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Ciaran CarsonSpace, Place, Writing$

Neal Alexander

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9781846314780

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846316203

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Babel-babble: Language and Translation

Babel-babble: Language and Translation

(p.175) Chapter Six Babel-babble: Language and Translation
Ciaran Carson
Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the bilingual or multilingual basis for much of Ciaran Carson's work and his longstanding engagements with translation. It suggests that translation permeates Carson's works texts more generally in the form of a concern with the ways in which other words, languages and cultures imply and project other worlds. It also contends that the border dialogues that Carson's translations facilitate highlight the condition of ‘ambilocation’ or ‘hyphenation’ that has become a common feature of his more recent works.

Keywords:   Ciaran Carson, translation, words, languages, cultures, ambilocation, hyphenation

Translation is a longstanding and recurrent component of Ciaran Carson's work, not only as practice, process, and artefact – as his recent book-length versions of Dante's Inferno, Brian Merriman's The Midnight Court, and the Old Irish epic, The Táin, attest – but also as a theme or trope that relates to the multifarious effects of language itself. In this regard ‘translation’ concerns itself with the ways in which transactions between words, idioms, discourses, and languages reveal the difference that is internal to all language. Or, as Walter Benjamin expresses it, ‘all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages’.1 Translation also literally means to ‘carry across’, shuttling between differing contexts in order to negotiate meanings that are fundamentally unstable and in dialogue with other meanings, so that translation in this expanded sense is what poetry is all about, as Carson himself has suggested: ‘“Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Perhaps; but poetry is itself translation, carrying a burden of meaning from one place to another, feeling it change in shape and weight as it travels. Words are a shifty business.’2 Here, the notion that poetry is inimical to translation, often apocryphally ascribed to Robert Frost, is turned abruptly on its head, and Carson's more open conception of translation recognises that while words and languages are ‘shifty’, untrustworthy even, such ‘shiftiness’ means that they also encode multiple semantic possibilities.

This is not to deny the importance of translation as a literary practice and a mode of cultural politics in Carson's writing, which to date includes a wide range of often strikingly inventive versions of texts originally written in Irish, Welsh, Latin, French, Italian, Romanian, and Japanese. But it is to argue that, understood in a less literal sense, translation permeates his texts more generally in the form of a concern with the ways in which other words, languages, and cultures imply and (p.176) project other worlds, alternative ways of saying and seeing that defamiliarise received habits of perception. To this end, John Goodby observes that ‘the “translation” Carson is interested in is less that between languages as of translation itself as an ontological condition’.3 Clearly, such a condition may entail confusion and inarticulacy – ‘gobbledygook’ or ‘Babel-babble’ – as much as the exhilarations of semantic free-play and linguistic cross-pollinations. Nonetheless, bilingualism or multilingualism is the ground of his work's perpetually shifting frames of reference, and the tendency of Carson's translations to diverge from and extensively rework their ‘originals’ bears out Octavio Paz's comment that although ‘translation overcomes the differences between one language and another, it also reveals them more fully’.4 This chapter will explore the various modalities of Carson's engagements with translation and ‘translation’, paying attention to the ways in which he brings languages and texts into networks of relations with one another, and placing such border dialogues in the context of his broader concerns with language as both speech and writing.

To translate is to assume an intermediate position on the borderline between languages and cultures, conjugating one with the other but owing allegiance to neither absolutely. This intermedial condition is a familiar one in Carson's writing, and has been glossed by Stan Smith as ‘ambilocation’, a term that describes a characteristic indeterminacy common both to his spatial imaginary and to his interests in linguistic or semiotic flux:

Ambilocation is a different condition from mere ‘bilocation’, the mysterious capacity to be in two places at once. Rather it is a matter of being always in neither place, or of being between places, or of being always in one place which may be Belfast, but also at the same time is many other places, dislocated, relocated, mis-placed, displaced, everywhere and nowhere […].5

Carson often expresses the same idea in terms of ‘in-between-ness’, being ‘neither/One thing nor the other’ (BC, 15) or assuming an air of ‘neither-here-nor-thereness. Coming in the act of going’ (BC, 23). Likewise, in ‘Barfly’, the elusive, peripatetic narrator proclaims, ‘I am a hyphen, flitting here and there: between the First and Last’ (BC, 55). This hyphenation or in-between-ness is not always comfortable or welcome, and may involve a dangerous sense of entrapment between opposing structures or forces; but it is often associated with a positive sense of liberty and mobility, implying opportunities for negotiation, exchange, and dialogue.

At a very literal level, ambilocation calls to mind the dense meshwork of borders, boundaries, peace-lines, and interfaces that criss-cross Carson's (p.177) early Belfast poems, and in the midst of which his narrators so often find themselves caught. It is also an aspect of those semi-rural hinterlands and ‘intermediate zone[s]’ (SF, 85) that are the loci for childhood games in The Star Factory. The Bog Meadows, Carson recalls, served both as an ambivalent water-land in which to play and as ‘a natural buffer-zone between the Protestant Lisburn Road and the Catholic Falls’ (SF, 100). So the ambilocated nature of Carson's writing helps to facilitate the flexible depiction of Belfast's spatial and socio-political complexity. However, the sense of doubleness, dual inheritance, and hyphenation that ambilocation seems to comprehend clearly bears upon issues of language and identity as well, not least in an autobiographical context. As Carson has more than once observed, his own name is itself an instance of hyphenation, and tends to be ‘perceived as an oxymoron, the product of a mixed marriage’ in Northern Ireland, where linguistic markers of identity are of special importance. ‘Ciaran’ derives from the Irish ‘ciar’ (‘dark-haired’) and so is typically identified as Catholic and Nationalist, while, in Northern Ireland, ‘Carson’ inevitably recalls Edward Carson, a figurehead for Ulster Protestantism and Unionist politics. With characteristically wry impudence, though, Carson not only recalls that this ‘founder-father’ of the Northern Irish state was born in Dublin, but relates a folk rumour that Edward Carson ‘was really a Carsoni from Italian stock, which would account for the Mussolini cast of his features’ (LNF, 181). Carson impugns his namesake's pedigree while relishing the ambiguity of his own, his inclination to mix things up implying a calculated disavowal of fixed or unadulterated identity positions.

Carson's writing is substantially enriched by various forms of linguistic doubleness, for he grew up bilingually, speaking Irish as a first language, unusual circumstances even in Catholic Nationalist West Belfast in the 1950s.6 In the Carson family, or Clann Mhic Carráin,7 Irish was designated the language of the home, private experience, and familial intercourse, while the public world of the city streets was overwhelmingly monoglot English. The two languages were therefore aligned with and seemed to imply different worlds, albeit worlds that continually overlapped, their codes of communication and belonging seeping gradually into one another. One consequence of Carson's bilingual upbringing appears to have been an enhanced sensitivity to linguistic difference and a related awareness that language is not and cannot be a transparent medium, that it always refracts or falls short of the reality it claims to depict: ‘I think that from a very early age I was aware that to say a thing in one language was different to saying it in another; that there was always a (p.178) gap between the form and the reality, the thing expressed.’8 The arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified is made explicit when there are always at least two different linguistic codes available for naming or expressing things.

Carson's bilingualism also seems to prime his imagination to respond to the many frictions and unlikely correspondences that may occur between and across languages, as in the following anecdote told in The Star Factory:

I used to lull myself to sleep with language, mentally repeating, for example, the word capall, the Irish for horse, which seemed to be more onomatopoeically equine than its English counterpart; gradually, its trochaic foot would summon up a ghostly echo of ‘cobble’, till, wavering between languages, I would allow my disembodied self to drift out the window and glide through the silent dark gas-lit streets above the mussel-coloured cobblestones. I was bound for the Star Factory, where words were melted down and like tallow cast into new moulds. (SF, 234)

That sense of ‘wavering between languages’, and the allied notion that words undergo a process of transmutation as contexts and usages change, are familiar aspects of Carson's writing that attest to the centrality of translation, in its widest sense, to his aesthetic. The phonetic echo that allows Carson to rhyme ‘capall’ with ‘cobble’ initiates a dialectic of similarity and difference that not only links the horse to the surface upon which it walks, but also blurs the divide between private and public spaces, wakefulness and dream, reality and imagination. And this syzygy between the communicating worlds of reality and fantasy is a further instance of the ambilocation that Carson's work enacts.9

A similar but more daring use of the same technique occurs in ‘Eesti’, where an unexpected aural consonance between words from the Estonian and Irish languages, in a poem written in English, allows Carson to juxtapose impressions of the sonorous, bell-echoing streets and churches of Tallinn, visited as an adult, with a memory of attending mass with his father as a boy in West Belfast: ‘This red-letter day would not be written, had I not wandered through the land of Eesti./ I asked my father how he thought it went. He said to me in Irish, Listen: Éist’ (OEC, 8). As Frank Sewell has observed, Carson ‘enjoys slipping in, out of, and between languages’,10 and the linguistic pluralism that such shifts or slippages exemplify would appear to call into question the very idea of a ‘first language’ along with the concept of pure origins that it implies. Certainly, in the introduction to his translation of Brian Merriman's Cúirt an Mheán Oíche, The Midnight Court, Carson (p.179) hesitates to call himself ‘a native speaker’, reminding the reader that he was raised by parents for whom Irish was a second language and noting that ‘it has been a long time since it was the first language in which I think, or express myself, though I sometimes dream in it’. Nonetheless, his upbringing in Irish also allows him to recognise the foreignness of English, while the work of translation, of attempting to approximate the force and suppleness of Merriman's Irish in his own English rendering, created a situation in which ‘both languages – so familiar yet so foreign – became strange, as I wandered the borders between them’ (MC, 14). For Lawrence Venuti, translation constitutes ‘a linguistic “zone of contact” between the foreign and translating cultures, but also within the latter’.11 Similarly, in Carson's work translation is a process through which to explore the productive estrangements and transactions that take place in the junctures between languages and the cultures they express. As he has said in a recent interview: ‘I've always been fascinated by the way other languages, other codes, affect our knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of what we think is familiar and given.’12

Bilingualism and heteroglossia become explicit thematic concerns as well as stylistic features in First Language, which begins, uniquely in Carson's oeuvre, with a poem written in Irish but given a French title, ‘La Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi’. The title's connotations of ineffability and unknowing seem apt given the predicament of the reader without Irish (or French), and as Justin Quinn explains, the poem itself extends this ambiguity of reference, comprising a description of an act of love ‘which is also a description of the mechanism of language’.13 As the lovers' bodies become entwined, sensory perceptions blur together and colloquial phrases are punningly reworked, as in lines such as ‘I bhfaiteadh na mbéal’ (‘In the blink of a mouth’), ‘I bhfriotal na súl’ (‘In the word of an eye’), and ‘I ndorchadas an lae’ (‘In the darkness of day’) (FL, 9). Immediately following is the poem ‘Second Language’, which is written in the second language of the title, English, and tells an accelerated, often disorientating story about the narrator's journeys into and between languages from infancy to adulthood:

  • English not yet being a language, I wrapped my lubber-lips around my thumb;
  • Brain-deaf as an embryo, I was snuggled in my comfort-blanket dumb.
  • Growling figures campaniled above me, and twanged their carillons of bronze
  • Sienna consonants embedded with the vowels alexandrite, emerald and topaz.
  • (p.180) The topos of their discourse seemed to do with me and convoluted
  •             genealogy;
  • Wordy whorls and braids and skeins and spiral helices, unskeletoned from laminate geology –
  • How this one's slate-blue gaze is correspondent to another's new-born eyes;
  • Gentians, forget-me-nots, and cornflowers, diurnal in a heliotrope surmise.
  • (FL, 10)

From his initial state of ‘Brain-deaf’ pre-linguistic dumbness, when English is ‘not yet’ a language, the speaker is precipitated into a world in which verbal sounds and the particles of speech take on a very physical tangibility as ‘bronze/Sienna consonants’ and vowels that, in an echo of Arthur Rimbaud's ‘Voyelles’, manifest themselves to the child's imagination as colour-coded gemstones.14 These lines also juxtapose the infant's inarticulacy and incomprehension, as indicated by his ‘lubberlips’ and the fact that his parents appear as rather frightening ‘growling figures’, with the remarkably rich and supple vocabulary that Carson employs: ‘Wordy whorls and braids and skeins and spiral helices.’

