Ceist na Teangan – The Language Question

Recently at work, I was trying to fix a problem with the search index of a big website that launched last week: some of our PDF files weren’t being indexed, and it wasn’t clear why. As part of my troubleshooting, I put out a copy of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s Oileán: I figured I’d get no false positives on “glinniúint” or “fiondruine” in scouring the index, plus I’d be able to confirm that non-English documents were indexed (there was already quite a bit of content on the site in French and Swedish). It turned out to be a surprisingly practical use for poetry.

The marketing manager for the site got wind of it through an Irish employee working in Sweden. “An obscure Irish poet,” was how this Irish ex-pat described Ní Dhomhnaill, to which I had to object: Michael Davitt is an obscure Irish poet, but not Ní Dhomhnaill. If Ní Dhomhnaill were writing in English, I opined, she’d be as well-known as Seamus Heaney. (Appeals to Seamus Heaney’s fame are apparently not the best way to make the case for one’s favorite Irish poet.) I proceeded to recite from “Oileán,” which is probably not the most work-safe of Ní Dhomhnaill’s poems (though by far not the least), but I subscribe to the theory that let a local bar put a scandalous Brendan Behan quote (in Irish) on their t-shirts: those who would be offended would be unlikely to understand it, and those who could understand it would be unlikely to be offended. Ní Dhomhnaill is no longer on the site (nor are Dick Van Dyke and the dancing penguins from “Mary Poppins”), but I’m glad that she made a brief appearance anyway.

A couple years ago, I led up to St. Patrick’s Day with frequent translations of Irish poems. I had a lot of time on my hands that March, and I have (thankfully) much less now, but I thought I’d try to squeeze in a few. Since it was a Ní Dhomhnaill poem that got me thinking of this project again, here’s a short one by my favorite poet about the language that keeps her from being as famous as Seamus Heaney, first in Irish and then in my rough English translation:

Ceist na Teangan

le Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Cuirim mo dhóchas ar snámh
i mbáidín teangan
faoi mar a leagfá naíonán
i gcliabhán
a bheadh fite fuaite
de dhuilleoga feilastraim
is bitiúman agus pic
bheith cuimilte lena thóin

ansan é a leagadh síos
i measc na ngiolcach
is coigeal na mhan sí
le taobh na habhann,
féachaint n’fheadraís
cá dtabharfaidh an sruth é,
féachaint, dála Mhaoise,
an bhfóirfidh iníon Fharoinn?

The Language Question

by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

I put my hope a-swim
in the little boat of language
as one might place an infant
in a cradle
of tightly woven
iris leaves
with bitumen and pitch
smeared on its bottom

and then lay it down
among the reeds
and cat-tails
beside the river,
watching without knowing
where the stream will carry it,
perhaps, like Moses,
into the care of a Pharaoh’s daughter?

A couple of notes:In my translation, I’ve tried to be more literal than Paul Muldoon’s that is published in the collection I own: Muldoon has earned some liberties that I dare not take. One phrase in the poem for which I wish I could find a more playful rendering is “coigeal na mban sí,” which I’ve given as cat-tails. That’s what my dictionary gave me, but the literal meaning is a little more tightly packed: “coigeal” is “distaff” (the spinning tool), and “coigeal na mban sí” would be something like “the fairy woman’s distaff” (“ban sí” comes into English as “banshee,” the keening harbinger of death; “mban” is the genitive case of “ban”). It’s a more accurate description than cat-tail, I think, and with the images of cradles and Pharaoh’s daughter, a nice feminine image.

“Fite fuaite” gave me a little trouble. “Fite” is woven, and “fuaite” is sewn, two rather different ways of making a boat. I thought about sticking with “sewn,” since that echoes the boat in “Oileán” with its tidy stitching, but I ended up at “tightly woven” because it’s how I imagine one would make a boat from iris leaves and because it echoes “fite dlúth” in “Coinleach Ghlas an Fhomhair,” which is coming up in a day or two.

I stuck with the word “bitumen” rather than “tar” even if “tar” would have been clearer: Irish has a word for “tar” already (“tarra”), and I’m sure Ní Dhohmnaill would have used it if she’d wanted just to name a sticky black substance used for waterproofing. “Bitumen” is formed from decomposing organic material (and so a kin of peat), and was used to adhere the bricks of the Tower of Babel, which has some linguistic echoes indeed.

This is the poem that gives the title to one of Ní Dhomhnaill’s better-known collections–not the “Language Question” (or “Language Issue,” as Paul Muldoon’s translation has it), but “Pharaoh’s Daughter.” It’s an interesting choice for a title, since the poem is Moses, borne on the cradle of the Irish language, into the arms of the Pharaoh’s daughter, who I suppose would be the English-speaking readers who will care for this strange foreign child.

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