I’ve been reading Flann O’Brien again, having picked up Hair of the Dogma (Paladin, 1989), a selection from his riotous Irish Times column ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, which he wrote under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen. (Brian O’Nolan was the writer’s real name; he had many pseudonyms, of which Flann O’Brien is probably the best known.)
Because Myles excelled at satire and wore many masks, it is hard to tell sometimes just how serious or truthful he is being. But I believe this passage from his article ‘J.J. and Us’ (J.J. meaning James Joyce), about a plan to translate Ulysses into Irish, to be essentially on the level:
I suppose uncertainty is the handmaid of all grandiose literary projects. Many motives lay behind that 1951 decision of mine to translate Joyce’s Ulysses into Irish. If they won’t read it in English, I said to myself, bedamn but we’ll put them in the situation that they can boast they won’t read it in Irish aither.
It’s work, though. And black thoughts encloister me, like brooding buzzards. Is it worth being accurate if nobody will ever read the translation? What’s the Irish for Robert Emmet? And who will put Irish on this fearsome thing written by Joyce himself: Suil, suil, suil arun, suil go siocair agus, suil go cuin.
See the snares in this business, doom impending, heart-break?
Aither as a Hiberno-English rendition of either is something I’ll address in a future post. What Myles calls a ‘fearsome thing’ is already in Irish (that being the joke, I suppose), or a version of Irish without accent marks, and occurs in the Ithaca episode of Ulysses as follows:
What fragments of verse from the ancient Hebrew and ancient Irish languages were cited with modulations of voice and translation of texts by guest to host and by host to guest?
By Stephen: suil, suil, suil arun, suil go siocair agus, suil go cuin (walk, walk, walk your way, walk in safety, walk with care).
By Bloom: Kifeloch, harimon rakatejch m’baad l’zamatejch (thy temple amid thy hair is as a slice of pomegranate).
How far O’Nolan got in his efforts to translate Ulysses, I don’t know. He seems to have put his mind and pen to it to some extent, as the following text from the same ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ article suggests – though again it’s hard to know for sure how much it reflects reality and how much is dramatised for style and effect or even mischief. O’Brien scholars might know more about this abandoned project.
Recently a chap said to me: How’s it going? I told him it was going so-so. Slow of course. These things take time. . . . Uphill work when all decent Christians are in bed. The midnight oil. Drudgery of a special kind.
Told you. Bit off more than you could chaw. You and all that B. Comm. crowd is too smart.
No, no, no, I told him. The job COULD be done. There were, of course, difficulties – minute things of rhythm, luminance, impact. The acute difficulty in translation lay in the lucid conveyance of obscurity. Even the hidden thing was susceptible of diacrisis. Not in the same darkness were all dark things enwrapped.
His sceptical interlocutor tells him there’s no future in it, and that he’d be ‘a damn sight better off’ playing bagpipes in Bagenalstown. Myles presents him with a sample, reading first the text from Ulysses:
Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eye. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot . . .
And then his translation into Irish, which he reads ‘from my large manuscript’:
Mionshamhlíocht dosheachanta an tsofheicse; fiú an mhéid sin féin, intiniocht tré fháisnéis súl. Lorg an uile a bhfuil agam annso le sonnrú, scéag mara, leathach, an tuile i gcuaird, an bhróg úd mheirgeach . . .
My Irish is nowhere near good enough to judge the literary merits of this translation, but it sounds good to the ear, and I would tend to trust in O’Nolan’s competence: he was a native speaker who wrote often in Irish, and was an erudite polyglot receptive to puns and rarefied allusions alike.
I also read a very good illustrated biography of Flann, by Peters Costello and van de Kamp, which I’m told is out of print. There are a few excerpts in this string of tweets, and on my Tumblr quotes from Flann on literature being disgusting, on recasting classic characters in fiction, and, famously, on the thrill of waiting for the German verb.
Finally: anyone interested in the works of this uniquely talented and protean writer will find much to enjoy at the International Flann O’Brien Society, which publishes a terrific journal called The Parish Review, to which you can sign up by email.