As the spatial focus of the poem gradually moves outwards from the child's body to the room and house he shares with his parents, and thence to the world-at-large of the city streets outside, the linguistic resources of the poem expand exponentially to take in a plethora of discourses, registers, and idioms that are often braided together or become confused in a babble of ‘acoustic perfume’. Heard or imagined from the child's bedroom, the Belfast shipyards are loud with ‘Shipyard hymns’ and the staccato rhythms of ‘Six-County Hexametric’; the ropeworks disgorges ‘Ratlines, S-twists, plaited halyards, Z-twists, catlines; all had their say’; and as he ‘inhales’ the formal language of the Latin mass the narrator simultaneously speaks, ‘incomprehensibly to others’, in Irish. Sensory perceptions blur together so that words are seen or tasted or smelt as much as they are heard – as incense, the ‘Phaoronic unguents of dope and glue’, or as the ‘perfume’ of Egyptian hieroglyphics ‘exhumed in chancy versions of the I-Ching’ (FL, 10, 11, 12). Moreover, although ‘Second Language’ presents the poet-speaker's acquisition of English in terms that are predominantly positive, even touched with the marvellous – he wakes up one morning ‘verbed and tensed with speaking English’ – part of the point of the poem's extravagantly diverse lexicon is to undermine any ostensible purity that the English language might be said to possess. Indeed, as Jerzy Jarniewicz observes, Carson frequently makes use of words that announce their ‘foreign’ derivations explicitly. (p.181) Thus we have ‘campanile’ and ‘sienna’ from Italian, ‘carillon’ and ‘fleur-de-lys’ from French, Latin declensions (‘amo, amas, amat’) and phrases (‘Introibos/Ad altare Dei’) alongside Greek words such as ‘helices’, ‘heliotrope’, and ‘sarcophagi’, as well as more exotic references to native American ‘Arapahoes’, Hebrew ‘Nimrod’, and the Chinese ‘I-Ching’. Such expressive plurality prompts Jarniewicz to argue that ‘Second Language’ resembles ‘a multilingual collage, an example of the post-Babelian confusion of the tongues, exploding any possibility of a homogeneous and pure diction, and unveiling the essentially hybridal nature of English’.15 All languages are hybrid, always at least double, Carson seems to imply, so that in a sense a ‘second language’ is all one ever really has, the unity and originality implied by the phrase ‘first language’ being forever displaced or deferred.

Consequently, the story of Babel takes on an iconic importance in many of the poems collected in First Language, recounting as it does the loss of a common language and the subsequent scattering of humankind into myriad divergent linguistic communities. Patricia Horton has argued that Carson's fascination with the trope of Babel is part of his wider interest in the relationships between language and power, so that the hubristic ‘aspiration to unity and stability’ expressed in the building of the city and tower of Babel is ‘analogous to the imperialist desire to dominate and colonize’, promoting an ideology of ‘one people, one state’ that Carson unequivocally rejects.16 Horton is right to say that Carson's poems are enthusiastically post-Babelian in their outlook and resources, combining multiple idioms and discourses in a propulsive rhythm of distortion and crossover. Yet if ‘Babel’ once named a desire for unity and cohesion it has also come to stand for their opposites, difference and diffusion, and this tension is one that Carson's variations on the theme exploit. Fittingly, Babel figures throughout First Language in variety of guises that are as often metamorphic as they are monumental: in ‘Tak, Tak’ it appears in the form of a Babylonian bas-relief (FL, 64), whereas in ‘Contract’ it is a construct of ‘Lego-kit-like Pharaonic phasia-/ Bricks, where everything is built in stages, ages, scaffolding and phrases’ (FL, 49). This last image links the architecture of buildings to the architectonics of language as if in illustration of Derek Attridge's point that ‘Babel is a condition of all languages.’17 In ‘Opus Operandi’, Babel is the subject of a lecture given by St Jerome, patron saint of translators and author of the Vulgate, who imagines it as ‘an Ark or quinquereme he prised apart’ to release its ‘alphabetical intentions’ and ‘Typecast letters’ in ‘garbled Turkish/Convolutions’ (FL, 61). By the end of the (p.182) poem, though, Babel is not a vessel but an underwater destination for which Jerome sets out in an amphibious diving ‘bubble’ (FL, 62). Moreover, Belfast itself emerges as a kind of Babel in the earlier prose piece ‘Farset’, where Carson's efforts to translate the name of the city (in Irish, Béal Feirste) disinter a swarm of variant etymologies and linguistic associations. As the text's tongue-in-cheek melange of philology, place-lore, and dictionary-hunting becomes increasingly involved, the semantic kernel of ‘Belfast’ is submerged in a ‘watery confusion’ of histories and languages, whereby experts fail to agree and competing textual accounts each supply different possible translations (BC, 48).

Carson's recourse to the trope of Babel is another indication of his interest in the paradoxes of translation, where the seemingly insurmountable grammatical and semantic differences between languages are counter-balanced by inventive accommodations and the practical demands of inter-cultural communication. As Jacques Derrida observes, ‘Babel’ is both a common noun that can be translated as ‘confusion’ and a proper name that is therefore, by definition, strictly untranslatable. The undecidable grammatical status of the word thus recounts and reflects ‘the necessary and impossible task of translation, its necessity as impossibility’, for the confounding of human languages that follows upon God's deconstruction of Babel both necessitates the act of translation in the first place and immediately renders any one-to-one equivalence between languages impossible.18 Yet, according to Lawrence Venuti, something like this desire for an ideal unity between source and target languages remains a key factor informing much translation theory in Anglo-American cultures, dictating the terms of translation practice and the criteria by which foreign texts are selected for translation. In this context, the translator's role is to render herself effectively invisible, supplying an English-language text which is above all ‘fluent’ and thus serves as a transparent window onto the foreign writer's intentions and the essential meaning of the source text. Such ‘fluency’ and ‘transparency’ are not only illusions, however, but also entail an act of violent appropriation that is ultimately ‘ethnocentric’, for ‘the aim of translation is to bring back a cultural other as the same, the recognizable, even the familiar; and this aim always risks a wholesale domestication of the foreign text’.19 ‘Domesticating’ translations claim to achieve semantic equivalence by reducing difference and rewriting the source text in accordance with the dominant social and linguistic codes of the home culture.

By contrast, ‘foreignizing’ translations attempt to preserve difference (p.183) by foregrounding the acts of partial interpretation and mediation that all translations must inevitably perform:

Foreignizing translation signifies the difference of the foreign text, yet only by disrupting the cultural codes that prevail in the target language. In its effort to do right abroad, this translation method must do wrong at home, deviating enough from native norms to stage an alien reading experience – choosing to translate a foreign text excluded by domestic literary canons, for instance, or using a marginal discourse to translate it.20

In a sense, then, foreignising translations are as much about exploring the alien within as respecting the difference of the foreign text, displacing the hegemony of standard usages and forms by highlighting the heterogeneity of discourses, registers, and idioms available to the target language – as I have argued Carson does in a poem like ‘Second Language’. Moreover, where domesticating translations posit a source text bearing a secure and readily identifiable set of meanings, foreignising translations acknowledge it as a site of multiple and unstable semantic possibilities that may give rise to widely differing interpretations. These interpretations are necessarily dependent upon the contexts in which they take place and, as Sarah Maguire notes, ‘translation always involves the translator taking a position, an aesthetic position and an ethical position’.21 All of this means that translation is best conceived as a process of attentive close reading and creative response rather than an attempt at verbatim reproduction, facilitating what Carson, in ‘The Insular Celts’, calls ‘the flight/Of one thing into another’ (NE, 2–3). Furthermore, if translation involves transformation and metamorphosis rather than mere transport or reproduction then the implicitly hierarchical relationship between an ‘original’ and its translation, where the success of the latter is judged upon its ‘fidelity’ to the former, is undermined. In another metaphor that is also germane to Carson's work, Walter Benjamin has described the relationship in terms of correspondences, the original and its non-literal translation fitting each other like fragments of a smashed vessel in order to express or realise ‘the central reciprocal relationship between languages’.22

The uneven but no less central reciprocal relationship between languages, Irish and English, is, of course, an important and vexed issue in Ireland's cultural history. Ireland was subject to an extensive and traumatising policy of forced Anglicisation and the active suppression of Irish under colonial rule, circumstances that made translation from Gaelic texts a key strand in the rise of Irish cultural nationalism during the nineteenth century.23 In fact, Declan Kiberd has argued that the (p.184) Irish Literary Revival can be understood as ‘essentially an exercise in translation’ where the process of carrying aspects of Gaelic culture into English-language texts was as much a means of ‘inventing as reflecting an original Ireland’: ‘to translate Ireland was but another way of bringing it into being’.24 More recently, attitudes towards the Irish language have undergone significant shifts in response to broader social and cultural changes, particularly the impact of globalisation, which has further extended the dominance of English as a lingua franca but also stimulated pockets of resurgence among younger languagelearners.25 Justin Quinn observes that many Irish people now regard competence in the language as ‘an expression of individuality rather than nationalist feeling’, and for most Irish poets writing in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the act of translation has been increasingly decoupled from the politics of cultural nationalism.26 Of course, in a postcolonial context such as Ireland's the power differentials between the translated and translating cultures may be particularly pronounced, and translation can entail experiences of loss or erasure as well as fruitful exchange. Nonetheless, Frank Sewell describes twentieth-century Irish literary culture primarily in terms of the productive and imaginatively generous ‘conversations’ opened between writers in Irish and English, which take ‘the form of listening-in, dialogue and translation’.27 Such inter-lingual conversations are arguably also a feature internal to much Irish writing in English, for a pervasive sense of doubleness can be traced in writers' deployment of non-standard vocabularies and varieties of Hiberno-English, via intertextual dialogues with the Irish literary tradition, or as a result of more cosmopolitan influences. To this end, Neil Corcoran contends that the constitutive duality of Ireland's linguistic and literary traditions produces a heightened attentiveness on the part of many writers to language itself as a medium of expression, a distrust of, or delight in, the plurality of language that implies ‘a consciousness of linguistic otherness’.28

The sense of alterity or doubleness that Corcoran identifies is borne out by Carson in an essay significantly titled ‘The Other’, where he remarks: ‘I write in English, but the ghost of Irish hovers behind it; and English itself is full of ghostly presences, of others who wrote before you, and of words as yet unknown to you.’29 The ghost of Irish makes its presence felt in Carson's writing in numerous ways, including his adaptations of oral storytelling techniques, his frequent use of vernacular and dialect terms, and his free-wheeling etymological excursions, all of which bend or stretch the conventions of standard English usage. Translation offers (p.185) Carson and other Irish writers opportunities to explore the inherent duality or multiplicity of Irish cultural experience as it continues to evolve, and can also serve as a means of interrogating or redefining the conceptions of ‘Irishness’ they inherit. Indeed, Terence Brown argues that the significant increase in the number, variety, and quality of translations produced by Irish writers during the 1980s reflected a more general awareness in Irish cultural life that ‘national traditions […] had exhausted themselves’, so that the translation of Irish and European texts can be seen as part of a wide-ranging search for ‘new modes of vision’ and ‘alternative perspectives’ in a post-nationalist context.30

Though there are obviously exceptions, Brown's argument would also suggest that translation in Ireland since the 1980s has leaned more towards the ‘alien reading experiences’ of foreignising translation than the conservative tendencies of domestication, for these are most likely to reveal the target culture's own internal difference. Such alternative perspectives and experiences of defamiliarisation were perhaps most urgently required during this period in the North of Ireland, where polarised political ideologies had become particularly deeply entrenched, and this need found varied responses in the work of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Medbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, and Carson himself.31 Michael Cronin has identified three levels at which Northern Irish poets engaged with translation: firstly, translation facilitates the continuation of ‘a dialogue with the other language on the island, Irish’; secondly, ‘there is translation as liberation, escaping from the pressures of Irish politics and history into the playful exuberance of foreign literatures’; and thirdly, ‘there is translation as a way of addressing the conflict but indirectly’.32 As we will see, Carson's work incorporates examples of all three of these ‘levels’ of engagement in translation, though the levels or approaches that Cronin distinguishes often merge and overlap in his practice.

