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THE RIGHT OF COWS AND THE RITE OF COPY: AN OVERVIEW OF TRANSLATION FROM IRISH TO ENGLISH BRIAN Ó CONCHUBHAIR in his essay “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin describes the modification that an original text undergoes in the process of translation.1 He asserts that translation entitles a text to “live on,” not alone by extending its life, but by “transfusing” and “othering” it. This theory presupposes a symmetry and reciprocal regard between languages, and that a concept of “the posited central kinship of languages” is central to Benjamin ’s argument. Benjamin is, however, unconcerned with the vulnerability of minority languages under threat from a dominant language. Such linguistic imbalance is the case in Ireland, where the Irish language exists in a subservient position to the English language.2 An argument that translation changes or modifies the original finds resonance in the fears of cultural and linguistic traditionalists who argue that the translation process fundamentally affects Irish-language writing. Developing the BenjaminianDerridean link between translation and survival, Bella Brodzki argues that both cultural narrative and the tradition exist on the same continuum; both are subject to reinterpretation—intrinsically and extrinsically: Under these conditions, cultural narrative and tradition can be said to be on a continuum, both subject, especially at moments of perceived crisis, to the rigor of reinterpretation from within as well as from without—that is, to translation as both an intrinsic and an extrinsic operation. What links the tasks of the translator of a cultural narrative and those of a tradition, what governs the conditions of reception, is that neither simply receives an AN OVERVIEW OF TRANSLATION FROM IRISH TO ENGLISH 92 1 Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Helen and Kurt Wolff Books, 1969), 69–82. 2 Bunreacht na hÉireann/The Irish Constitution recognizes the Irish language as the first language and English as the second language of Ireland. intact, static repository of information or knowledge; rather, both undertake a mission, enter a contract to engage in a self-critical, dynamic, transformative process, to change and be changed—or die a certain death.3 The coupling of translator and cultural inheritor begs an obvious question in an Irish context: does translation permit the original text, its language, and culture the ability to develop organically in response to internal demands and pressures, and to engage in a discourse of self-criticism, selfinterrogation , and self-exploration? Or does translation impose stagnation by preventing this dialogue? This essay surveys current Irish-language translation strategies in Ireland and analyzes the various approaches that Irish cultural theorists adopt when confronted with the translation process and its disputes. The parameters of this debate have long been established, and the thorny topic of translation has trapped and tricked both scholars and saints. The legendary missionary saint and founder of the city of Doire Cholm Cille (Derry), Colm Cille, precipitated and participated in Ireland ’s first copyright dispute. Accounts describe how Saint Colm Cille coveted Saint Finian’s Psalter. Unable to purchase this prayer book, he stole nightly into the scriptorium and reproduced the text using his own materials. When he learned of the completed duplicate, Finian declared the copy to be his, and the dispute came before the High-King for adjudication . Colm Cille argued that: Books are things different from other possessions, and any law that deals with them should recognize such difference. And we learned men who have received a new heritage of knowledge—what should we do but multiply and scatter the books that contain this knowledge? I maintain that Fineen ’s [Finian] book is none the worse for my having copied it. And it is right that my copy should go to those who want to read what is in it and who are worthy to do so, and they should make copies, too, and send them further. It was not wrong on my part to copy the book, seeing that there was no profit for me in doing so, but only labor, and seeing that I had the desire to give profit to all the peoples of Ireland, and that without doing any damage to Fineen...


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pp. 92-111
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