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Some things are definitely lost in translation. You only have to listen to my husband tell an Egyptian joke in English to agree with me. It’s said the haiku form was invented to suit Japanese and isn’t as effective in any other language, that the beauty of the Qur’an can only be appreciated in the original Arabic, and that essential nuances are lost when Irish poetry is translated into English.

I was looking for my Irish Poem of the Week yesterday and came across an old favourite, which unlike the Egyptian jokes, always makes me smile. Unfortunately, having been born and raised in the northern part of Ireland, I have no knowledge of my native language, was not taught it at school, and so, cannot read the work of Daithi O Bruadair (c.1625 – 1698) in the original Irish.

Irish Bard

I found two English translations of the same poem. The first is by Thomas Kinsella, the second by Michael Hartnett. I’ve included only the first stanza below as a comparison. Be warned – O Bruadair was far from what we’d call ‘politically correct’ today.

A shrewish, barren, bony, nosey servant
refused me when my throat was parched in crisis.
May a phantom fly her starving over the sea,
the bloodless midget that wouldn’t attend my thirst.

(Thomas Kinsella version from ‘Ferocious Humanism’)

A shrivelled-up skivvy, snappy, nosy, dry,
refused when a craving for booze ate my insides:
may she starve and a ghost over seas with her fly,
that wizened old midget who wouldn’t one jorum supply.

(Michael Hartnett version from ‘O Bruadair’)

Shrew with hoop

There isn’t a huge difference between the two translations, but I found it interesting that Kinsella uses ‘barren’ where Hartnett prefers ‘dry’ or ‘shrivelled’. Both poets repeat these words in the final stanza. Where Kinsella writes: ‘the barrenest face you would meet on the open road’, Hartnett plumps for: ‘with the driest old face you could meet on a trip’. Maybe ‘dry’ sits easier with the gist of the poem, which is basically a curse after the poet was refused a drink. On the other hand, perhaps ‘barren’ was more of an insult to women in O Bruadair’s day. When we read a translation, be it poetry or prose fiction, we are unaware of why the translator chose the words and phrases he or she did when faced with a myriad of possibilities. We have to take it all on trust. Only when we have the benefit of two or more translations, does the translator’s art become obvious. We might wish to argue about which version is the ‘best’ or the most true to the original, but how much do these things matter?

I wonder which of these two closing lines O Bruadair would approve of most (assuming he could time travel and had succumbed to the pull of the English language which he deplored):

May she drop her dung down stupidly into the porridge! (Kinsella)

And like a fool in her gruel may she dribble her shit. (Hartnett)

The second is certainly earthier and Hartnett seems more in tune to assonance (an internal rhyming scheme based on vowel sounds, eg, ‘fool’ and ‘gruel’), a feature of Irish-language poety. Kinsella uses a lot of alliteration (repetition of consonants at the beginning of words, eg, ‘drop her dung down’) which is more typical of English-language poetry. None of this really helps me, a non-Irish speaker, in determining which is closer to O Bruadair’s C17th poem. Although Irish-language literary experts might argue about it, it’s likely that they would find it hard to reach a consensus.

Killing me Softly

An Irish poet once told me that he looked upon his translations of others’ work as ‘cover versions’. I like this definition. In the music world, sometimes the cover version is just as good, if not better than the original. I remember having an argument with someone about this and I mistakenly said that no-one could ever do ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’ better than Roberta Flack’s original. Aha, I was told – that was a cover version. The original was recorded by Lori Lieberman, a year before Flack’s 1973 version. One of the writers of the song, Charles Fox reckoned Flack’s version became more successful than Lieberman’s because it was faster and Flack’s musicians gave it a stronger backbeat, absent from the original. No doubt Lieberman felt pretty unlucky as she watched her song, sung by someone else, climb the charts.

Maybe sometimes something is gained in translation. Maybe any losses are worth it if writers and poets can move a piece of work forward, bring it to a wider readership, or revive it in a different decade or even a different century. I’ve read and re-read Kinsella’s and Hartnett’s versions of the O Bruadair poem and I honestly can’t say that I prefer one over the other. After thinking about it and writing this blog, I’ve decided that the differences in their translations are perhaps more to do with their own personalities and poetic leanings than O Bruadair’s. In a way, when you read a translation, you’re getting two poets for the price of one. For poetry lovers, that’s surely a bonus.


Ferocious Humanism: An Anthology of Irish Poetry from before Swift to Yeats and after, Edited by W. J. McCormack (London: J. M. Dent, 2000) p.4
O Bruadair: Translations from the Irish, Michael Hartnett (Loughcrew: The Gallery Press, 2000 reprint) p.21