Carson's dialogue with Irish and with the Irish literary tradition begins with his earliest published work, and his first collection, The New Estate, contains half a dozen poems that are either inspired by or translations of early Irish nature lyrics. Perhaps because their sources often derive from the monastic scribal tradition, as compositions written in idle moments in the margins of more scholarly works, they are also texts that often seem appropriately self-conscious about their own status as literary artefacts, demonstrating a cluster of recurrent concerns with speech and writing, and the writer's relationship to the natural world. A trio of poems, ‘St Ciaran and the Birds’, ‘St Ciaran's Island’, and (p.186) ‘St Ciaran and the Trees’, rework the stories of Carson's namesakes, St Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and St Ciaran of Saighir, via imagery borrowed from the Middle Irish tale Buile Suibhne (The Frenzy of Suibhne). Like Seamus Heaney's ‘Sweeney’ in Sweeney Astray, St Ciaran is clearly a figure for the poet,33 depicted in self-imposed isolation among plants and animals, where he steadily divests himself of his selfhood and, paradoxically, makes poetry of his yearning for silence. In ‘St Ciaran and the Trees’, the saint's body is dispersed into the landscape itself in images that suggest dismemberment: ‘I see my mouth in pools and wells;/ my flesh-thin limbs abide in trees’ (IC, 7). In ‘St Ciaran and the Birds’ the speaker's voice is a ‘tongueless bell’, ‘For my silence/No tongue can tell’ (NE, 4); while the hermit saint of ‘St Ciaran's Island’, illuminating ‘sacred texts’ in his seclusion, vows to ‘learn to grow in silence,/ And take things as they are’ (NE, 5). The characteristic note of these poems, like those that they imitate, is the mingling of Christian piety with an older, pagan nature mysticism, so that they seem to occupy a boundary between wholly different worlds and cultural outlooks. Yet the retreat of these poet-saints from both language and the world it describes also appears pathological, involving a mania for solitude and self-annihilation, which suggests that the three poems might also be read as subtle satires on the ‘isolated’, conscience-racked figure of the Northern Irish poet, and by that token as veiled self-criticisms.

Another poem that draws upon early Irish poetry to compose a portrait of the artist is ‘The Scribe in the Woods’, which opens The New Estate and reads in full:

  • Behind these hedged lines where I write,
  • The blackbird sings a dawn
  • Of parchment held to the light.
  • Clearer than my hollow bell
  • The cuckoo has pushed its trill
  • Into the hush of my nest. (NE, 1)

A parenthetical note informs the reader that the poem is ‘Adapted from the Early Irish’ – the source is an anonymous scribal composition from the early ninth century – and this terse acknowledgement that translation involves ‘adaptation’ rather than transliteration sounds a key-note that will be amplified in Carson's subsequent work. Indeed, Carson not only shrinks his poem's two stanzas to three lines rather than his source text's four and opts for a much looser rhyme scheme, but also deviates in part from the sense of the original in order to further enhance the (p.187) poem's self-reflexive qualities. Some of these differences become apparent if Carson's ‘adaptation’ is compared with Gerard Murphy's mostly literal prose translation:

A hedge of trees overlooks me; a blackbird's lay sings to me (an announcement which I shall not conceal); above my lined book the birds' chanting sings to me.

A clear-voiced cuckoo sings to me (goodly utterance) in a grey cloak from the bush fortresses. The Lord is indeed good to me: well do I write beneath a forest of woodland.34

The first thing to note here is that Murphy's ‘hedge of trees’ and ‘lined book’ become merged together in Carson's ‘hedged lines’, a phrase that literally denotes the sheltered, sanctuary-like space or ‘nest’ outdoors where the narrator, a monastic scribe, is at work, but also implies that the poet-speaker's lines themselves are ‘hedged’ or ambiguous in their meaning. Similarly, the blackbird that sings in the first stanza becomes conflated in Carson's poem with the ‘parchment’ on which the scribe is writing, as if it were an illustrated figure in an illuminated manuscript, text and environment blurring together: ‘a dawn/Of parchment held to the light’.

Clearly, in a variation on a very traditional metaphor, the blackbird's song is being made to stand for the poet's voice or words, and this also appears to be the case with the cuckoo's ‘goodly utterance’ in Murphy's version, which causes the scribe to offer praise to God and express the pleasure he takes in his work. The latter elements are excised in Carson's poem, which eschews any direct reference to the source text's Christian context and also treats the cuckoo's song much more ambivalently. Instead of evoking satisfaction or joy, the cuckoo's insinuating ‘trill’ reminds Carson's speaker of his own lyrical inadequacy, not just because it disturbs the ‘hush’ of his anchorite solitude but also because of the contrast its ringing clarity makes with his own ‘hollow bell’. Carson has said that what he most admires about early Irish lyric poems is their ‘clarity and elegance of form’35 and Seamus Heaney has similarly praised the ‘tang and clarity of a pristine world of woods and water and birdsong’ they are capable of imparting.36 So, one reading of Carson's translation would be to see it as in part a gloss on the process of translation itself: the ‘clarity’ and verbal complexity of the Irish original may, by comparison, render its English version seemingly ‘hollow’, yet something of its character and tone are nonetheless ‘pushed’ (or laid) into the nest of its language. Moreover, the lines of Carson's poem are ‘hedged’ between (p.188) his opposing impulses to respect the intentions and effects of the source text and to explore the possibilities afforded by making its images and symbolism signify differently.

Famously, Carson forsakes the somewhat conventional subject-matter and forms of The New Estate for themes at once more distinctively urban and social in his work beginning with The Irish for No, which introduced his characteristic long line and was written after a long hiatus. Nevertheless, the reflexive wariness of language in the early poems, as well as their adaptive interests in translation and intertextuality, are reworked with a greater sense of political urgency in the title poem of the latter volume. Indeed, ‘The Irish for No’ is a text that uses the theme of translation to explore problems that are at once intertextual, political, and ontological. At its centre, the poem's shifting narrative concerns and contexts describe both the limits of translation as a practice of inter-linguistic transfer and its importance as a mode of cultural understanding. As several critics have observed, ‘The Irish for No’ engages in a series of layered intertextual dialogues,37 the most important of which is with John Keats's ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, which Carson literally deconstructs, scattering fragments of its lines and images throughout his own text. Ostensibly, the conversation that is thus set up between Carson's and Keats's poems turns upon the juxtaposition of an English Romantic aesthetic sensibility with the circumstances of civil discord, violent death, and political deadlock that dominate Northern Ireland's contemporary situation. Fiona Stafford sees this contrast in terms of a determined confrontation between poet and precursor, as well as between the Irish and English literary traditions, arguing that the poem's opening quotation from Keats – ‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream?’ – ‘appears in a context of rejection and anger, its lyrical musing transformed into painful uncertainty’.38 Yet, as Patricia Horton points out, it is also precisely this capacity for being in uncertainties – what Keats called ‘negative capability’ – however painful this may be, that marks Carson's deep affinity with the older poet: ‘Carson has an abiding attraction to Keatsian uncertainty and to Keats's probing and blurring of the boundaries between dream and reality, illusion and truth, waking and sleeping.’39

Through its ambivalent and appropriative engagements with Keats's Ode, ‘The Irish for No’ sharpens and intensifies his sense of being between states of consciousness, between worlds of reality and dream – another instance of ambilocation. On the one hand, Carson ironises and rebukes the Romantic impulse towards transcending reality and its (p.189) idealisation of death – ‘drink and leave the world unseen’ – by bringing Keats's sensuous language and imagery into jarring conjunction with some of the more horrifying events of the Troubles: ‘What's all this to the Belfast business-man who drilled/Thirteen holes in his head with a Black & Decker?’ (IFN, 50). On the other, because of their very extremity and brutality such events can themselves appear unreal or surreal, so that, to paraphrase Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, history is a nightmare from which the narrator struggles, and ultimately fails, to awake. And this failure reminds us that, as Horton observes, Keats's Ode itself ‘pitches between visionary impulses […] and an awareness of the impossibility of transcendence’.40 In its counter-pointing of intoxicated reverie and documentary realism, then, as well as its numerous shifts of tone, voice, and register, Carson's poem worries about how to find a language capable of adequately conveying the ‘reality’ that provides its context.

‘The Irish for No’ is also a poem in which things continually mix and merge or blur together, becoming confused – ‘Mish-mash. Hotch-potch’ – or metamorphosing from one thing into another, like the ‘dangling/Quotation marks of a yin-yang mobile’ which become ‘the yin-yang of a tennis ball’ that a cat toys with in the final lines, ‘debating whether yes is no’. This linguistic equivocation, yoking together polar opposites in a similar fashion to the ‘puff of smoke’ over Larne Harbour ‘which might be black or white’ (IFN, 50), echoes the riddle of the poem's title, which ultimately rests upon a problem of translation: there is no Irish for ‘no’, or rather there are many ways of expressing the negative in Irish but none that are absolute and unequivocal:

  • It was time to turn into the dog's-leg short-cut from Chlorine Gardens
  • Into Cloreen Park, where you might see an Ulster Says No scrawled on the side
  • Of the power-block – which immediately reminds me of the Eglantine Inn
  • Just on the corner: on the missing h of Cloreen, you might say. We were debating,
  • Bacchus and the pards and me, how to render The Ulster Bankthe Bank
  • That Likes to Say Yes into Irish, and whether eglantine was alien to Ireland.
  • I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, when yes is the verb repeated,
  • Not exactly yes, but phatic nods and whispers. The Bank That Answers All
  • Your Questions, maybe? That Greek Portico of Mourne Granite, dazzling
  • With promises and feldspar, mirrors you in the Delphic black of its windows. (IFN, 49)

(p.190) The setting in these lines is south-central Belfast, a landscape that the observant, ambulant narrator reads for its diverse but also oddly resonant significations. Chlorine Gardens and Cloreen Park are adjacent or adjoining streets, linked by an oxymoronic ‘dog's-leg short-cut’, while ‘Chlorine’ and ‘Cloreen’ are near-homophones, though their etymologies are divergent – the former being English via Greek, whereas the latter is Anglicised from Irish – and even ‘Chloreen’ is not ‘Chlorine’.

The historical context for the poem includes protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985, as indicated by the ‘Ulster Says No scrawled on the side/Of the power block’, a slogan that summarised Ulster Unionist intransigence in the face of any rapprochement with the Republic and an obdurate refusal of all things ‘Irish’. Indeed, in its blunt, unaccommodating rhetoric, the phrase typifies ‘the stilted style of Unionist discourse’, which Francis Mulhern describes as marking ‘a radical alienation from speech itself – a kind of symbolic death’.41 By contrast, any effort to translate this slogan – or that of the Ulster Bank – will demand compromise and negotiation, for the grammatical structure of Irish simply does not allow for such cast-iron certainties to be articulated. The absence of words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Irish, where assent or dissent is indicated in conversation by repeating the verb phrase of a question asked,42 means that the sentiment informing the statement ‘Ulster Says No’ is strictly inexpressible and the attitude underlying it is linguistically untenable. As Carson has remarked, in a lecture on poetry and translation, this grammatical incommensurability between English and Irish also implies a larger point that ‘different languages have different weights and measures, different sets of social and phenomenological expectations’.43 When Carson's narrator attempts to translate the vacuous advertising jingle of the Ulster Bank he must rephrase or construe otherwise its intimations of empty promises, and does so parodically via an implied parallel with the Delphic Oracle: ‘The Bank That Answers All Your Questions, maybe?’ Translation, in this context, is necessarily mistranslation; but mistranslation is also a way of renovating rhetoric or cliché and thereby avoiding symbolic death. It is, moreover, a paradigm of compromise and negotiation.44

If anything, the Belfast of The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti is characterised by a surfeit of symbols and signs, a surplus of contending and conflicting meanings that Carson's poems attempt to read in graffiti, street-names and shop signs, the names of bars and clubs and commodities, as well as written reports of the city in newspapers, books, directories, and gazetteers. The theme extends to non-verbal signs in (p.191) ‘Snowball’, which opens with what at first appears a confident reading of feminine signals by the (male) voyeur narrator: ‘All the signs: bee-hive hair-do, white handbag, white stilettos, split skirt.’ The listed details of dress and appearance implicitly identify the anonymous woman as a prostitute working the red-light district adjacent to ‘Tomb Street GPO’, but the punter idling in his Audi Quattro can't be sure and suddenly ‘revs away towards the Albert Clock’. This undermines the narrator's initial claim to be able to read the street-scene before him authoritatively, as the signs he had interpreted become resistant and ambiguous: ‘The heels click off – another/Blind Date? Like a fish-net stocking, everything is full of holes …’ The ambiguity here also affects the title of the poem, which might be understood literally as a noun and linked to the ‘Christmas rush’ through which the narrator works on night-shift at the sorting office; it could be the cocktail favoured by the woman in the split skirt; or it could describe the ‘snowballing’ action by which signs acquire alternative meanings in the course of the poem itself. Fittingly, the poem concludes with the narrator's discovery, in ‘a forgotten pigeonhole’, of yet another enigmatic message, a postcard dated 9 August 1910, which reads: ‘Meet me usual place & time/Tomorrow – What I have to tell you might not wait – Yours – Forever – B’ (IFN, 44). Torn from its context and suppressing most of its key details, this telegraphic dead letter is impossible to decipher accurately, though the urgency to communicate expressed is rendered poignant after the passage of so many years, and its arrested transmission allegorises the extent to which Belfast's circulating signifiers will tend to stray or miss their mark.

