.

    I anticipating enjoying a much closer and more leisurely look at the Fahey after I’ve chiseled my way out of my current predicaments.

  • Rory


    The reference is one from a grisly old character (played by old Chill Wills – with a voice like rusty iron filings laced with molasses) in a post-Civil War Western frontier town and is intended to tell us more about the speaker than it is a comment on the condition of working girls of the period. Certainly no more than Kirsty McColl’s “Scumbag, you maggot, you lousy oul’ faggot” is intended to be a commentary on the plight of gays. In any case 3 dollars at the time was 3 days wages for a working cow-hand so a lot for him and while not a fortune for the woman, a lot better than the one dollar or less that some her sister workers commanded.

    But as I say, within context it works as a sad reflection of a sad old man and the hardship and imposed limitations on his inner growth in a harsh land at a harsh time.