Flann O’Brien on translating Ulysses into Irish

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).

Flann O'Brien - Myles na Gopaleen - The Hair of the DogmaStephen’s verse is adapted from the Irish ballad ‘Siúil A Rún’ (‘Walk, my dear’, or ‘Go, my love’). It’s echoed in Finnegans Wake in the phrase ‘who goes cute goes siocur and shoos aroun’.

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.


23 Responses to Flann O’Brien on translating Ulysses into Irish

  1. Craig says:

    Hmm. I think Myles is taking you for a ride there. I doubt he translated any more of Ulysses than he needed for this column.

  2. Reader says:

    A man called Séamus Ó hInnéirghe translated Ulysses into Irish. The translation is not without flaws: the essay ‘An Seoigheach sa Ghaeilge’ by Alan Titley published in the book Aistriú Éireann (2008) discusses some of the difficulties faced by Ó hInnéirghe.

  3. Claire de Lune says:

    Wonderful fascinations and intricate treasures!
    Something about that prospect (Ulysses in Irish) seems almost Escher-ian to me. My very novice perspective on that work sees it as being structured in English, but with Irish Language aspects and flavors and textures kind of interwoven throughout. Having the main language be Irish, would need to be turned inside-out, or into a perpetual loop, or something fractal. Delightful!
    Adding to list: Must read Flann O’Brien!

    • Stan Carey says:

      structured in English, but with Irish Language aspects and flavors and textures kind of interwoven throughout

      That’s pretty much how it is, Claire. And of course much of the English is Hiberno-English, which has Irish structures intrinsic to it. I’m very taken by the idea of an Irish translation.

      I hope you enjoy Flann, if you get around to him. It might be worth trying a local library. If you think you might take a chance on one of his novels, I’d recommend The Third Policeman first.

  4. As far as how much work he did on Ulysses, my advice with Flann O’Brien is: cherish and enjoy every word, and don’t believe a single one ;-)

  5. I’ve got a version of the Siúil A Rún song on CD as sung by a Breton speaker. The “written by Joyce himself” line almost had me, but the joke does go over my head.


  6. Mise says:

    The ‘fearsome thing’ is almost meaningless, or gets its meaning by association: the words are similar in appearance to those of the traditional Irish song. I’ve never had any patience with Joyce; I feel like telling him to shape up or ship out. Whereas Flann O’Brien is a joy.

  7. John Cowan says:

    I wrote a blog post about what happened to “Shool Aroon” in America. Short version: Irish turns to gibberish.

    • Stan Carey says:

      This is great, thank you. And it shows how hard it could be to reverse engineer a set of garbled lyrics even with competence in both languages. The words turn to such jelly.

  8. Sean Jeating says:

    Thanks for making me smile.
    Can’t remember, who it was, but I remember I read: Had he not been ding dong Joyce would have written like this / him (O’Brien).

  9. lectorconstans says:

    As a next step, someone might try translating “Finnegans Wake” into English…
    I’ve never heard of O’Brien – my loss – but from those snippets of his, there was no one better to have a go at it.
    About that “Waiting for the German verb”: Mark Twain that he was reading a German detective story, but never found out what happened, because the last pages were torn out, and that’s where all the verbs were.
    More hunting around for O’Brien (or whatever name is really his – like T. S. Eliot’s cats): we definitely need a “Skeleton Key to Flann O’Brien”. An he didn’t seem to be all that fond of Joyce’s work.

    • Stan Carey says:

      A skeleton key to Flann would be a handy thing – or, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, a corpus of his texts. ‘Translating’ Finnegans Wake would defeat the purpose, but I don’t suppose that was a serious suggestion.

  10. Whatever about Myles’ proposal for an Irish language translation of Ulysses, he went one ( or two ) stages further in proposing an Irish language version of Finnegans Wake featuring every known and unknown dialect of Irish. And he went on to deliver a first installment of his proposed,
    ‘Extractum O Bhark I bPrograis’ in 1934 – mimicking the title of convenience ‘Work in Progress’ used by Joyce when publishing extracts from his last work.
    I have a copy of the first ‘Extractum’ published by Myles in ‘Ireland Today’ 1934. It’s entitled –
    Maybe some Flanneur could confirm if any further Extracta were ever published by Myles?

  11. Further to the above. Just noticed a mistake. The publication occurred in February 1938 ( not 1934).

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