Book reviewTranslation in a postcolonial context: Early Irish literature in English translation Manchester: St. Jerome, 1999. 336 pp. ISBN 1-900650-16-9 £ 22.50.
Reviewed by Michael Cronin
Table of contents
William Butler Yeats famously asked whether certain words of his had sent men out to be shot. Writing after the 1916 rebellion in Dublin he wondered out loud about the connection between writing and insurgency. Yeats might have asked a different question. Did certain translated words of his friends (Douglas Hyde, Lady Gregory) send men and women out to be shot in the shelled buildings and the prison yards of the city? The answer to this hypothetical question might very well have been yes. As Maria Tymoczko shows in her important new study of the translation of early Irish literature into English, translation in 19th and 20th century Ireland was an essential component of the “literature of combat” (p. 285) in the pre-independence period. In examining, in particular, the translation record of tales from the Ulster Cycle—the oldest extant body of mythological tales in Ireland—Tymoczko demonstrates that the translation of literature from Old Irish rather than being the esoteric concern of unworldly pedants was an area fraught with political tensions. For many Irish nationalists, translating the extensive body of early Irish literature into English was fundamental to affirming the existence of an independent Irish culture in the face of centuries of condescension, the Irish presented as simian outcasts from the Garden of Civilisation in need of the cultural stewardship of the Saxon. If Caliban was going to learn the language of the Prospero, it was to show that his Books were older than those of the new master.