Monday, February 25, 2008

Two Táin Translations: Kinsella & Carson Reviewed

Two Táin Translations: Kinsella & Carson Reviewed

A few weeks ago here and on Amazon, I compared the new Oxford UP translation from the Middle Welsh by Sioned Davies of "The Mabinogion" with the standard edition by Patrick Ford, from U. of California Press. The Old Irish equivalent of a medieval Celtic epic that for most of us represents the epitome of ancient adventure and mortal combat, "The Táin," now can gain the same comparison and contrast. We can finally study Thomas Kinsella's 1970 Oxford UP edition next to Ciaran Carson's 2008 Viking-Penguin hardcover. As with my comments (on this blog and on Amazon) about the two competing Mabinogi, I will select a favorite passage from the Irish, and then transcribe how Kinsella and Carson render it. Poetic Champions Compose!

Old Irish text, somewhat reduced:

‘Geib, a Ferguis,’ bar Medb, ‘scíath díten dar éis fer nHérend goro síblur-sa m'fúal úaim.’ ‘Dar ar cubus,’ ar Fergus, ‘is olc in tráth & ní cóir a dénam.’ ‘Gid ed ní étaim-sea chena,’ bar Medb, ‘dáig nída beó-sa meni síblur-sa m'fúal úaim.’ Tánic Fergus & gebid scíath díten dar éis fer [4830] nHérend. Siblais Medb a fúal úathi co nderna trí tulchlassa móra de co taille munter in cach thurchlaiss. Conid Fúal Medba atberar friss.

Ruc Cú Chulaind furri ac dénam na huropra sain & níra gonastarsum; ní athgonad-sum 'na díaid hí.

[. . . .] ‘Rapa chomadas in lá sa indiu ám i ndíaid mná,’ ar Fergus ‘Condrecat lochta ra fulachta and so indiu’ bar Medb ra Fergus. ‘Ra gattá & ra brattá in slúag sa indiu. Feib [4850] théit echrad láir rena serrgraig i crích n-aneóil gan chend cundraid ná comairle rempo, is amlaid testa in slúag sa indiu.’

Kinsella:(Ch. XIV. pp. 250-51)

"Then Medb got her gush of blood.

'Fergus,' she said, 'take over the shelter of shields at the rear of the men of Ireland until I relieve myself.'

'By god,' Fergus said, 'you have picked a bad time for this.'

'I can't help it,' Medb said. 'I'll die if I can't do it.'

So Fergus took over the shelter of shields at the rear of the men of Ireland and Medb relieved herself. It dug three great channels, each big enough to take a household. The place is called Fual Medba, Medb's Foul Place, ever since. Cúchulainn found her like this, but he held his hand. He wouldn't strike her from behind.

'Spare me,' Medb said.

'If I killed you dead,' Cúchulainn said, 'it would only be right.'

But he spared her, not being a killer of women. [Cúchullain watches them depart. The battle is over, the Connacht forces defeated, as Medb tells Fergus. . . .]

'We have had shame and shambles here today, Fergus.'

'We followed the rump of a misguided woman,' Fergus said. 'It is the usual thing for a herd led by a mare to be strayed and destroyed.'"

Carson:(Ch. XII. pp. 206-07)

"Then Medb got her gush of blood.

'Fergus,' she said, 'cover the retreat of the men of Ireland, for I must relieve myself.'

'By god',' said Fergus, 'you picked a bad time to go.'

'I can't help it,' said Medb, 'I'll die if I don't go.'

So Fergus covered the retreat. Medb relieved herself, and it made three great trenches, each big enough for a cavalcade. Hence the place is known as Fúal Medba, Medb's Piss-pot.

Cú Chulainn came upon Medb as she was doing what she had to.

'I'm at your mercy,' said Medb.

'If I were to strike, and kill you,' said Cú Chulainn, 'I'd be within my rights.'

But he spared her, because usually he did not kill women. [. . . .]

