And What’s Hiberno-English, But a Bizarre Translation?
Having my work translated is possibly my favourite thing about being a novelist. It is, naturally, a privilege, and one only afforded by cruelly subjective ‘commercial appeal’ (only our man James Joyce is translated for the love and the challenge of it); on that basis, being translated is something for which you should be grateful. And it also feels strange, because this book or story or poem you’ve worked on for years is to be taken from you and reshaped into something you probably cannot read, so it’s imperative you trust the person who’s going to rewrite it. A translator is half artist, half magician. They must be both a stickler and a chancer. They must be curious, but focussed. They must not mind being underpaid, because they usually are. Translation is a vocation.
So far, all of the languages my work has been translated into have been European: Spanish, French, German, Czech, Italian, Danish, Polish, Serbian and Dutch. This has stretched or challenged or strengthened my relationship with each territory and language – sometimes one after another, and quite out of logical order. Sometimes it’s made me feel closer to my neighbours, accentuated a pre-existing fondness. Sometimes it feels like we’re more alien than we ever were, particularly with me and Spanish, me and French. I did both for my Leaving Cert. I was not particularly successful with either (Lo siento, je suis désolé). In the course of promoting each new edition, I’ve been able to travel for the first time in my life. It’s usually taken for granted that a writer will have travelled already; so many literary giants have been vagabonds that nomadic tendencies have become a kind of trope, and so many writers are from comfortably middle-class backgrounds, from which upping sticks is not so great a challenge. If I was not a published novelist, it’s very unlikely I’d have seen Prague by now. Or Munich. Or Turin. Being translated has not simply brought my work to new audiences, it’s brought me to new understandings and appreciations and, oh go on, utter paroxysms of friendship. Literature and travel both broaden the mind. Certainly they’ve made me more European than I used to be, and that is saying something (when I was a kid, I always wrote my address as “Ireland, Europe”. It was nice to feel like part of something.)
The process of translation varies. I make myself available to the new publisher, but not all of them have put me in touch with my translator. Those that have are glad they did, because Hiberno-English is not British or American English, and fluency requires a certain tenacity and a certain madness. The reviews for the translations that I worked on with my translators tend to be favourable. The response tends to be enthusiastic. The Glorious Heresies /Peccati Gloriosi did particularly well in Italy, where it was shortlisted for the Premio Strega Europeo and won the Premio Edoardo Kihlgren for European Literature. This can be attributed to Marco Drago, who, in the course of his translation, kept asking questions and dug into context and wordplay and nonsense; catching an Irish rhythm in an entirely different language is no mean feat. It is an art. I can’t explain how The Glorious Heresieswas translated into Polish, or how my Danish translator tackled The Blood Miracles, because I’ve had no contact with their translators at all. Whether this made a difference, I’ll never know, because I can’t read Polish or Danish, but I hope it all went ok and I’m grateful anyway.
Other translators have told me that some of their colleagues prefer to work in isolation, without the authors’ input. I imagine for these translators, working with the author might feel a bit like a screenwriter turning up on set to tell the actor he’s saying the words all wrong. One of my editors told me about a fierce argument they had had with another writer from this damp end of Europe who insisted that the title of their novel be translated exactly into the new language; this didn’t work, because the context for the translated word didn’t exist, and to the new readership it would have looked like a nonsensical portmanteau. But once a writer finishes writing, the product stops being entirely theirs. I don’t just mean legally; I mean writing is a transaction between writer and reader, and both need to feel ownership if what’s written is written successfully. If that’s the case for writer and reader, it’s an even more equitable transaction for writer and translator. A translated book is the property of a co-op: writer, editor, translator, reader. So if a translator feels that their part is best done alone, there’s not a lot I can say about it.
This kind of craic goes both ways. My Czech translator, the brilliant Tereza Marková Vlášková, told me that she had, in the past, contacted writers for whom she was translating novels hoping for clarification on certain words or phrases, and got no reply at all. I was so perplexed by this that I thought I’d misunderstood her; that a translator could be diligently trying to capture an apathetic author’s themes and tricks in an entirely different language is bloody upsetting. Rudeness is a pox anyway, but this kind of indifference seems pathological. One theory is that some authors feel that once a book is published, it’s over and done with, not their concern anymore, or maybe even wounding to consider again. I don’t know if that makes sense.