Signs are ubiquitous, then, in Carson's Belfast but also notoriously unstable, and this can have deadly consequences in a culture where indicators of identity are taken as read. In ‘Last Orders’, Carson's nervy, tight-lipped narrator compares entering a bar to Russian roulette, ‘since you never know who's who, or what you're walking into’ (BC, 46); while in the companion poem, ‘Night Out’, the narrator is given ‘the once-over once again’ and hears machine-gun fire from beyond the bar's fortified exterior: ‘So the sentence of the night/Is punctuated through and through by rounds of drink, of bullets, of applause’ (BC, 77). The metaphorical equation of gunfire with punctuation in this line, as well as its device of rendering experience in terms of the grammatical unit of the ‘sentence’, recalls other poems in both collections, such as ‘Punctuation’, where the bullets fired at the poem's narrator are registered as ‘dot, dot, dot, dot, dot …’ (BC, 64), and ‘Belfast Confetti’, in which an explosion figures as ‘an asterisk on the map’ (IFN, 31). To the extent that they (p.192) link grammar and typographical symbols with acts of violence, Carson's poems illustrate David Wheatley's point that the ‘social deformations’ of the Troubles often gain expression in the very textual fabric of Northern Irish poetry, rendering ‘language itself a site of contestation’.45

Language is also a site of substitutions that blur meanings together in a manner that approximates to the shifting and unstable character of events, with their proliferation of schisms and splits, conspiracies and internecine disputes. Noting that a unit of soldiers have incongruously chosen to name their Saracen tank ‘Felix’ after a cartoon cat, the narrator of ‘Queen's Gambit’ comments wryly: ‘It's all the go, here, changing something into something else, like rhyming/Kampuchea with Cambodia’ (BC, 36). Amid this accelerated exchange of names, identities, signs, and referents, Carson frequently enacts the breakdown of writing as a result of the historical and political pressures of the conflict he attempts to describe:

  • It's that frottage effect again: the paper that you're scribbling on is grained
  • And blackened, till the pencil-lead snaps off, in a valley of the broken alphabet
  • And the streets are a bad photostat grey; the ink comes off in your hand.
  • (BC, 35)

The sense here that the written language of the poem mimics the ‘broken’ terrain of the city streets it represents would seem to bear out Steven Matthews's contention that in Carson's ‘oral-centred poetry, the marks of the written text are associated with violence’.46 Nonetheless, Matthews's argument that Carson's poetry (along with that of Paul Muldoon) ‘celebrates […] the voice as presence’ to the detriment of writing and textuality requires qualification.47 For, although Carson emphasises the vitality and adaptability of demotic speech, it is also striking how often voices in his Belfast poems teeter on the brink of incomprehensibility or silence, and the mouth itself becomes the focus of violent actions. In ‘Yes’, for instance, the narrator is prevented from quoting Bashō when an explosion interrupts his cross-border train journey: ‘My mouth is full/Of broken glass and quinine as everything reverses South’ (BC, 65). And in ‘The Mouth’, the assassination of an informer (a ‘mouth’) is relayed via a grisly literalisation of colloquial speech: ‘We thought it was time he bit off more than he could chew. Literally’ (BC, 70).

Mouths, grasses, pipsqueaks, touts, and informers of all kinds also figure prominently in Carson's fourth collection, First Language, where there is an even more intense focus upon the terrain and topography of (p.193) language itself, as well as a diverse set of engagements with translation. As Alan Gillis remarks, where Carson's previous two collections had taken Belfast as their ‘dominant frame of reference’, the city in First Language ‘is disintegrated, replaced by an otherworld of linguistic hallucination’.48 Certainly, the exploration of Belfast's history and geography ceases to be the primary stimulus for Carson's narratives, although the context of the Troubles, with its spasmodic irruptions of violence and involuted identity politics, remains strongly present. Indeed, a large part of the purpose of the proliferating language games and general semantic instability that are explored in First Language and its successor Opera Et Cetera appears to have been to reinvigorate and diversify the languages and images through which Northern Ireland's political and cultural life could be given expression.

Carson's verbal exuberance and invention is pitted against the pernicious, deadening effects of rhetoric and cant in the media, political discourse, and cultural stereotypes; though, as Gillis notes, ‘these poems are also marked by confinement as well as by conceptual explosion’, combining linguistic ingenuity with a keen awareness of social and historical limitations.49 ‘Grass’, for example, is an intoxicated riff on slang terms, colloquialisms, and thieves' argot that also tells a tale of betrayal and imprisonment when a drug deal goes wrong:

  • It was the circumbendibus of everything that got us locked
  • And scuttered, the Anno Domini of what happened yonks before
  • Our time, and that is why we languish now in Anguagela Jail, while he
  • Is on the loose. (FL, 16)

In this poem Carson lets his own ‘echolalia hang out’, mixing registers and grafting phrases onto one another at dizzying speed, so that the reader too is caught up in the ‘general boggeldybotch’ where ‘no one/Seemed to twig which hand was which, or who was who or whom/Or what was ace or deuce’ (FL, 16). This disorienting confusion of identities and meanings can be at once exhilarating and dangerously disempowering, as also in ‘Two to Tango’, which features a narrator who may be a participant in a witness protection programme or a creative writing tutor, or both, and counsels the reader in managing ‘changes of identity’ (FL, 20): ‘Whether you want to change your face or not's up to yourself. But the bunk of history/They'll make up for you. Someone else's shoes. They can put you anywhere. Where's a mystery’ (FL, 18). Shadowy external forces and agencies – ‘They’ or ‘the Powers-that-Be’ (FL, 18, 19, 16, 21) – give the impression of a malign and inflexible order persisting beneath the chaotic surfaces of many of these poems. Nonetheless, Carson's virtuoso (p.194) manipulation of what he calls ‘Babel-babble’ (FL, 34) provides frequent opportunities for the reinvention of received ideas and narratives. An example is the ante-natal class for expectant fathers in ‘Opus Operandi’, which morphs into an interrogative lesson on the concept ‘Orange’, and finds the sectarian codes of differentiation – ‘the shibboleths of aitch and haitch50– wanting: ‘It seems the gene-pool got contaminated. Everything was neither one thing nor the other;/ So now they're trying to agree on a formula for a petition to the Author’ (FL, 60).

These themes of merged or hybrid identities are explicitly linked to issues of translation in ‘Second Nature’, the first of Carson's several versions of ‘Malairt’ by the Irish-language poet Seán Ó Ríordáin. Ó Ríordáin is an enabling example for Carson because of his bilingualism and cultural hyphenation, as a poet whose work in Irish is deeply engaged in conversations with writers from the English literary tradition, especially Wordsworth, Hopkins, and Yeats.51 In his poem, a character aptly named Turnbull empathises to such a degree with the melancholy look in a horse's eyes that he and the horse appear, to the narrator at least, to change places or internalise elements of the other. Carson renders the moment of transfer in the following terms:

  • I looked over at the horse, that I might see the sorrow pouring from its eyes;
  • I saw the eyes of Turnbull, looming towards me from the horse's head.
  • I looked at Turnbull; I looked at him again, and saw beneath his brows
  • The too-big eyes that were dumb with sorrow, the horse's eyes. (FL, 38)

‘Malairt’ can be most straightforwardly translated as ‘exchange’, as in ‘rata malairt’ (‘exchange rate’), but Carson has also produced alternative versions under the titles ‘Contract’ and ‘Swap (Double Take)’,52 which, taken along with the echo of ‘Second Language’ in ‘Second Nature’, implies that he reads Ó Ríordáin's poem as being as much about translation and transactions between languages as his own are the products of such processes.

Carson makes this thematic concern explicit in a chapter of his prose book, Fishing for Amber, where Ó Ríordáin's poetry and example provide the focus for a discussion of the ramifications of translation: ‘The word malairt itself can mean translation: it is change, barter, dealing, traffic, metamorphosis, destruction: and one can have a change of religion or clothes; one can duel with this word, or take opposing sides’ (FFA, 204). This profusion of interpretations is typical of Carson's approach to translation, which recognises the polysemy of the ‘original’ text as a (p.195) matrix for associations and resemblances that can only ever be partial and provisional. A further illustration of this point is given when Carson translates and re-translates a key passage from the Réamhrá, or Preface, to Ó Ríordáin's first collection of poems, Eireaball Spideoige (A Robin's Tail), changing the accent and introducing subtly different shades of meaning with each of the ‘plausible readings’ he gives. As he says: ‘language can be registered in many ways; and bringing one language to bear upon another is like going through a forest at night, where there are many forking paths, and each route is fraught with its own pitfalls’ (FFA, 203). ‘Second Nature’ is a poem that both embodies and reflects upon this process of bringing one language to bear upon another, and the exchange that takes place between Turnbull and the horse clearly allegorises the ‘contract’, ‘swap’, or ‘double take’ that occurs between Ó Ríordáin's and Carson's poems; translation is an opportunity to see the world through other eyes.

