Translation through the Macaronic: Gearóid Mac Lochlainn’s Sruth Teangacha/Stream of Tongues
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Translation through the Macaronic:
Gearóid Mac Lochlainn’s Sruth Teangacha/Stream of Tongues

Belfast performance poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn’s third book, Sruth Teangacha / Stream of Tongues (2002), is a pivotal book in the poet’s career. A dual-language edition of selected poems accompanied by an audio disc of Mac Lochlainn’s performative readings, Sruth Teangacha includes many poems from his first two books, Babylon Gaeilgeoir (1997) and Na Scéalaithe (1999), which were published in Irish alone. Both a culmination of his work to date and a new departure in self-presentation, Mac Lochlainn’s Sruth Teangacha widens his audience to include readers of English and readers with limited proficiency in Irish.

In a fascinating, if brief, essay in his concluding “Author’s Notes,” Mac Lochlainn grapples with what he calls “the Catch 22” facing writers in Irish: the dilemma of having to choose between being read by Anglophones in English translation or of not being read by them at all.1 Unlike writers in a dominant language, who can blithely regard translation as welcome supplementary recognition, writers in minority indigenous languages like Irish must square the hazard of invisibility with the predicament of being read by many in the colonial tongue that has almost supplanted their language, and which they have spurned as a literary vernacular. Given the radical inequality between the global hegemony of English and the contracted domain of Irish, the wider audience that translation secures for the Gaelic poet may be seen as gained at the cost of further assimilation into a mainstream largely inimical to the language.2 The crossover into dual-language publication is a moment of danger in the career of any Gaelic poet: the history of Gaelic-English contact has made him or her acutely aware of the traditional association of translation with defection and [End Page 73] treachery encapsulated by the adage, “traduttore, traditore” (“translator, traitor”). Yet, by his own account in the “Notes,” translation “became a healing process” for Mac Lochlainn in the course of compiling Sruth Teangacha. The experience of making Sruth Teangacha enabled Mac Lochlainn to reconceptualize his poetics as macaronic, a shift that entailed a deeper understanding of the role of translation in his compositional practice and of his hybrid linguistic milieu.

The publication of Gaelic verse with facing-page translations has had a significant impact on Ireland’s literary scene in general, and on the reception and visibility of Irish-language poetry. Due to a combination of Gaelophone protectionism and Anglophone indifference, Irish-and English-language literature circulated in largely separate spheres before the 1980s. Gaelic verse was published in the original or in translation without the accompanying originals, and hence was “a closed book to all but the Irish-speaking, or Irish-reading minority of the Irish people,” as Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella put it in the preface to their groundbreaking anthology, An Duanaire 1600–1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (1981).3 An Duanaire awakened new interest among readers for whom Irish is a second language, a hitherto untapped audience of more than a million people as opposed to the 100,000 or so for whom Irish is a preferred daily vernacular. An Duanaire encouraged them to reacquaint themselves with the half-forgotten classics of their schooldays and to repossess a Gaelic literary canon with the aid of translations. The publication by Raven Arts Press of The Bright Wave: An Tonn Gheal (1986), an anthology of contemporary Gaelic poems with translations by contemporary poets writing in English, and of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s Rogha Dánta: Selected Poems (1988), with translations by Michael Hartnett, introduced this audience to the new wave of Gaelic poetry that emerged in the 1970s around the Innti journal in Cork.4 Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s Pharoah’s Daughter (1990), which contains translations by almost every notable Irish poet writing in English, won international acclaim, as did Cathal 6 Searcaigh’s two collections, Homecoming / An Bealach ‘na Bhaile (1993) and Out in the Open (1997).

The recent and growing popularity of dual-language editions acknowledges and compounds bilingual reading habits. Noting that since the end of the eighteenth century writers in Irish...