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Translation And Postcolonial Ireland

While the art and theory of translation can be studied and observed through various lenses academics regularly utilize, postcolonialism is notable for playing a larger and more important role over others. Important translation scholars have deepened this connection, be they explicators of mode (Benjamin, 2000) or of the translator’s agency (Tymoczko, 2014). On the whole, however, there are several key reasons why postcolonialism has become an important element in translation studies. Due both to the author’s greater familiarity with Irish postcolonialism scholars alongside the sentimental nod to heritage, this article will use Ireland as its example.

Young Ireland & The Writing of Irish History. [Media from Wix].

Why Ireland is Postcolonial

In the modern day, postcolonialism has become so intrinsically associated with “third world” former colonies it takes an extra brightening of the spotlight to remember that the Irish people were also governed stylistically as a colony. The application of the postcolonial lens to Ireland becomes even more acute after taking history into account, as Ireland was a colony for longer than most others apart from the 16th century colonies of Spain and Portugal. While Ireland’s geographical belonging to the continent of Europe furthers its uniqueness not only among postcolonial countries but countries in general, the ramifications to its culture are as much greater as its time as a colony was long. Pinning a specific date is difficult but as Ireland historian Thomas Bartlett (2011) summarizes, the ascendance of colonial rule lies somewhere between 1541 — the establishment of the Kingdom of Ireland within Great Britain —and 1691, the year of the Battle of Aughrim (pp. 79). As Bartlett writes:

“During this century and a half the English conquest of Ireland, begun in 1169 and since then pursued only fitfully, if even that, was completed under the later Tudors, and an intensive process of colonization was started, with the stated view of making Ireland both English and Protestant.” (Bartlett, 2011, pp. 79)

The Irish House of Commons. [Media from Wix].

Upon the establishment of the Protestant ruling order in Ireland during this time, numerous catastrophes for the Irish people took place, ranging from seemingly countless failed rebellions to the Great Potato Famine and to the Troubles post-independence. The Famine in particular is notable in the context of literature as it especially decimated the Gaelic-speaking population. The damage caused to the Irish Gaelic language has not, to this day, been healed despite the efforts of the Gaelic Revivalists since Ireland regained its independence.

Irish Gaelic Literature Versus "Punch-Drunk Paddy"

Irish independence since 1919 has led to a variety of successes and lack of successes on the international stage; but while Ireland has been able to hold its own politically well at times and not so well at other times, it is in Irish culture that the effects of Ireland's postcolonial status are most visible. While Irish culture is emotionally well-loved by millions around the world, it is a love largely defined internationally by stereotypes that few appear in a hurry to question: a notably pervasive stereotype is “punch-drunk Paddy,” vigorously condemned by Irish Gaelic author and postcolonial writer Tomás Mac Síomóin (Mac Síomóin, 2014).

St. Patrick's Day. [Media from Wix].

Hordes of people with little to no meaningful connection to Irish culture dressing as "punch-drunk Paddy" and getting heavily inebriated may appear at first glance to have little to do with literary translation. On the contrary, it has everything to do with it. In previous articles, mention has been made about the process of "domesticating otherness." As translation scholar Michael Cronin writes, "Language itself is intimately bound up with what makes humans different from each other" (Cronin, 2006, pp. 1). And Irish-language literature is as different as Irish culture, expressed in literature, can get in the modern day from both Anglo-American domestication and "punch-drunk Paddy." Whether it is the works of Máirtín Ó Cadhain, the aforementioned Tomás Mac Síomóin or even the classic "Blasket Island writers" — Tomás O'Crohan, Peig Sayers and Maurice O'Sullivan — Irish-language literature, despite its status, is not impossible to domesticate but difficult to turn into "punch-drunk Paddy" - in otherwords, the ultimately subservient form of domestication. Attempts have been made, however, with the Blasket Island writers - sadly, with some success.