‘Second Nature’ appears in First Language sandwiched between two translations from the French, ‘Drunk Boat’ and ‘Correspondances’, versions of Arthur Rimbaud's ‘Le Bateau lyre’ and Charles Baudelaire's ‘Correspondances’, respectively. Carson has also translated Baudelaire's poem more than once under different titles – his version in The Alexandrine Plan is called ‘Coexistences’ –and its Symbolist projection of an interior, psychological landscape in which sense impressions and ideas mingle promiscuously together resonates in unexpected ways with the exchange of identities dramatised in ‘Second Language’. Like ‘Second Language’ but unlike Baudelaire's sonnet, Carson's ‘Correspondances’ is written in four long-lined couplets that make use of some arresting rhymes, particularly the initial pairing of ‘babble’ and ‘Parable’, which weighs the promise of encrypted meaning against linguistic confusion. Carson amplifies Baudelaire's sensuous awareness of how sounds, smells, and colours may shimmer and blend together by extending the original's metaphor of the ‘dark symbolic forest’ into his second stanza, making the natural world and the world of language or sensation merge more fully in the reader's mind: ‘Self-confounding echoes buzz and mingle through the gloomy arbours;/ Vowels, perfumes, stars swarm in like fireflies from the midnight blue of harbours’ (FL, 39). Similarly, Baudelaire's simile for perfumes, ‘Doux comme les hautbois’ (‘mellow as oboes’),53 is not only inventively recast in Carson's version as ‘the oms and ahs of oboes’ but also triggers, in stanza three, the appearance of a string quartet wholly absent from the original, which ‘yawns and growls at you with amber, rosin, incense, musk’ in an exuberant evocation of ‘soul and spirit (p.196) music’ (FL, 39). Such refractions and elaborations, which substantially re-make the poem they are translating, along with his flexible recombinations of the original's semantic and formal elements, exemplify Peter Denman's point that Carson's translations typically seek ‘to enlarge the poetic and linguistic space that the poems occupy’.54 Appropriately, then, ‘Coexistences’ translates Baudelaire's euphoric phrase ‘l'expansion des choses infinies’ as ‘the expansiveness of things awry and slant’ (AP, 71). At one level, this line is a further expression of Carson's interest in idiosyncrasies and deviations; but it also implies that, for him, the appeal of the Symbolist aesthetic that Baudelaire's poem expresses lies in the emphasis it places upon suggestiveness and synthesis, bringing like and unlike together in surprising and stimulating conjunctions. As Alan Gillis notes, Carson eschews Baudelaire's sense of underlying unity–‘une ténébreuse et profonde unite’ –but retains and expands his intuition of correspondences seething everywhere, ‘veer[ing] from one theme or context to another in perpetual motion’.55

Such relentless, kinetic energy and an allied interest in altered or extreme states of consciousness make Rimbaud another significant influence on Carson's poetry, as the visionary excesses and cascading images of ‘Drunk Boat’, and its re-writing as ‘The Ballad of HMS Belfast’, attest. ‘Le Bateau lyre’ puts into action Rimbaud's theory that poetry approaches the unknown (‘l'inconnu’) by way of a systematic disordering of the senses, exploding the unity of the lyric ‘I’ in the process and introducing a volatile instability to textual meanings.56 Carson's translation, again written in long-lined rhyming couplets, begins:

  • As I glided down the lazy Meuse, I felt my punters had gone AWOL–
  • In fact, Arapahoes had captured them for target practice, nailing them to stakes. Oh hell,
  • I didn't give a damn. I didn't want a crew, nor loads of Belgian wheat, nor English cotton.
  • When the whoops and hollers died away, their jobs were well forgotten.
  • Through the tug and zip of tides, more brain-deaf than an embryo, I bobbled;
  • Peninsulas, unmoored and islanded, were envious of my Babel-babble.
  • (FL, 34)

This initial act of unfastening or unbinding, whereby the boat is launched without its crew into an unplotted voyage of fluid movement on the high seas, also entails the abandonment of social and commercial ties so that (p.197) poetic subjectivity is freed into currents at once libidinal and linguistic: ‘I've been immersed, since then, in Sea Poetry, anthologized by stars’ (FL, 34). Carson's translation steers a course between registering the unfurling metaphors and dizzy switches of pace and tone of the original, and allowing leeway for its own excursions into slang and idiomatic phrasing (‘gone AWOL’, ‘I didn't give a damn’). Mention of ‘Arapahoes’ (instead of Rimbaud's generic ‘Peaux-rouges’ –‘redskins’)57 and the phrase ‘more brain-deaf than an embryo’ also forge intertextual links with ‘Second Language’, further foregrounding the idea of voyaging within language itself.

As ‘the ancient parapets of Europe’ are left behind (FL, 37), experience is increasingly mediated through hallucinations and vivid word-pictures that pretend to a more profound ‘reality’ –‘I've seen the Real Thing; others only get the aura’ (FL, 35) –and the poem as a whole, in its delirious panoply of images, seems to promise what Kristin Ross deems a new mode of perception, one ‘that is at once cosmological and atomized, planetary and microscopic’.58 Yet this visionary euphoria collapses into suicidal despair at the end of the poem, with the threatening appearance of ‘Blue Ensigns’, ‘merchantmen’, and ‘the drawn blinds of prison-ships’ (FL, 37). The final image is picked up and elaborated further in ‘The Ballad of HMS Belfast’, which recasts Rimbaud's vatic sea-shanty through the conventions of the Irish aisling, or vision-poem, and gives it an anchorage in Belfast's history as both garrison town and sea-port. In its final lines, the narrator is awoken from a dream of fabulous voyages and intoxicated language–‘half-gargled still with braggadocio and garble’ –by the tolling of the Albert clock: ‘I lay bound in iron chains, alone, my aisling gone, my sentence passed./ Grey Belfast dawn illuminated me, on board the prison ship Belfast’ (FL, 74).

First Language also includes four translations from Ovid's Metamorphoses originally commissioned for Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun's After Ovid: New Metamorphoses,59 and in several of these versions Carson uses the Latin poet's narratives of violence, grief, and revenge to approach the circumstances of the Northern Irish Troubles obliquely. He is, of course, by no means the only Northern Irish poet to make use of classical texts in this way,60 but Carson's work seems to illustrate John Kerrigan's point that Irish writers from a Catholic background tend to bring Ovid's ‘metamorphic imaginings into fruitful relation with Gaelic’, particularly the transformations of Suibhne in Buile Suibhne.61 On the other hand, and given Sarah Armes Brown's point that metamorphosis is ‘a helpful metaphor to use of the process of translation or imitation’,62 Carson's (p.198) engagements with Ovid can also be read as extending his explorations of translation as a theme or trope. In ‘Ovid: Metamorphoses, V, 529–550’, a fragmented sonnet written in long-lines, he retells the stories of Persephone and Ascalaphus in broad Belfast vernacular. Persephone is cast as a renegade breaking her ‘hunger strike’ by eating a forbidden pomegranate, while Ascalaphus appears as an underhanded informer – ‘Stoolie. Pipsqueak. Mouth’ – whose report to ‘the Powers-/ That-Be’ ensures her imprisonment in ‘the Underworld’ for eternity. The feisty Persephone, however, ‘spat back as good as she got’ and ‘slabbered’ Ascalaphus with ‘unholy water’, transforming him into an owl:

  •                               All ears, all eyes: touts everywhere, potential freaks,
  • Beware. For now he is the scrake-owl, Troubles’ augury for Auld Lang
  •            Syne,
  • Who to this day is harbinger of doom, the gloom of Pluto's no-go zone.
  • (FL, 21)

The implicit equation that is made here between Belfast's urban no-go zones and the gloom of Pluto's Underworld looks ahead to Carson's translation of Dante in The Inferno, where the analogy will be substantially expanded.

Another sonnet derived from the Metamorphoses, ‘Ovid: Metamorphoses, XIII, 576–619,’ translates the story of Memnon into a parable of sectarian division. Here, the dead warrior's funeral pyre suggests the symbolic ‘bonfires’ of the Twelfth of July celebrations, and the smoky birds that commemorate his death enact an annual ‘civil war’ of reiterative mutual destruction that parallels the rhythms of sectarian confrontation:

  • And then the squab engendered other birds innumerable. They wheeled
  • In pyrotechnics round the pyre. The Stukas, on the third approach, split
  • In two like Prods and Taigs. Scrabbed and pecked at one another. Sootflecks. Whirl-
  • Wind. Celtic loops and spirals chawed each other, fell down dead and splayed. (FL, 59)

This strategy of making Ovid's Latin originals speak the language of contemporary events in Northern Ireland is complicated by the intersection of other contexts, such as the Second World War dogfights summoned up by the metaphorical use of ‘Stukas’, and the larger resonances of ‘civil war’ or ‘burning out’. Likewise, the Troubles look different when they are refracted through the narrative lens that Ovid's Metamorphoses provides.

(p.199) Translation remains an important component of the extensive linguistic experiments that make up Carson's next collection, Opera Ft Cetera. One of its four sections, Alibi', is given over to versions of nine poems from the Romanian of Stefan Augustin Doinas, several of which highlight fragile but suggestive parallels between the respective contexts in which the two poets write. ‘Siege’, for example, tells a parabolic story of a fortress maintaining a state of siege in the absence of any opposing army, a situation that clearly resonates with the Ulster Protestant ‘siege mentality’ (OEC, 59); while in ‘Alibi’ the narrator engages in a self-interrogation over his complicity in the murders done in his country, expressing a generalised condition of guilt shared in by a whole society: ‘O ubiquitous surveillant God, we are accomplices to all assassinations’ (OEC, 56). Another section of the book, ‘Et Cetera’, contains poems provoked by Latin tags culled from Chambers Dictionary. The collection is framed, however, by two long sequences, ‘Letters from the Alphabet’ and ‘Opera’, which mirror each other in exploiting the ordered structures of the alphabet and the radio operator's code, respectively. Jerzy Jarniewicz has argued that in Carson's writing the stability or reliability implied by alphabetic patterning ‘yields to the nearly cosmic rule of metamorphosis’,63 and the poems in these sequences work within such systems only to highlight the ‘translations’ and arbitrary correspondences they unwittingly make possible. Rhyme or adjacency rather than iron logic are employed to forge narrative connections, while the shapes and sounds of letters prompt a proliferating series of mutating images and exuberant word-play.64 For instance, in ‘G’ some unfortunate has his hand ‘clamped in a G-clamp to the Black & Decker work-bench’ by a gang of ‘G-men’; subsequently, ‘bugs’ proliferate across the film noir city – specifically ‘gnats, gads, gargle-flies and gall-flies’, all of them ‘Spawned from the entomology of G’; and, finally, a pair of spooks named ‘Black’ and ‘Decker’ discuss the fate of the man clamped to the work-bench. (OEC, 17). In ‘W’ the narrator is aptly preoccupied with doppelgangers and dualities (‘I call you Double You’) (OEC, 33); ‘N’ proves that identities are fluid and shifting but that names remain important: ‘Listen to me. Nemo is not a nobody. And Nautilus is not a narwhal’ (OEC, 24); and in ‘P’ the deadpan narrator informs the reader: ‘Pea is not a cue’ (OEC, 26).

Carson's use of dictionaries in many of these poems is obvious;65 but if dictionaries can be regarded as ‘textual embodiments of a world dominated by a respect for accurate classifications, fixed definitions and a stable order’ then Carson's eccentric use of them undermines (p.200) such impulses towards social control and cultural authoritarianism.66 There are two aspects to consider here, both of which run counter to the investments his work simultaneously makes in structure and system: on the one hand, the poems conjure an overload of linguistic metamorphoses and narrative transitions, where one thing spontaneously becomes another; on the other, they foreground an irreducible impression of difference and particularity, an exhilarated sense of the world's multiplicity and the heterogeneity of language in particular. In X-Ray' the narrator composes a labyrinthine catalogue of the Troubles and of Northern Irish history only to reflect that all of this complexity is ‘nothing to the cerebral activity of any one of us who sets in train/These zig-zags’ of thought, language, and writing (OEC, 90). Another poem, Romeo', figures the codes of identity in Belfast or Verona as ‘a tangled tagliatelle linguini Veronese’ that the narrator struggles ‘to unravel/From its strands of DNA and language’ (OEC, 84). Conceptual precision is implicitly aligned with sectarian certitudes here, and questions of definition tend to remain questions throughout both ‘Letters from the Alphabet’ and ‘Opera’.

The increasing attention paid to the topos of language itself in Carson's work since First Language has been paralleled more recently by a number of more extensive and ambitious engagements with translation. Since 2000 he has published three book-length translations – of Dante's Inferno, Brian Merriman's Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court), and the Irish epic tale, Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) – each of which sees him conducting a dialogue with major texts from the Irish and European literary traditions. Both The Inferno of Dante Alighieri and The Táin incorporate extensive scholarly notes, introductions, and other paratextual material (notes on the translation, pronunciation guides, further reading) that indicate the seriousness with which Carson has approached his task, and he is scrupulous in acknowledging the many sources, translations, and critical texts he has consulted. Carson also typically uses his forewords and introductions as opportunities to meditate upon the process of translation itself, its possibilities as well as its difficulties. In The Inferno, for instance, he notes that his decision to write in terza rima is unusual among translators of Dante into English because the English language has fewer rhymes available than Italian, and because it is thought that ‘the necessity to rhyme will result in lines that sound like a translation’.67 His reply is to ask what is wrong with this, and to note that working under such artificially imposed constrictions may have the benefit of producing ‘an (p.201) English which is sometimes strangely interesting’, one that is closer to the effects of Dante's vernacular language (IDA, xix).