Now that they had lost the battle, Medb said to Fergus:

'The pot was stirred, Fergus, and today a mess was made.'

'That's usually what happens,' said Fergus, 'when a mare leads a herd of horses -- all their energy gets pissed away, following the rump of a skittish female.'"

To me, Kinsella opts with alliteration like "shame and shambles," and "shelter of shields" to convey a balance, a slightly archaic register. Hypotactics heighten orderly parallelism like "strayed and destroyed" and "was stirred" and "was made." A dignity remains despite the scatological content. For Carson, an edgier, conversational tone stresses slightly the bitterness that Fergus feels, and the gloating that Cú Chulainn indulges, when the hero's finally cornered his arch-foe-- only to catch her with her skirt down.

The two editions complement each other. Carson notes in his introduction that he had resisted initially the temptation, but wound up peeking at his predecessor and eventually "checked every line of mine against Kinsella. I trust my translation is different." As I found with Davies and Ford, so with Kinsella and Carson. In the latter poet's estimation, you can see that "there are occasions when my words do not differ a great deal from his. That is inevitable when more than one translation emerges from more or less the same text. And for better or for worse, my translation will be seen as a commentary on Kinsella; I hope it will also be taken as a tribute." (xxv)

The two editions use the same base text, Recension I. Carson re-orders some episodes, and adds a bit to Kinsella's content. Both authors package the many small sections of the original Old Irish into chapters; Carson has one fewer than Kinsella. Kinsella prepared seven 'remscéla' or prefatory tales; Carson summarizes these in end-notes. Both try for, Carson explains, a non-literal translation. But, where Kinsella allowed some "relatively free verse, I have kept to the original syllable-count of the lines," with a few exceptions that proved impossible. (xxvi) Rhyme and assonance, Carson adds, had to differ too from the original's 'aabb' pattern that would've been "difficult and tedious to replicate in English." He sticks to Cecile O'Rahilly's scholarly recensions in their spellings. These names dependably provided ironic commentary on the action, embedded for an Old Irish audience.

Both editions feature brief introductions, a translator's prefatory note, end-notes, and a pronunciation guide. The elegant design in the earlier Oxford UP paperback that incorporated Louis le Brocquy's magnificent brush drawings, and the typographical elegance of the 1969 Dolmen Press original, along with three handsome maps. Kinsella matches his denser end-notes to the text's pages; Carson uses numerical indicators keyed to fewer end-notes. Kinsella remarks on topography and the manuscript's tradition. Similarly, Carson discusses "landscape as metronymic map" and the concept of 'dindsenchas,' or place-name lore, helpfully. Neither translator gets bogged down in this topic, but they nod to it meaningfully. Their end-notes treat it at more length. Therefore, both poets strive to keep the integrity of the text primary, and relegate helps for us today to their own separate niche, as is both helpful and proper.

Carson's book weighs in at just over two hundred pages, about eighty less than Kinsella's. That version, of course, featured illustrations and typographically and graphically keeps its advantage. Carson's, smaller in heft and on less durable paper (even in the hardcover, disappointingly), otherwise remains neck-and-neck in both style, scholarship, and swiftness.

Review posted to Amazon today with the exception of the Old Irish. I'm happy to append that Carson credits another 1970s popularization that followed Kinsella's presentation. "In 1973 the concept of the Táin was brought to an even larger audience when the 'Celtic rock' group Horslips released an album of the same name, with songs and music inspired by the Kinsella translation." (xxvii) Maith sibh!

Old Irish 'Táin Bó Cuailnge'
Images: I prefer the older cover of the Kinsella for its le Brocquy drawing; Gregory Mollica's Black Bull's splendidly gracing the Carson edition. There's a different British illustration for the Penguin, a bull turning back, on a red cover.

1 comment:

Miss Templeton said...

Wonderful! I'm clearing out the last of the Google alerts on 'Tain' today. (Did you know there's been a fierce battle over a Tesco in Tain Scotland? Lots and lots of articles on that!) And look what I find!