‘To the winds our sails: Irish writers translate Galician poetry’: Book Review

windThis 2010 anthology collects five poems each from ten Galician women. Irish poets translate four per poet from an English-language crib, with the remaining one rendered into Irish itself. The results reveal some of the revived enthusiasm and energy emanating from this northwestern corner of Iberia, with its alleged ancient ties to the Celtic lands, as the legendary homeland of the Irish themselves.

How such expression cross over linguistic expanses, co-editor Mary O’Donnell observes, raise questions. ‘It remains one of the essential questions whenever translation is in the air: how should it be done—an attempt at a literal transposition, an attempt to capture the spirit of the poem, regardless what gymnastics of language and phrasing, or is it a bit like making a dog stand on its hind legs? In other words, can it be done at all?’

Comparing Luz Pozo Garza’s take (from As arpas de Iwerddon [The Harps of Iwerddon—unmentioned in this very under-annotated book but it’s the Welsh version of Éire]) on the medieval account Lebor Gabala Éren or Book of Invasions, the possibilities emerge across the sea that unites rather than divides Galician from Gael. Taking Binn Éadair as her setting in these inclusions, she evokes a John Hinde picture-postcard rather than today’s Howth full of imposing villas. She appears to wish to return to what was imagined, in venerable or more recent depictions of this fabled promontory north of Dublin, and like her translator Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, envisions myth within or beneath today’s exurban sprawl.

Manuela Palacios in her preface explains the context for each poet. She singles out Luz Pichel’s surrealism. The unpredictable bursts into her ‘Burning the Firewood’. I cite in full for a flavour of her style. ‘The fog at daybreak is crammed with the bustle/ of rushing people./ A cock’s cry that comes with from afar/ echoes the cry of the crow,/ that scurries frightened/ by the blows of men.// They rise with the day and break maces/ against the doors of the cattle shed.// Another cock responds./ I look at the woodshed and think/ how I would like to burn it all.’

Catherine Phil MacCarthy’s rendition captures the rhythm of the Galician, with about the same amount of syllables per line. English usually takes fewer words than the original, so MacCarthy’s choice shows the attention to not only meaning but melody that translation may provide. Poets were given free rein to tighten or loosen the English or Irish equivalents, and in the latter (each Galician chose which of her five poems would be singled out for the Gaelic selection; some Irish poets had their own command of Irish to translate and some were given assistance, notably by Rita Kelly), considerable change can be seen, as that language in turn often demanded more words and more syllables than the Galician, in turn.

Why use three languages? This parallels, as O’Donnell shows, compare “two histories of struggle, two histories almost assimilated by greater, eloquent cultures that communicate in what are decisively termed world languages’, so giving Gaeilge and Gallego a chance to be heard along with English and rather than Spanish strengthens cultural exchange and encourages dialogue between the two nations, in real or idealised manifestations between two cultural cousins, seeking blood ties beyond the water.

Ultimately, the choice of ten women poets itself burrows into the land for some, and transcends its limits for others eager to enter imaginary or psychic terrain. This matters for any reader. Let Xiana Arias via Paddy Bushe conclude, as they do this volume, with a burst of transmission asserting ‘This is Not Feminine Literature’: ‘This is not feminine literature, the author said, while writing a play for children. There is a hero who snatches a beautiful woman from the arms of an evil man. In the end she leaves, alone, scoring the asphalt with her toenails.’ This image digs deep into one’s imagination, a fitting way to leave the impact of this encounter within the reader’s mind.

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