The Glorious Heresies and The Blood Miracles are both very, very Irish. They’re not entirely written in the vernacular, but swathes absolutely are, and even the traditional prose is shot through with Hiberno colour. That was important to me. I wanted the dialogue to sound like Corkonian speech that veered off at the last second and got notions. I don’t hold with the suggestion that working-class characters should be earthy and raw rather than eloquent or philosophical, so my lads often sound like they’re making an impassioned speech after a feed of pints. I like the sublime and I like the ridiculous, I like surprising turns of phrase, I like characters climbing above their stations, I like bathos. All of this is not exclusively Irish, but Hiberno-English is a good language for it; Hiberno-English carries the sublime and the ridiculous gently and smoothly and very close together. And obviously the novels are very much set in Ireland and very much need to be contextualized appropriately. The Glorious Heresiesis about sex and shame and family and nationality; The Blood Miracles is about duty and masculinity and Ireland’s undying love of inebriants and complicated relationship with authority. Translating either book – translating any book – is not simply a matter of recreation. What does “yoke” mean? What does “yoke” mean in this context when the point of “yoke” is that it can mean anything? The Irish never say something frankly unless there’s no way of coming at it from the side, so if I write a line of dialogue that, in Hiberno-English, implies an awful lot without meaning anything, can its inherent shiftiness be understood outside of the lexicon built specifically for that shiftiness? D’you know what I mean, like?
Tereza tackled this by eavesdropping on young shams on the tram in Prague and using their patterns of showboating and piss-taking for my Corkonian speaking Czech. I can’t even tell you how much I love the idea of this not-quite-organic exchange. Prague to Cork, facilitated by a spy.
Then there’s the humour. Irish people are funny fuckers, especially when we shouldn’t be. Jokes are employed to alleviate tension; but also deployed to exacerbate it. We’re verbose and messy and do not wish to be taken seriously unless we do (and by God you better know the difference). My French translator, Catherine Richard-Mas, told me that the first stumbling in The Blood Miracles /Miracles du sang was its very first sentence:
“This, like so many of Ryan Cusack’s fuck-ups, begins with ecstasy.”
The problem was not the sentence, but the fact that there’s an echo of it, in a different context, fifty pages later; ecstasy refers first to methylenedioxymethamphetamine and later to orgasm. According to Catherine, this doesn’t work so well in French and so her job involves not simply translating the line, but translating the double-meaning where the double-meaning doesn’t settle as well. A small thing, of course, and in the end she went with “l'extase de l'ecstasy”. But that was just the first bloody line.
A further difficulty for my translators is Irish slang, and further again, Cork slang. Slang by its very nature is impermanent, and so it’s difficult to contextualise if you’re not living it; it’s hard to know what Corkonian Hiberno-English means if you’re not hearing it. Most of the queries from my translators are to do with slang, though the odd one pertains to Hiberno syntax. “Haunted” is a great one for confusion; only in Cork does it mean ‘lucky’ rather than ‘followed around by a ghost’.
Once the slang is understood, then the translator has to decide whether it’s best to faithfully recreate it (keeping the Irishness but possibly losing the reader) or find an appropriate idiom in their language (suiting the reader, but flattening the text). Little judgements, scattered throughout. Balance to be found. Colour corrected.
I am not sure that there’s a more profound act of connection than translation or interpretation. There is no small amount of labour necessary for making communities understood to those with no natural access to them. Twisted on occasion, if you’re delivering the wrong message – “We’ll be here for the next 800 years, resistance is futile,” for example – but at its core, translation is an act of benevolence, generosity, and respect. Specific to literature, the act of taking a piece of work with cultural import and sharing it across the world so that others can understand its soul is a beautiful thing. It’s a radical act. Biblically-speaking it’s a radical act, because the last time we all understood one another we tried to build a tower that would reach heaven; God, displeased, confounded our tongues so that we could no longer communicate and cooperate to defy him (Genesis 11:1-9). It is from learning other languages all bold notions come. And as we’re all trying to kick lumps out of one another in perpetuity, and as divide et impera still works a treat, translation and interpretation remain a radical act. Get one over on a vengeful God; learn German.
The Irish have long been self-obsessed. Ireland’s writers agonize over national archetypes, its revolutionaries agonize over self-determination, its ould wans peer through their curtains and agonize over whether the neighbours are making a show of us all. It might be that, post-Brexit, the Irish are becoming more obsessed with definitions of Europeanness. We’re all very interested in lexical boundaries these days, anyway: what’s the definitive portrayal of millennial anxiety, what does ‘truth’ mean in the age of information, what is authenticity and how do we get some, has the battle for the correct application of the word ‘literally’ been literally lost? This is a time of sound bites, inspirational quotes, and clickbait; we are interested in the meaning of words but even more interested in the many possible meanings of words, how they can be twisted or sidestepped; we are all media-trained politicians waffling cannily on debate shows. The paradox lies somewhere in our need to know ourselves so that we can successfully misrepresent ourselves. It is no wonder that the very concept of Europe, whether as a geographical community of nations or as one political entity, feels threatened. My feeling is that the Irish like being European. We like the idea of sinn féin – we ourselves, a slogan championing Irish nationalism and self-reliance – but we’re used to big families. Because we are Europeans, we are not serfs. We stand not in England’s shadow, but alongside it. Europeanness, or the feeling that we are part of something bigger with a special part to play, contributes to our sense of national worth. We are easily made feel inferior, and having a place in the European family proves that we are not inferior. And so it is with me: I am delighted to be translated, because it would be so easy for me to believe that my very Irish stories are not worthy of translation.
