TRANSLATING SORLEY: A GAELIC LESSONfrom The London Chronicle
In the early nineteen seventies I translated Sorley MacLean’s poem ‘Palach’, his homage to the young man who set himself on fire as the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. Even though it was a time when international poetry festivals included Scottish Gaelic on equal terms with English and Serbo-Croat, I was the only student in Dundee University believed to have sufficient Gaelic. Though there must have been native speakers from the Highlands. No doubt their heads were down in the library ‘learning their escape’.
The poem was for the ceremony awarding Sorley MacLean an honourary degree. It was hoped he would read it himself, and an actor the translation. Peter Ustinov, the Vice Chancellor, would be approached. I was dealing with kilted Scots from the Lowlands who passionately avowed a love of Gaelic. An unrequited one as they didn’t bother to study it. A few snippets like dia duit or slan leat won you a sporran. So my Donegal Irish seemed like the full tartan. Linguistic hypocrisy is not unique to Scotland. I had just come from Ireland where Irish Gaelic was a compulsory subject in school and a prerequisite for getting a job. Civil Servants standardised it into a language which was ill-understood in the Gaelteacht. Forward-looking city people acquired it, while the backward natives emigrated.
I should not have been surprised that my translation was approved by MacLean. Celtic Scholars considered Scottish and Irish Gaelic as dialects of a single cohesive tongue. Speech patterns had been shown to change together over the centuries. Local differences widened with the Penal Laws and the Clearances, but in the mid-twentieth century the rapport between the dialects returned to where it had begun, with literary exchanges subsidised by Nationalist movements. Revivalist aspirations remained with a purist elite. Much to their gruaim and bruion, at dual poetry readings English translations were necessary for most listeners.
I was nervous as I was being paid five pounds, my first paycheck for poetry. And I had mixed feelings about Sorley MacLean. He seemed to me a throwback, a living relic of Gaelic in Scotland before the fall into English. I had seen him performing at a poetry festival in Perth, and found him as convincing as a brainstorming actor with a captive audience and a penchant for anachronisms. I saw MacLean as a Gaelic Swinburne with a bit of politics on the side. And then there was the Secret Sorrow in his poems that had something to do with a ‘lost love’, possibly a sister like Byron, according to the kilted culturists. I thought this was a mistranslation. Siur in Gaelic is a term of endearment as well as a blood relation. It’s the same in Russian. My Sister, Life is a book of poems by Pasternak, a nod to the opening line of Baudelaire’s ‘L’Invitation au Voyage’.
Sorley MacLean loaded his poems with contemporary politics. This had a modernist dimension which came as a surprise. He clustered political references around a single letter, evoking Queneau and Perec and the Oulipo group in Paris. The Palach poem revolved around the letter H: Himmler, Hiroshima and the Holocaust. I wondered why he left out the Great Hunger, and the Hunger Strikers in Northern Ireland. It would have been jumping the gun for the H-block ‘dirty protests’. They were still to come, and the self-starvation of Francis Hughes, Martin Hurson and Patsy O’Hara (Bobby Sands hadn’t an H to his name).
I missed the ceremonial reading, having moved to London. All I know is that nobody noticed I dropped the ending, ‘There are a dozen Palachs in the French telephone directory’. True, after the Russian invasion, Czech emigrants were flooding into Paris with one-way tickets and Palach was a common name. So what, I thought, the poem’s over with the regret for the loss of a young life. When I met Sorley MacLean a decade later at a poetry festival in Leeds I confessed to the liberty. He was puzzled and said, ‘But I always translate my own poems’.
I had had the misfortune of reading my poems after his inevitable triumph. I like to enunciate every word slowly so that they are as clear as possible. This goes down better with non-poetry loving audiences. After I finished there was silence. Sorley clapped and the audience joined in. He was no doubt sorry for me and, while sharing a backstage drink, to anticipate praise from pity, I remarked, ‘Performing poets are the remnants of Romanticism’.
‘Yes, it’s the singer not the song.’
‘And the meaning gets lost?’
‘No. We’ve gone back to our roots as seers who speak in tongues.’
As a poet called Adrian wows the audience out front, we speak of Agit Prop. He doesn’t disagree with my précis of something I wrote in Scottish International (‘Forcing a recalcitrant society to revolution with poetry is midwifery at its worst. The baby of propaganda is bound to turn out to be a monster’). I’m encouraged to mention the Oulipo of H-words in his Palach poem, and he says, ‘I have moved on to the next letter, I. Social Realism is an H-word, symbolism an I-one’, and he looks at me sideways.
When I ask him what is behind the Secret Sorrow in his poetry, he laughs. ‘It’s no secret. Sorrow is sorrow.’
‘And who’s the tragic ‘sister’?’
‘She’s symbolic in the same sense that Ireland is often referred to as our Sister Nation. She’s my Cathleen Ni Houlihan, my visiting aisling, a dawn raid by a beautiful maiden.’
‘An experience not unknown to Neruda?’
‘No, the climate is too temperate in Scotland for that. She’s slipping into my bed to warm herself. But I’m too cold for her, and she’s suffering, symbolically of course…’
‘Like the fairy women in Ossian?’
‘And why not. Gaelic poetry, for better or worse, is working its way backwards into the letters in Ogham.’
My party piece is the Ogham alphabet, all nineteen letters, as reconstructed by German Celticists from the dots and dashes riven in stone, and so I launch into ‘A, B, C, D, E, G, H, I…’.
‘Your future is well sign-posted’, Sorley interrupts me as a flood of his admirers arrive and, before being carried away on a laurel-wreathed currach, adds, ‘Send me a copy of the Ogham’. A year afterwards I got a reply, ‘A Cara Augustus, Ogham could not have been Gaelic as it had two letters, Z and Q, which do not exist in the language, Sorley.’
In the mid-nineteen nineties I was asked for my ‘Palach’ translation by a Scottish-Irish bilingual publication. I declined because I didn’t think it worked. But I thought again. I had been reading Borges’s ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote’. And so I made an Irish Gaelic translation of Sorley’s Scottish Gaelic, and placed them side-by-side on the page. The two were identical, word for word. I sent a copy to Sorley, and I still have his card of Loch Ness with the monster squiggled in. He wrote, ‘Your version is better than the original’. Two poems with the same words when read out are as different as the two people that recite them. I’d prefer to hear his.