A Brief Note on Translations from the Gaelic

A charming little aphorism from Italy compares translations to lovers - the beautiful ones are likely to be unfaithful, while the faithful ones are usually ugly. Nowhere is this more true than in the translation of poetry and song, and especially translations from Gaelic. Celtic verse tends to be rich in metaphors that resonate strongly within the culture, but are not always readily exportable. Allusions to places, persons and events are also common, both factual and mythical, and the two kinds are often intermixed. Finally, the metrical structure of Celtic languages are quite distinct from English, and the rhythm of the language is of subtle but definite importance to the sense of the verse (otherwise, there is little point in casting the lines in verse in the first place).

Neither Jenn nor I speak any Gaelic language. When we provide translations for the songs on this site, they are chosen from what is available from poets and scholars whose business this is. Often there are multiple translations available of a single poem, which will vary widely in sense and sound. In these cases, our choices are largely a matter of personal taste, rather than scholarship.

Translating verse is rough work, no matter the language. To do it well requires a profound knowledge of both languages involved combined with a poetic sensibility. The most famous example in English is FitzGerald's "The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám", a true masterpiece of the interpreter's art. It is therefore astonishing how often a text will neglect to credit a translator. Wherever possible we will give due credit to the translator, but we have found that, more often than not, such information is simply not available. To the scholar-poets whose work we quote in these pages, we offer our profound gratitude and respect.

Tim Eagen
January, 2000