Some interesting thoughts on translation and the Irish language from the Cork-based poet Louis de Paor in an interview with Alan O’Riordan in the Irish Examiner:
“CAN a poem ever really be translated?
The Cork poet Louis de Paor covers this ground in the introduction to his latest volume, The Brindled Cat and The Nightingale’s Tongue, before positing his own solution: deferral. He writes that he prefers his poems to have a life in Irish before they are translated. “The more Irish language readers read in Irish, without the life support of English, the more they are attuned to the possibilities of the language,” he says.
It seems unusual that a native English speaker like de Paor would find his poetic voice in an acquired tongue. “I wrote poems in Irish and English when I was 17 or 18,” he says. “They were terrible, but I found that what I was writing in Irish was really me, whereas in English it didn’t sound like me.”
De Paor came to Irish through school, and points to the likes of Sean Ó Ríordáin as formative influences who made him realise that Irish was a language fit for purpose to describe modern life. “Ó Ríordáin was electrifying,” he says. “And we liked him as much as we liked Thomas Kinsella and Liam Ó Flaithearta and Frank O’Connor. And Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne was as strange and compelling as Shakespeare!”
De Paor also cites the late Michael Davitt as a key influence. “To discover there was this poet from Cork city who was writing about this urban and suburban life that was so like mine was a revelation. His points of reference were in pop music; he was influenced by the Beatles and Bob Dylan… It confirmed to me that Irish was as open to the world as English, and adequate to the task of describing the experience of someone in a 20th-century city. And there was such a swagger and a panache to what he wrote.”
There is a challenge to the anglophone reader in such discoveries — how much are we willfully forgetting if we choose not to read or speak Irish? Are we neglecting a path into a deeper understanding of this country’s past? As an academic, de Paor’s answer is a resounding, ‘yes we are’. He writes with an awareness that he is standing in the long shadow of Irish, one that covers far more of the lived experience of this country, than the newcomer tongue English.
“Ninety per cent or more of our lived historical experience has been though the Irish language,” he says. “English has no direct access to that experience. It can only translate it. I think part of our unease with Irish is that it makes us feel foreign in our first language, and nobody likes to feel foreign at home. But we are at least partly estranged, remote from a significant part of ourselves, if we insist on being confined to English. Pre-Famine Irish-speaking Ireland and post-Famine English-speaking Ireland are two different worlds. I can’t go back there, but as someone who has learned Irish, I can at least try to get closer to that past without which we are disconnected, disinherited of what is legitimately and uniquely ours.””
I know the poet’s second youngest daughter personally