There are clear affinities, then, between Carson's approach to Dante's text and Venuti's conception of foreignising translations, which may be just as partial in their interpretation of the source texts as domesticating translations but ‘tend to flaunt their partiality instead of concealing t’.68 By producing a translation of Dante that reads like a translation, Carson's Inferno also serves the purpose of estranging or pluralising the linguistic and cultural norms of the English language in which he writes. ‘Translating ostensibly from the Italian, Tuscan or Florentine,’ he remarks, ‘I found myself translating as much from English, or various Englishes’ (IDA, xx). What links The Inferno to The Midnight Court is that Carson finds formal models for both his translations in the Irish musical tradition. In Dante's poetry he recognises ‘a relentless, peripatetic, ballad-like energy’ that suggests a viable parallel with the Hiberno-English ballad, its rhythmical and alliterative suppleness as well as its ‘demotic and inclusive intentions’ (IDA, xxi). In his foreword to The Midnight Court he sketches a (perhaps fanciful) portrait of Brian Merriman as a rakish fiddle-player and notes the prosodic similarities between Merriman's lines and the 6/8 rhythm of an Irish jig (MC, 10, 11). Both translations exhibit Carson's desire to retain as far as possible the metrical schemes and rhyme patterns of the source texts, even where this leads him to transpose lines or deviate from the literal sense of the words translated, because such departures nonetheless bear ‘a sidelong, metaphorical relation to the original’ (MC, 15). The situation is more complicated with The Táin because the original is not only prosimetric, a combination of narrative prose passages with syllabic and metrical verse elements, but also ‘a compilation of various styles’ as a result of its many-layered textual history (T xv). Once again, though, Carson's impulse is towards preserving the ‘stylistic heterogeneity’ (7 xxvi) he finds in the text – he even makes a brief but suggestive parallel with Joyce's Ulysses (T, xxi) – and emphasising the intrinsically creative aspects of his translation. ‘There is no canonical Táin,’ he asserts, ‘and every translation of it is necessarily another version or recension’ (T, xxvii).

Carson's Inferno is the first full-length version of Dante's text by an Irish writer, though, as David Wallace observes, the construction of an ‘Irish Dante’ in the work of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney has been an important part of the Italian poet's extensive afterlife in English during the twentieth century.69 The contributions that Carson's translation makes to this tradition are chiefly two-fold: (p.202) through his use of Hiberno-English, Belfast demotic, and Ulster-Scots idioms he makes Dante's imagery and narrative resonate inventively with Irish experience; and such resonances are further enhanced by the scattered parallels he draws between the divided, factional society of medieval Florence, the landscapes and fortifications of Hell, and the claustrophobic, dangerous atmosphere of contemporary Belfast. It is worth noting that during July 2001, while Carson was working on his translation, a loyalist protest centred on Holy Cross Catholic primary school in Ardoyne, North Belfast, broke out, reigniting sectarian tensions and provoking violent confrontations near to the writer's home.70 This context lends a further poignancy and urgency to his version of Dante's conversation with his fellow Florentine ‘Hungry Jacko’ in Canto VI:

  • I answered: 'Jacko, your condition fills
  • my eyes with tears, no matter what your sins;
  • but tell me truly, if it's possible,
  • what holds the future for the citizens
  • of my divided city? Is there one just man
  • in it? Or are they all sectarians? (IDA, 39–40)

The triple rhyme of ‘sins’, ‘citizens’, and ‘sectarians’ here is itself a succinct, and depressing, commentary upon the political condition of post-Agreement Belfast, and Carson primes the reader to recognise further correspondences in his introduction, which draws implicit comparisons between the Guelf and Ghibelline factions of Dante's Florence and Belfast's Catholic and Protestant communities (IDA, xiii). Indeed, Nick Havely has praised Carson's translation particularly for its ‘fiercely articulate rendering of the poem's imagined squalor, violence and partisan hostility’.71 Hell is also a version of Belfast, and vice versa, as in Dante's bird's-eye view of Malebolge's ‘defensive spaces’ and panopticon-style fortified exterior with ‘military barriers on every side’ (IDA, 119); or again, in his likening of the tar-pits of Canto XXI to scenes of shipbuilding, Dante's Venetian Arsenal merging in Carson's rendering with memories of Belfast's Queen's Island in its heyday (IDA, 140).

Carson is also adept more generally at conveying the variety of spatial environments and landscapes that Dante's Hell comprehends, ranging from the ‘gloomy wood’ of Canto I through meadows, bogs, mires, fens, drains and dikes, towers and chasms, crags, escarpments, lakes, and rivers of blood. Many of these features, however, receive a noticeably ‘Irish’ inflection in Carson's treatment of them. For instance, his use of the phrase ‘the gyres/ of Hell’ (IDA, 64), and Dante's determination ‘to (p.203) experience the full extent/of hell, from gyre to gyre’ (IDA, 195) both lend a distinctively Yeatsian bent to the conical structure of the Inferno. On entering the Third Circle of Hell, Carson's Dante describes a climate that is ‘forever bleak’, characterised by ‘pouring rain, freezing cold;/ environment unchangingly severe’ as if to imply that the Irish weather is a form of infernal punishment:

  • Giant hailstones, needling sleet, and snow
  • fall inexhaustibly from darkened skies
  • to saturate the stinking bog below. (IDA, 37)

Similarly, when Dante encounters the giants who are imprisoned in the central pit of Malebolge he mistakes their huge figures for the towers of some infernal city, but Carson has Virgil explain that these ‘collosi’ are ‘stuck! in this deep pit, as in some Irish bog, / collectively immobilised by muck’ (IDA, 216).

This scene with the giant builders of Babel also provides Carson with many opportunities to deploy colloquial and idiomatic speech, Ulster vernacular and slang terms. In doing so, of course, he often strays from the literal meaning of Dante's original but holds to Umberto Eco's dictum that, rather than aiming for strict ‘equivalence’, a translation should strive ‘to create the same effect in the mind of the reader (obviously according to the translator's interpretation) as the original text wanted to create’.72 A good example of this equivalence of effect can be seen in Carson's idiosyncratic refashioning of Nimrod's gobbledygook, which can usefully be contrasted with Robin Kirkpatrick's more literal translation (on the right):

Yin twa maghogani gazpaighp boke!

‘Raphèl maì amècche zabì almì,’

the awful gub began to roar and bawl

so screaming it began, that fearsome mouth,

for gibberish was all he ever spoke.

unfit to utter any sweeter psalm73

(IDA, 218)

Whereas Kirkpatrick simply retains Dante's garbled Italian phrase, Carson deepens the confusion by making Nimrod speak a mixture of Ulster Scots (‘yin twa’ is ‘one two’), macaronic pseudo-Irish (‘mahogany gaspipe’ mimics the intonations of Irish as heard by non-Irish speakers), and Ulster English (‘boke’ is ‘vomit’) (IDA, 290, n).74 He also employs the bluntly colloquial phrases ‘awful gub’ and ‘gibberish’ in contrast to Kirkpatrick's more demure ‘fearsome mouth’ and ‘sweeter psalm’. Moreover, Carson takes the liberty of enhancing some of Dante's effects, so that the thunderous sound of Nimrod's ‘horn’ is heard as ‘the mad (p.204) ta-ra-ra-boom-di-ay/ of some gargantuan bugle-megaphone’ (IDA, 215) and Virgil's sharp-tongued rebuke to the gibbering giant is rendered in the idiom of Belfast banter:

  • My guide then turned to him: 'Hey, head-the-ball,
  • stick to your trumpet; give it a good blast
  • when you feel your temper coming to the boil,
  • instead of that incessant blah, blah, blah! (IDA, 218)

Dante's decision to write in Tuscan vernacular rather than Latin caused concern among critics of his day, one writing to warn that the poem would be ‘sounded tritely on the lips of women’ and ‘croaked forth at street corners’; even Voltaire found the poem's mixture of styles and genres ‘bizarre’, a ‘hotchpotch’.75 Carson, however, responds positively to the variety and energy of his language, which takes in ‘both formal discourse and the language of the street’, and his own translation enhances Dante's multiplicity of registers, tones, and styles (IDA, xxi). In doing so, Carson's translation is peculiarly well-equipped to convey the sense of language in extremis that permeates the original, of words trying but often failing to describe the awful realities they confront: ‘if my pen/has strayed, it's from the strangeness of it all’; ‘our minds weren't made for such reality, / beside which any form of words must pale’; ‘no words exist for such a screed’ (IDA, 177, 193, 238). Translating Dante, then, Carson finds himself returning to issues that are prevalent in his earlier Belfast poems; but the strongly self-reflexive aspect of his translation is evident in other ways too. It is telling, for example, that Dante's opening line, ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’, should become in Carson's version, ‘Halfway through the story of my life’ (IDA, 1, my emphasis), reminding us of his recurrent interests in narrative and storytelling; and that Dante's journey through the ‘gloomy wood’ should link walking and poetic metre, ‘one foot firmly set/below the other in iambic stress’ (IDA, 2). During his initial equivocations about entering the Inferno with Virgil, Dante is said to have ‘shilly-shallied on that twilit shore’ (IDA, 10), while Carson informs the reader that he only embarked upon a commission to translate from Dante's poem ‘after much shilly-shallying’ (IDA, ix). Carson's retelling of Dante's journey through the deepest reaches of Hell can therefore also be read as an oblique commentary upon his own journeying into Dante's text.

Because Dante's journey takes him through an intermediate zone between waking and sleeping, life and death, Carson has drawn parallels (p.205) between The Inferno and Brian Merriman's Cúirt an Mheán Oíche, suggesting that both texts resemble the Irish genre of the aisling or poetic dream-vision (MC, 13). Strictly speaking, the aisling follows a formula whereby the poet encounters a beautiful woman who personifies Ireland and exhorts him to further the nationalist cause, implicitly linking the promise of sexual and political fulfilment. As Joep Leerssen notes, however, a basic feature of the genre is the poet's experience of vision, which marks an overlap between reality and fiction, placing him ‘in a mediating position between the spirit-world of and of mythical phenomena, and the rest of humanity who have no access to that world’.76 Merriman's poem certainly exemplifies this condition of ambilocation by transporting the poet-narrator to a fairy court held near his home-town of Feakle in County Clare, but also parodies the literary conventions of the aisling tradition by figuring the usually willowy fairy woman as a gigantic, foul-mouthed harridan. In Carson's translation she is described as ‘Broad-arsed and big-bellied, built like a tank, / And angry as thunder from shoulder to shank’ (MC, 20). This fearsome bailiff of the court wastes little time in excoriating the poet, a middle-aged bachelor, for his connivance with ‘the Irish reluctance to breed’ (MC, 22), and the lively proceedings of the court itself – ‘Where the weak are empowered and women are strong’ (MC, 21) – allow Merriman to engage frankly with contemporary debates over sexual freedoms, the social position of bastards, and relations between the sexes. Indeed, Declan Kiberd reads Merriman's poem as an Irish expression of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque which challenges puritanical social norms by ‘democratizing laughter’, and ‘celebrates not just the mingling of discourses but also the joining of the male and the female body’.77

Carson's rollicking, high-spirited translation seems very much in keeping with the tradition of the carnivalesque. He notes that the atmosphere of Merriman's court ‘is not so much that of a court of law, but of a country market, filled with verbal commotion and colour’ (MC, 12–13), and remarks on the linguistic excesses of the text, particularly its ‘abundant lexicon of vilification’ (MC, 14), which he recreates with considerable panache:

  • BY THE CRO WN of Craglee, if I don't admit
  • That you're doting, decrepit, and feeble of wit –
  • And to treat this assembly with all due respect –
  • I'd rip off your head from its scrawny wee neck,
  • And I'd knock it for six with the toe of my boot,
  • And I'd give the remainder no end of abuse,
  • (p.206) And I'd pluck such a tune from the strings of your heart,
  • I'd consign you to Hell without halo or harp. (MC, 45)

However, as Seamus Heaney observes, despite its proto-feminist expressions of female empowerment and sexual desire Merriman's poem also articulates its fair share of misogynistic hang-ups, placing ‘much emphasis upon woman as a kind of human brooder and mostly ignor[ing] her potential as a being independent of her sexual attributes and her reproductive apparatus’.78 Heaney's own partial translation in his The Midnight Verdict foregrounds the text's exposure of male anxieties over suppressed female power but also mitigates some of its earthiness and vernacular energy by excising its central exchanges and opting to read this eighteenth-century Irish poem ‘within the acoustic of classical myth’, specifically Ovid's account of the death of Orpheus.79 By comparison, Carson's version effects a more thoroughgoing imbrication of high rhetoric and vulgar comedy, and also paints a vivid portrait of contemporary Ireland's ‘calamitous state’ through anachronistic references to ‘hush money, slush funds’, ‘upstarts and gangsters’, and a ‘climate’ that has ‘worsened of late’ (MC, 21, 33).

