Tag Archives: Ireland

How Seamus Heaney Dug into Language

Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin,  2009 (Photo: Sean O'Connor)

Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin, 2009 (Photo: Sean O’Connor)

Irish poet Seamus Heaney passed away Friday. He was 74-years-old. The poet won numerous writing awards, including the Nobel Prize.

“I met him when I was a teenager,” says another Irish poet Paul Muldoon, about his friend. “I was about 16 at the time and he was 28 and already a very famous poet.”

Muldoon talks about how violence during The Troubles in Northern Ireland affected Heaney’s work. Indeed the Troubles seeped into many of the poems that Heaney wrote throughout his life.

But Muldoon says Heaney, “Refused, despite a certain amount of pressure, to come out on one side or the other. There were moments where he was more decisively asserting his more nationalist background when he describes how, ‘No glass has ever been raised to toast the queen of England.'”

Muldoon says it’s very difficult to for people in the US to understand what an extraordinary role Seamus Heaney as a poet had in Irish life.

Listen below to Paul Muldoon reading Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, “Digging.”


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Translating the Untranslatable: ‘Finnegans Wake’ in Chinese

The following is a guest post from The Big Show’s Leo Hornak.

One of the best known novels of the 20th century, Finnegans Wake, has been variously called great, unreadable and untranslatable. It may be all of those; it may be none of them. But right now, it’s a literary sensation in China.

Not every work of literature is destined for the best-seller lists. But recently, James Joyce’s novel has been doing very well indeed– in China. Copies of the first translation of Finnegans Wake available in mainland China have sold out.

Books in translation are often popular in China, but they tend to be global bestsellers like the Harry Potter series. So why has a text from pre-war Europe proved such a hit, particularly, one which has a reputation for being almost incomprehensible– even in its own language?

Congrong Dai

“I realized that Finnegans Wake was a great book,” says Congrong Dai, who spent eight years working on the translation. “This book can change the idea of Chinese reader. Besides, introducing this book to Chinese reader is my responsibility.”

Joyce’s newest translator says that Chinese readers can learn a lot from Joyce’s experimental novel.

Finnegans Wake is a book of freedom,” she says. “I do not only mean political freedom. Joyce will create new words to transcend social restraints. So the making of a new word shows Joyce’s disobedience.”

The creation of new words, the disobedience– perhaps a form of rejection of society– is one of the things that has made Finnegans Wake so notorious, and so infuriating for many readers. Almost every line is alive with puns, filthy double entendres, ancient Dublin slang and quotes from other authors.

Because the language in Finnegans Wake is so dense and complicated, translating it into another language might seem an impossible task. Is it even possible to convey any of this in translation?

“Yes, it’s possible and its been done,” says Michel Hockx, a professor of Chinese at the University of London. “Most of his work has been translated. Anything can be translated into any language.”

James Joyce

Is it more difficult to translate something like Finnegans Wake than any other piece of literature?

“I would say so,” Hockx says. “I mean it took the German translator 30 years. And the French translator 18 years. It’s really hard. There’s so many things that Joyce does with the language in terms of puns, in terms of different etymologies. He just creates a language of his own.”

If it isn’t exactly beach reading, there could be many reasons why Finnegans Wake has proved a hit in China. After all, there can be many reasons for buying a book.

Some people may “just want to have it on their coffee table,” Hockx says. “You know how many people are actually going to read it? I will frankly admit that I own a copy of Finnegans Wake that I haven’t finished either. I just felt I had to own it. So there is part of that happening.”

Read Congrong Dai’s A Chinese Translation of Finnegans Wake: The Work in Progress here. For more on how Chinese puns work, and how some Chinese use puns to avoid censorship, check out this post and podcast.


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Swearing in Irish, storytelling in Scots, and rapping in Khmer

There may be many reasons why attempts at reviving the Irish language have not fared as well as those for Welsh, or even Scottish Gaelic.  You might think that Ireland, as a new-ish nation, would have embraced its ancient language — a language suppressed by the British colonialists. And certainly, Ireland ‘s first few governments tried that in the 1920s and 30s. Irish was mandatory in schools, and mastery of it was required to enter the civil service. Despite that,  it never really took off. Perhaps the British had done too good a job in near-wiping it out. (And did less well in Wales, where people persisted in speaking Welsh, even before its current government-sponsored revival). Or perhaps, people aren’t comfortable learning a language as a political act, as part of a nationalist agenda.

We hear from two speakers of the language: first, my Dad, who remembers hardly any Irish these days but studied it at school for many years. Today, many decades later, he wishes he’d paid more attention.  Then, a conversation with Manchán Magan, who made a documentary series for Irish TV about his attempt to travel around Ireland speaking only Irish. (That’s him in the picture, praying that he’ll meet someone who speaks Irish.) He was verbally abused in Dublin — a reaction Magan thinks has to do with the past, and feelings of guilt and shame. In Killarney, he asked people, in Irish, to help him rob a bank. In Galway, he sang filthy songs in public and was applauded by uncomprehending old ladies.  He also tried — and failed — to buy food and clothes, and to hire a mechanic. Middle-aged Irish people like him, Magan says, never really were interested in keeping up their Irish skills. But the young are different: for them, learning Irish doesn’t have an agenda attached to it. So there may be hope yet for this language.
Then, it’s Alexander McCall Smith. His latest offering in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is a children’s book in the Scots language. McSmith and other participants in a BBC round-table program (also featured  in the podcast) discuss books in translation. English is now so dominant and so widely understood, that many books written in English simply aren’t translated into the likes of Dutch, Danish or Swedish, let alone Scots. So, publication of this book in its translation a full year before it is published in the original English is a quite a statement from McCall Smith.

Finally, we profile hip-hop artist Boomer Da Sharpshooter. Boomer, who is ethnic Cambodian, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in California. He grew up speaking English but now raps in Cambodia’s main language, Khmer. It’s not out of choice: in his late teens he was gang-banger, and was sent to prison on weapons offenses. On his release, the US deported him to Cambodia. That was seven years ago. Today, he’s a reformed character, and his  Khmer raps are considerably softer in tone and content than his English ones used to be.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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