A more generous translation of sinn féin is ‘we are all here together’; we, the collective. Perhaps it is not so much of an oxymoron to advocate for sinn féin and for Europeanness.
When I travel to each of my books’ new territories, I learn something about how that territory views the Irish, which is fascinating and usually validating, and usually ends up confirming the worth in that sought-for feeling of Europeanness. We’re very popular with the culturally tuned-in. European readers like Irish writers. European academics have a huge interest in James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Robert McLiam Wilson, Kate O’Brien, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright. Everyone else loves a bit of U2 and bodhrán and rugby. On occasion a taxi driver will think Ireland part of the UK, but a few jabs of the knee into the back of his seat will sort him out.
Through talking about my books with my translators and editors, some of the fascinating differences between cultures within Europe become apparent. This is particularly true in Czechia, where one doesn’t live in a house unless one is well-off; the fact that in Ireland, a poor person might live in a 3-bed terraced house in a suburban council estate, as in my novels, and a privileged person might choose a 3-bed duplex apartment in the city centre seems curious. I consider it a miracle that I’m published in Czechia at all; books about religious hangovers don’t have a natural context in an irreligious country. That such a disparity didn’t matter to my Czech publisher, Argo, or prove too steep a hill to climb for Tereza, is a testament to family, I think. Ireland might seem a bit of a mad Atlantic cousin, but her madness is fondly tolerated.
I recall a discussion with my Spanish editor, Fernando Paz Clemente, about the translation of the title The Glorious Heresies. Surely, I said, it can be directly translated? Spain is also a country of Catholic heritage and The Glorious Heresies is a Catholic title. Fernando nodded wisely and said, “Yes, but for Spain it might be a little too Catholic.” He chose Los Pecados Gloriososinstead; The Glorious Sins.
The only other problem I had with Fernando was when he told me we would eat dinner at whatever time I wanted; he knew that Irish people ate their evening meal earlier than the Spanish. “We won’t deviate from your schedule,“ he said. “What’s your usual dinnertime?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Six?”
He replied, simply “No.”
But largely the books travel well, because while we might have a few peculiarities to work out, Ireland and Spain, France, Germany, Czechia, Italy, Denmark, Poland, Serbia, and The Netherlands have plenty in common. An appreciation of a joke is one; I have never had a problem finding the craic on the continent. A love of discussion, an interest in current affairs and the state of the place in general. Pleasure taken in food and drink. Football. It has become almost a cliché to say that we have more in common than that which divides us, but it is absolutely true of Europeans, in fact, of all people. From Ireland to Syria to Cuba to South Africa, all we want is to get up healthy, do a good day’s work, and have something nice to eat in the evening.
It is true that literature bridges borders. But it is also true that borders are conceptual affectations, and more permeable than we allow ourselves to think.
I write this little essay on 31 January 2020: the day on which the United Kingdom officially leaves the European Union. Which makes me think about the borrowed language I write in, and my own relationship with the UK. As is the case with all failed relationships, it’s complicated. My publisher is in London, my editor an Englishman. I’ve been lucky enough to win British literary prizes, have the support of British booksellers and British readers, and have interest taken in my work by British journalists and British festival programmers. I feel very keenly the sting of the UK leaving the EU, more than many, because I am Irish, I am of the 32 counties. I feel angry for the pressures we will now face, and angry on behalf of British friends who didn’t ask for any of this. I don’t think reading more European books or books in translation would have made much of a difference; as artists we are very fond of overestimating our influence and importance. I don’t know what’s going to happen now. The language I speak and write in is an emphatic reminder of the inextricability of our cultures here in the North Atlantic archipelago. Which is the lesson, I suspect: we might, out of recklessness, fecklessness, or hate, destroy the structures we’ve put in place to keep us all together, but we can’t unpick what’s long been tightly knitted.
One of my favourite exchanges with a translator was with the translator of Los Pecados Gloriosos, Federico Corriente, who told me, “It's hard to pour the whiskey of Irish wittiness and repartee into a Spanish wineskin.” He is correct. Translation is a challenge; understanding our European cousins is a challenge; why shouldn’t it be a challenge? But though the task was hard and the road uphill, Federico did it anyway. As can the rest of us. Who knows what will happen with the EU? I hope this schism will serve only to make our connection stronger; Brexit proves only that the EU is fragile, but that Europe will always be Europe. We’ve weathered worse and we’ll weather worse again. You can’t choose your family.