Carson's most recent foray into translation, The Táin, is perhaps also his most challenging to date, in part because of the temporal distance and difference separating the social, linguistic, and material cultures of his source text, the Irish tale Táin Bó Cúailnge, from those of the twenty-first-century Anglophone world his translation addresses. In his introduction, Carson notes that the ‘problem’ of the Táin's origins is ‘ultimately insoluble’ (T, xx), though it certainly derives from the oral tradition and may date from the eighth century or earlier.80 The basic plot-line of the tale is simple enough: Medb, Queen of Connacht, is envious of her husband Ailill's prize bull, Finnbennach, and instigates a cattle raid to seize the Brown Bull of Cooley, which symbolises the tribal power of the Ulaid, a people inhabiting the North of Ireland. The men of the Ulaid are laid low by a curse, leaving only the prodigious youth Cú Chulainn to defend Ulster single-handed from the onslaughts of the Connacht army, which he does with consistently brutal proficiency. Eventually, the Ulstermen revive and are aided by the formerly traitorous Fergus Mac Róich in defeating the army of Connacht. Subsequently, Finnbennach and the Brown Bull clash and the Brown Bull triumphs but is fatally wounded, an ending that qualifies somewhat the text's apparent celebration of heroic prowess.81

The histories of the text's composition, transmission, redaction, and translation are considerably more complex, however, and pose substantial (p.207) difficulties for any retelling. Indeed, because it exists in multiple, incomplete, and composite recensions that each straddle the divide between oral and literate, pagan and Christian cultures, Carson follows Frank O'Connor in regarding the Táin as a many-layered archaeological site. Alternatively, in a metaphor of his own, he describes it as

a magnificently ruined cathedral, whose fabric displays the ravages of war, fashion and liturgical expediency: a compendium of architectural interpolations, erasures, deliberate archaisms, renovations and restorations; a space inhabited by many generations, each commenting on their predecessors. (T, xiv)

Thus the Táin's complex textual history of accretions and redactions is presented in a spatial image that emphasises its palimpsestic nature, drawing attention to the various erasures and overlaps that occur between its several linguistic strata. Unlike O'Connor, who describes the Táin as ‘a simply appalling text’ that ‘has been endlessly scribbled over’,82 Carson seems fascinated by such over-writings and the alternative narrative versions that the text is capable of encompassing, a multifariousness that he consciously strives to preserve. For instance, in his translation two differing accounts of the journey undertaken by Medb's army from Finnabair to Conaille are given in succession, with appeals being made to ‘other authorities and other books’ (T, 60); and when Fergus first brokers a ceasefire with Cú Chulainn the narrator remarks: ‘They stayed there for the night – or twenty nights, as some versions have it’ (T, 68). This countenancing of other versions and stories in the plural is, of course, an important component of Carson's aesthetic as I have described it in Chapter 5, and seems to determine his preference for Recension I as the ‘base text’ for his translation over the more ‘literary’ and ‘prolix’ Recension II, which is a twelfth-century ‘attempt to present a more unified narrative’ (T, xxv, xiii–xiv).

A similar preference is evident in Thomas Kinsella's 1969 translation, The Táin, which successfully replicates in English the laconic tone of the text's earlier variants in order to ‘give an idea of the simple force of the story at its best’.83 Carson forthrightly acknowledges Kinsella's pioneering text to have been an important influence, noting that his own version is both a ‘commentary’ on and a ‘tribute’ to that of the elder poet (T, xxiv–xxv). Nonetheless, certain key differences in approach and effect can be noted. Although Kinsella recognises that the Táin possesses ‘no unifying narrative tone’, he is also animated by a desire to fashion ‘a reasonably coherent narrative’ by means of ‘extraction’ and ‘reorganization’.84 In doing so, Donna Wong observes, Kinsella is ‘not (p.208) restoring coherence but creating it’; and while Carson follows Kinsella's lead in dividing the narrative into consecutive chapters, thus presenting a more readable text, he is less driven by a need for coherence than by a fascination with what Wong calls the Táin's ‘crazy quilt of episodes’.85 Indeed, he says that his overall aim in translating the Táin is to have ‘given some notion of the stylistic heterogeneity of the text’ (T, xxvi).86

This stylistic heterogeneity arises not just from its various rewritings and interpolations but also because of the Táin's characteristically prosimetric form, combining both discursive and formulaic or alliterative prose passages with rhymed syllabic verse. It also includes examples of the genre known as ‘rosc’, or ‘rhetorics’, syntactically ambiguous blocks of rhythmic prose that are often gnomic or obscure in their meaning. Carson regards the latter as instances of ‘verbal jousting’, but notes that his treatment of these differs from Kinsella's as he has rendered them into ‘a kind of prose poetry’, with spaces inserted between phrases to mark moments of ambiguity or discontinuity (T, xv, xxvi). For instance, the Morrígan, a spirit of death and battle, chants these words to the Brown Bull:

restless does the Dark Bull

know death-dealing slaughter

secret that the raven

wrings from writhing soldiers

as the Dark One grazes

on the dark green grasses

waving meadows blossoming

with necks and flowers (T, 57)

Carson also holds much more closely to the syllable-count and rhyme schemes of the poems by contrast with Kinsella's neo-modernist free verse, his ‘fidelity’ to the original being evident chiefly in formal terms, whereas he takes more liberties with the order and tone of the narrative. All in all, such fidelity is best understood as an attempt to preserve the strangeness and difference of the Táin for modern readers, its multiplicity and resistance to more familiar English literary forms. It is also appropriate that he should remark on the multiple etymologies of the Irish word ‘tάin’, which can describe a raid, a foray, a gathering or assembly, or can mean ‘a compilation or anthology of stories and verse, which is precisely what the Táin is: words captured on calf skin’ (T, XV).

On the whole, Carson is also more chary than Kinsella of construing the Táin as Ireland's national epic,87 tending to foreground aspects of the text that problematise its ‘epic’ status. As Maria Tymoczko remarks, the tale has historically posed ‘serious political problems […] as a document of cultural nationalism’, chiefly because the greatest Irish heroic poem turns out to be ‘unliterary, raunchy, and weird’.88 Kinsella, of course, is (p.209) famously unsqueamish about the Táin's frankness in relation to sexuality and bodily functions, but there is also a heroic grandeur about his translation that remains largely unironised, and in this respect Carson's version differs. Mikhail Bakhtin has said that epic discourse aspires to be singular or ‘monologic’; it is handed down as tradition and therefore as ‘sacred and sacrosanct, evaluated the same way by all and demanding a pious attitude toward itself’.89 However, Carson's keen awareness of the Táin's pervasive wry humour, along with his emphasis upon the text's intrinsic variety or polyphony, lead to the eschewal of such piety and the pluralisation of the ‘single and unified world view’ that epic discourse expresses. He achieves this through instances of comic degradation and a process Bakhtin calls ‘novelization’. By incorporating aspects of extraliterary language, Bakhtin contends, high literary genres such as epic may ‘become dialogized, permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody’ and so erode the distance imposed by the absolute epic past, its closed ‘world of “firsts” and “bests”’.90 An example from The Táin would be the satirical innuendo that attends Fergus's loss of his sword following a sexual encounter with Medb, and its replacement with a wooden substitute, ‘a great big useless rudder’ (T, 60–1, 76). Subsequently, Fergus remonstrates with Cú Chulainn over his slaying of Etarcomol, saying ‘You must think I've a very short prick’ (T, 77).

Carson's translation also highlights those moments in the Táin when the dominant forms of martial masculinity are either mocked or called into question, perhaps as a partial counterbalance to the text's overtly misogynistic depiction of Queen Medb.91 Although Cú Chulainn repeatedly proves himself an awesome warrior, he is nonetheless occasionally reduced to donning false beards of grass or blackberries so as not to be ridiculed as ‘a mere boy’ by women and other male warriors (T, 80, 93). Carson also plays up the homoerotic overtones of Cú Chulainn's relationship with his foster brother, Fer Diad – they are described as ‘Two hearts that beat as one’, ‘men who shared a bed’ (T, 141) – and notes the crudely sexual connotations that attend the latter's death when his ‘rear portal’ is penetrated by Cú Chulainn's phallic weapon, the ‘gae bolga’ (T, 151, 212–13, n. 4). This is not to imply that Carson's translation is primarily parodic or comical but rather to illustrate the range of tones and registers he utilises throughout, from full-throated heroic bombast and poetic pathos to scatological humour and rich irony. For instance, Cú Chulainn's weariness at facing such a multitude of foes alone is sensitively rendered, and his profound grief over Fer Diad's death poignantly but economically expressed: ‘He could have cut off my arm,/ (p.210) my leg, and still I would mourn/Fer Diad of the steeds, who was/part of me, and breathes no more’ (T, 153).

A further aspect of the Táin that Carson is particularly adept at conveying is its obsession with topography, particularly with place-names and their often fanciful etymologies, constructing a nuanced understanding of ‘landscape as a mnemonic map’ where every hill, stone, and ford has a story to tell. To this end, he notes the text's affinities with ‘dindsenchas’, the Irish tradition of place-lore, and suggests that the Táin be considered ‘not as a straightforward story-line running from A to B, but as a journey through a landscape, with all sorts of interesting detours to be taken off the main route, like a series of songs with variant airs’ (T, xvi–xvii). For example, the route taken by Medb's and Ailill's army from Crúachan Aí in the west to the borders of Ulaid territory in the north-east is given in terms of a detailed inventory of place-names and their meanings that fills three pages of text (T, 15–17); and in his death-throes the Brown Bull is made to wander across much of the territory of the Táin in order to provide further opportunities for dindsenchas:

He went then to Éten Tairb, where he rested his brow against the hill. Hence the name Éten Tairb, the Bull's Brow, in Muirthemne Plain. Then he went by the Midluachair Road to Cuib, where he used to dwell with the dry cows of Dáire, and he tore up the ground there. Hence the name Gort mBúraig, Trench Field. Then he went on and fell dead at the ridge between Ulster and Uí Echach. That place is now called Druim Tairb, Bull Ridge. (T, 208)

It is evident that many such stories are retrospective, instances of backprojection that are also efforts to read the landscape as a fabric of narratives. Moreover, Carson notes the symbolic importance of fords in the Táin, which act as borders or boundaries between human territories but are also ‘liminal zones between this world and the Otherworld’ (T, xviii). They are often also literally battlegrounds, spaces at which, and in which, Cú Chulainn makes his stand against the enemies of Ulster. Fords are thus both portals and barriers, heterotopian spaces that at once invite and repulse acts of translation or crossing over; and Carson may also be remembering the etymology of another place-name, ‘Belfast’ or ‘Béal Feirste’, which can be translated as ‘approach to the ford’ (BC, 48).

The Táin, therefore, presents further evidence of Carson's subtle and highly imaginative engagements with space and place, his many-layered explorations of geography and topography always revealing them to be impregnated by and expressive of history and narrative. Space, in Carson's writing, is full of time; it is, in Doreen Massey's words, ‘a simultaneity of stories-so-far’.92 Similarly, his experiments in translation exemplify (p.211) the condition of ambilocation, occupying those literal and metaphorical spaces that are betwixt or between, and facilitating various acts of ‘carrying across’ while always acknowledging division and difference.





(1) Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 75.

(2) Carson, ‘The Other’, p. 235.

(3) Goodby, Irish Poetry Since 1950, p. 295.

(4) Octavio Paz, ‘Translation: Literature and Letters,’ in Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, eds, Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 154.

