This translation of Aoghan O’Rathaile’s deathbed poem seeks to capture something of the melisma of unspeakable grief and insuppressible rage evoked there with such unsparing candor. I am not an Irish speaker, though my ancestors would have been on both my mother’s and father’s sides. Their stories are given expression my book, The Narrows (Four Way Books, 2005). I do not “have” Irish, as they say. Nonetheless, my effort to carry this poem over into the fateful language of English, my inherited tongue, involves a question of confluence: To what extent is translation an act of emigration? For one who would not have existed if history had played out otherwise, the intention to translate such a poem conflates opposing vantages—the retrospect becomes a prospect; and the effort at translation a prospecting, as it were, of a disinheritance.
In any case, I wanted this translation to be true to its cultural source. Hence for example, a word that might have been translated “lords” or “earls,” I translate as “chieftains.” I do take “creative” liberties here and there. The phrase “hungry hills” does not appear in O’Rathaile’s poem, but my use of it should be recognized by anyone familiar with Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry — “Who owns them hungry hills?” “For fuck all,” reads literally “for a penny,” though I do not believe that phrase communicates anything like the bitterness in O’Rathaile’s seething line. “Fuck all” is contemporary Irish parlance, and I think its meaning is tonally self-evident. The word “Sassenach” does not appear, though it means “stranger,” applied to the British colonizers by the native Irish. Brian Friel’s play Translations evokes resonant echoes in this case. Shannon, Liffey, Blackwater, Bride, Brick, Boyne, Laune, Leane, and Lee — river names, some familiar, some less, as well as Lough Derg, Toime, Rinne, Cille, (McGilicuddy’s ) Reeks, Youghal, all place names--these collectively resound with the abidingly Irish attachment to specific locations and the lore that grows up with and around them (dinnseanchas). In short, O’Rathaile’s last song and his final embrace is simultaneously comprehensive and achingly local and personal. It is not surprising that as his outcry nears its end, he sees the landscape to be, literally and figuratively, the motion and aspect of his very consciousness.
That is because, ultimately, even in the midst of his disintegrating world, O’Rathaile’s whole identity remains bound up with, and still part of, a history that pre-dates the Christian dispensation — even his own oppressed Catholic faith. Though he is Catholic, his native home is with the great heroic dead of his druidic people. It is hard, if not impossible, to ignore the resonances with other native sensibilities in O’Rathalie’s painfully culminating resignation. Finally, my use of the word “fostered” in the translation intends to call to mind the system of fosterage that was a defining attribute of the Brehon system, a practice designed to strengthen social ties of family and clan, and by extension one’s society. One can imagine worse legacies.
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