A Playful and Witty Bilingual Feast

Her translators echo the wit and playfulness of the Irish-language poet’s originals

This book is a selection, with translations by many hands, from Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh’s previous two collections in Irish, Péacadh and Tost agus Allagar, both published by Coiscéim Press. It is a feast for the eye and the ear and a consolation for the heart. With its excellent, and occasionally multiple, translations, it is also a great example of what can be achieved by the coming together of the two great languages to which this island is heir.

Naturally for a poet writing in Irish, like all poets writing in lesser-spoken languages, Ní Ghearbhuigh has her bad days:

Bím bréan do bheith fréamhaithe
cois leapan
na teangan éignithe seo,

ag guí biseach uirthi,
á faireadh go cúramach
ag impí beatha inti arís.

(. . . worn out
from being tied
to this jaded
language’s bedside,

down on my knees
praying she’ll thrive,
tending to her, imploring
she’ll show signs of being alive)

But it is typical of her wide scope and breadth of vision that this existential worry is widened out to include other endangered languages, such as “Irrintzina, a shrieking language in the Basque country used to express emotion”. Probably the most plaintive case of all is a whistling language formerly used by shepherds in the Pyrenees. This language was used against the Nazis to stop Jews from coming to harm and it passed resistance messages
secretly, from lip to pursed lip,
and helped crashed allied pilots
reach the border with Spain.

Unfortunately for posterity and the sum total of human culture, this language

. . . hasn’t been heard since.

It has a half-life, this whistling language,
in the memories of certain parishioners
but none now is capable
of producing the sounds.

It has never been recorded.

The message is obvious. It is enough to raise the small hairs on the back of the neck of any of us working in Irish. But for me the real merit of this poem is in the title, ‘Deireadh na Feide’. This is because of the phrase “i ndeireadh na feide”, translated in Dinneen’s dictionary as “at the last gasp” or, as I would prefer to put it, “at wit’s end”. Literally, though, it means “at the end of the whistle”, and this title, with its punning wit, lifts the whole poem with a lightness that wonderfully moderates what might otherwise be too portentous a meaning.

This wit and playfulness with language is obvious throughout the whole collection. It pervades many of the original poems, such as ‘Manach Eile agus a Chat’, with its knowing nod to the famous ‘Pangur Bán’, and any amount of others into which famous lines from the literary and singing tradition have been slyly snuck; lines such as “faoiseamh a gheobhadsa”, “mo ghrá go daingean thú”, “rúmanna á mbreacadh aici” and “bheadh agat féirín lá aonaigh / is margaidh”.

The poems work fine without knowledge of the literary pedigree of such lines. However, for anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the Irish literary and song tradition they are an added enjoyment, giving depth and resonance to the poems.

The bevy of translators do a marvellous job, but I would single out two poems in particular translated by Alan Gillis, ‘Rented’ and ‘Grasse Matinée’, for the excellent way he uses end-rhyme in English to approximate the long vowels, diphthongs and assonances of the original. This last-mentioned poem is my very favourite in the whole book. It is fresh and original. It is full of the elan and sensuousness of youth. It manages to make an intense aesthetic experience out of the very thought of eating oranges later on.

Once again, Peter Fallon has produced a classy and important book, a book of which it can be said that the whole is greater than the parts. I am delighted that the talents of Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh have been done poetic justice.

— Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, The Irish Times

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