Even so, the depiction of a "simpler time" in books like an tOileánach (The Islandman) bear little resemblance to the average St. Patricks Day parade. While almost every language culture in the world famous enough to have internationally-pervasive stereotypes faces some kind of struggle with translation — Polish literature in translation, for instance, frequently finds that it must pertain to the Holocaust somehow if Anglo readers are to like it, rather than anything to do with actual Polish culture — Irish stories that do not conform to the requisite stereotypes face the same type of judgment. The difference is that unlike Irish-language literature, Polish literature in translation is mitigated somewhat by wiggle room provided by less international awareness, a proud diaspora that recognizes Poland's borders as extending beyond the fences of Auschwitz, five Nobel Prize laureates (six if one includes Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer) and fewer symptoms of postcolonial psychology despite the years of partition. Not only must Irish-language authors counter a marginal status in their own country as well as a number of philological flaws regarding the teaching of Irish Gaelic in Ireland; they must counter cemented stereotypes deeply ingrained by time in the minds of millions of foreigners whose conception of Ireland rarely extends beyond a pint of Guinness. For unlike Polish culture — as expressed in literary translation — Irish culture is colonized not only as a result of insecurities from the Irish themselves; its very essence is "colonized" on an international level.

Scenery Around Great Blasket Island, Ireland

Is Irish Literature in English Translation?

Given the struggles of Irish-language literature, what, then, does that say about Irish literature in English? Is it simply colonial or postcolonial literature, like English language literature in African countries? In Broken Harp, Mac Síomóin (2014), not without a hint of disdain, notes that Irish literature is uniquely applauded in the Anglo world, implying that the rest of the world does not share in what he views as a less than sincere appreciation by the Anglosphere. As Irish literary output is considerable given the nation’s size, assessing the truth of that is a task for another article. Given Mac Síomóin’s experiences, however, it is not far off to say that his pessimism regarding the reputation of Irish literature is not unfounded, at least in terms of global appreciation.

It is then necessary to look at examples that are sincerely appreciated. Translation scholar Maria Tymoczko wrote a book pertaining to the most famous Irish novel of all: James Joyce's Ulysses. Tymoczko's study The Irish Ulysses details — to put it in a relevant manner — how Irish "otherness" not only permeates the entire English-language novel; its Irishness, largely originating from Irish Gaelic language heritage, is a fundamental part of the novel both structurally and in terms of content (Tymoczko, 2021). In doing this, Joyce proved that “otherness” can be expressed in another language, including the language of the colonizer. Nonetheless, a question remains: as the National Archives of Ireland (n.d.) indicate, Joyce knew the Irish language. Why not write Ulysses in Irish Gaelic?

James Joyce. [Media from Wix].

As Tymoczko (2021) explains, Joyce wrote for an international readership (pp. 14). He could not have imported Ulysses into the canon of world literature by writing a heavily-Irish yet incomprehensible book into English that his readers would not comprehend, let alone in a language that would marginalize him. By cloaking an enormous amount of “Irishness” within the universality of Homer's The Odyssey, Joyce acted not only as original writer but as a translator of “otherness.” It is up to Joyce scholars like Tymoczko, however, to clarify whether or not the "Irishness" in Ulysses has been as influential to Joyce's readers and authorial fans as its other dimensions have been. Or if it, like a translation from Irish-Gaelic, have somehow been domesticated in the minds of the world's readers.

Bibliographical References

Bartlett, T. (2011). Ireland : a history. Cambridge University Press.

Benjamin, W. (2000). The Task of the Translator. In L. Venuti (Ed.), The Translation Studies Reader (pp. 15–25). Routledge.

Cronin, M. (1995). Altered States: Translation and Minority Languages. TTR : Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction, 8(1), 85.

Cronin, M. (2006). Translation and identity. Routledge.

Mac SíomóinT. (2014). The broken harp : identity and language in modern Ireland. Nuascéalta.

Ó CrohanT. (1978). The islandman (R. Flower, Trans.). Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1929).

The National Archives of Ireland. (n.d.). National Archives: Census of Ireland 1911. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from

Tymoczko, M. (2014). Enlarging Translation, Empowering Translators. Taylor and Francis.

Tymoczko, M. (2021). Irish Ulysses. Univ Of California Press. (Original work published 1994)

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Felix Purat

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