(5) Stan Smith, Irish Poetry and the Construction of Modern Identity: Ireland between Fantasy and History (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2005), p. 203.

(6) Although the Irish language has a rich and varied history in Belfast, it was not until the late 1960s that ‘a neo-Gaeltacht’ of Irish-speaking families was firmly established in the city. Aodán Mac Póilin, ‘Irish language writing in Belfast after 1900’, in Nicholas Allen and Aaron Kelly, eds, The cities of Belfast (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003), p. 128.

(7) ‘Within Ireland there was Northern Ireland; within Northern Ireland, Belfast; within Belfast, the Falls Road; within the Falls Road, the Carson family, or Clann Mhic Carráin, a household with its own laws, customs and language.’ Ciaran Carson, ‘The Language Instinct’, 〈http://esperanto.ie/english/carson.htm〉 [14 April 2009].

(8) Brandes, ‘Ciaran Carson interviewed’, p. 77.

(9) Smith, Irish Poetry and the Construction of Modern Identity, pp. 206–7.

(10) Frank Sewell, ‘Carson's carnival of language: the influence of Irish and the oral tradition’, in Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, ed., Ciaran Carson: Critical Essays (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009), p. 200.

(11) Lawrence Venuti, ‘Translation, Community, Utopia’, in Lawrence Venuti, ed., The Translation Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 477.

(12) Kennedy-Andrews, ‘For all I know’, p. 21.

(13) Justin Quinn, The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 199.

(14) ‘A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels./ One day I'll tell your embryonic births […].’ Arthur Rimbaud, ‘Vowels’, in Collected Poems, trans. Martin Sorrell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 135. Carson also refers directly to Rimbaud's poem in ‘Q’ and ‘U’ from ‘Letters from the Alphabet’ (OEC, 27, 31).

(15) Jerzy Jarniewicz, ‘After Babel: Translation and Mistranslation in Contemporary British Poetry’, European Journal of English Studies 6.1 (2002), p. 100.

(16) Patricia Horton, ‘“Faery lands forlorn”: reading tradition in the poetry of Ciaran Carson’, in Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, ed., Ciaran Carson: Critical Essays (Dublin: Four Courts, 2009), p. 175.

(17) Derek Attridge, Joyce Effects: On Language, Theory, and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 161.

(18) Jacques Derrida, ‘Des Tours de Babel’, in Peggy Kamuf, ed., A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), p. 250.

(19) Lawrence Venuti, The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 18.

(20) Venuti, The Translator's Invisibility, p. 20.

(21) Sarah Maguire, ‘Translation’, Poetry Review 94.4 (2004/5), p. 60.

(22) Benjamin, Illuminations, pp. 79, 73.

(23) See Maria Tymoczko, Translation in a Postcolonial Context: Early Irish Literature in English Translation (Manchester: St Jerome Publishing, 1999), pp. 21, 26.

(24) Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (London: Vintage, 1996), p. 624.

(25) Tony Crowley, Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537–2004 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 186–90.

(26) Quinn, The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, p. 144.

(27) Frank Sewell, ‘Between two languages: poetry in Irish, English and Irish English’, in Matthew Campbell, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 160, 166.

(28) Corcoran, After Yeats and Joyce, pp. vi, 10.

(29) Carson, ‘The Other’, p. 235.

(30) Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, p. 350.

(31) Heaney's translations are numerous and include Sweeney Astray, The Cure at Troy, Beowulf, The Burial at Thebes, and The Testament of Cresseid; Longley's poetry has long been closely engaged with the classics, particularly Homer's Iliad and Odyssey; Mahon has translated extensively from the French, including work by Molière, Racine, Nerval, and Phillipe Jaccottet; McGuckian and Muldoon have both translated book-length collections by the Irish-language poet Nuala ní Dhomhnaill, and Muldoon has also produced a version of Aristophanes' The Birds; Paulin's The Road to Inver collects his translations from French, Italian, German, and Russian poets which first appeared between 1975 and 2003.

(32) Michael Cronin, Translating Ireland: Translation, Languages, Cultures (Cork: Cork University Press, 1996), p. 181.

(33) Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray (London: Faber & Faber, 1984), p. vi; see also Carson's review article, Sweeney Astray: Escaping from Limbo’, in Tony Curtis, ed., The Art of Seamus Heaney (Bridgend: Seren, 3rd edn, 1994), pp. 141–8.

(34) Gerard Murphy, ed., Early Irish Lyrics: Eighth to Twelfth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), p. 5.

(35) Ciaran Carson, ‘Introduction’, in P.L. Henry, ed. and trans., Amra Cholum Chille: Dallán's Elegy for Columba (Belfast: Colmcille and ULTA CH Trust, 2006), p. 8.

(36) Heaney, Preoccupations, p. 181.

(37) For example, see Corcoran, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’, pp. 214–15, and Longley, The Living Stream, p. 53. Longley pertinently notes that ‘Carson's quotations, like his street-names and brand-names, belong to a semiotic kaleidoscope whereby bemused narrators revise literary history as history revises them.’

(38) Stafford, Starting Lines in Scottish, Irish, and English Poetry, p. 246.

(39) Horton, ‘Faery lands forlorn’, p. 163.

(40) Horton, ‘Faery lands forlorn’, p. 165.

(41) Francis Mulhern, The Present Lasts a Long Time: Essays in Cultural Politics (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998), p. 21.

(42) ‘There's no word in Irish for No. Nor is there one for Yes. Of course you can express assent or dissent, but in a slightly roundabout way. You have to reply in the verb in (p.213) which the question was asked. For example, “Have you eaten yet?” and you reply “I have eaten” or “I have not eaten”, except you leave out the “I”, which strikes me as important.’ Brandes, ‘Ciaran Carson interviewed’, p. 84.

(43) Ciaran Carson, ‘“Whose Woods These Are …”: Some Aspects of Poetry and Translation’, The Yellow Nib 2 (2006), p. 117.

(44) Umberto Eco elaborates this conception of translation as negotiation, a process that necessarily entails both losses and gains, when he writes: ‘Between the purely theoretical argument that, since languages are differently structured, translation is impossible, and the commonsensical acknowledgement that people, in this world, after all, do translate and understand each other, it seems to me that the idea of translation as a process of negotiation (between author and text, between author and readers, as well as between the structure of two languages and the encyclopaedias of two cultures) is the only one that matches our experience.’ Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (London: Phoenix, 2004), p. 34.

(45) David Wheatley, ‘“That blank mouth”: Secrecy, shibboleths, and silence in Northern Irish poetry’, Journal of Modern Literature 25.1 (2001), p. 4.

(46) Steven Matthews, Irish Poetry: Politics, History, Negotiation: The Evolving Debate, 1969 to the Present (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), p. 197.

(47) Matthews, Irish Poetry, p. 189.

(48) Gillis, ‘Ciaran Carson: Beyond Belfast’, p. 184.

(49) Gillis, ‘Ciaran Carson: Beyond Belfast’, p. 184.

(50) As a very general rule of thumb, Ulster Protestants are thought to pronounce the letter ‘H’ as ‘aitch’, while Catholics typically say ‘haitch’.

(51) Declan Kiberd, Irish Classics (London: Granta, 2001), pp. 602–16; Sewell, ‘Between two languages’, p. 151.

(52) See FFA, 204, and Carson, ‘Whose Woods These Are’, pp. 118–19. In an essay on Irish poetry of the 1940s Carson admits that he has been trying to translate ó Ríordáin's poem ‘for about half of my life’, noting that ‘the title itself is untranslatable’, and includes yet another version under the title ‘Mirror’. Ciaran Carson, ‘Beagles, Horses, Thighs, Bikes, Boats, Grass, Bluebells, Rickshaws, Stockings’, in Theo Dorgan and Noel Duffy, eds, Watching the River Flow: A Century of Irish Poetry (Dublin: Poetry Ireland, 1999), p. 85.

(53) Charles Baudelaire, The Complete Verse, trans. Francis Scarfe (London: Anvil, 1986), p. 61.

(54) Peter Denman, ‘Language and the prosodic line in Carson's poetry’, in Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, ed., Ciaran Carson: Critical Essays (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009), p. 28.

(55) Alan Gillis, ‘Acoustic perfume’, in Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, ed., Ciaran Carson: Critical Essays (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009), pp. 259, 258.

(56) Peter Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 30–1.

(57) Rimbaud, Collected Poems, pp. 124, 125.

(58) Ross, The Emergence of Social Space, p. 120.

(59) Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun, eds, After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (London: Faber & Faber, 1994).

(60) The example of Michael Longley is particularly relevant in this regard, especially his engagements with Homer and appropriations of the figure of Odysseus, but also his dialogues with Latin poets such as Ovid, Horace, Propertius, and Tibullus. (p.214) See McDonald, Mistaken Identities, pp. 138–42, and John Kerrigan, ‘Ulster Ovids’, in Neil Corcoran, ed., The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland (Bridgend: Seren Books, 1992), pp. 244–46.

(61) Kerrigan, ‘Ulster Ovids’, p. 242.

(62) Sarah Annes Brown, The Metamorphoses of Ovid: From Chaucer to Ted Hughes (London: Duckworth, 2002), p. 12.

(63) Jerzy Jarniewicz, ‘Alphabets and labyrinths in Ciaran Carson's Fishing for amber’, in Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, ed., Ciaran Carson: Critical Essays (Dublin: Four Courts, 2009), p. 225.

(64) In interview, Carson speaks of his experiments with rhyme and narrative in the following terms: ‘I found in a way rhyme helps you to find a story. […] This idea that rhyme invents a story almost of its own accord. And there's a sort of randomness involved in it as well, of course. An interesting edge between writing the story yourself and allowing the story to occur via rhymes.’ McGrath, ‘Ciaran Carson: Interview with Niall McGrath’, p. 63.

(65) ‘You can see I use dictionaries. The language is too big for me, and I've come to realise more and more my ignorance of it. If language is a mirror, I look up mirror, and discover it to be, among other things, “a small glass formerly worn in the hat by men and at the girdle by women”; it is “the speculum of a bird's wing”.’ Carson, ‘The Other’, p. 235.

(66) Rod Mengham, Language (London: Fontana, 1995), p. 110. On Carson's use of dictionaries see McCarthy, ‘Ciaran Carson's Labyrinths’, p. 113.

(67) This is essentially the position taken recently by Robin Kirkpatrick in the introduction to his own translation of the Inferno: ‘All too often rhyme becomes the dominant point of interest in a line, drawing undue attention to itself and often distorting the subtleties of cadence or inflection and thrust of Dante's narrative.’ Robin Kirkpatrick, ‘Introduction’, Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy I: Inferno, trans. Robin Kirkpatrick (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006), p. xciii. By contrast, Carson tends to see such ‘distortions’ as both inevitable and creatively productive.

(68) Venuti, The Translator's Invisibility, p. 34.

(69) David Wallace, ‘Dante in English’, in Rachel Jacoff, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dante (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 252–5.

(70) For details and the broader context see Parker, Northern Irish Literature 1975–2006, pp. 202–3.

(71) Nick Havely, ‘Hell for Poets’, The Cambridge Quarterly 32.4 (2003), p. 375.

(72) Eco, Mouse or Rat?, p. 56.

(73) Alighieri, The Divine Comedy I: Inferno, trans. Kirkpatrick, p. 279.

(74) For the likely origin of the phrase ‘mahogany gaspipe’ see Myles na Gopaleen, The Best of Myles, ed. Kevin O'Nolan (London: Picador, 1977), p. 66.

(75) Nick Havely, Dante (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 226, 230.

(76) Joep Leerssen, Mere Irish and Fíor Ghael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, its Development and Literary Expression prior to the Nineteenth Century (Cork: Cork University Press, 1996), p. 238.

(77) Kiberd, Irish Classics, pp. 191–2, 195.

(78) Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber & Faber, 1995), p. 56.

(79) Seamus Heaney, The Midnight Verdict (Loughcrew: The Gallery Press, 1993), p. 11.

(80) For an overview of scholarly attempts to date the first composition of the Táin see Ruairí ó hUiginn, ‘The Background and Development of Táin Bó Cúailgne’, in J.P. Mallory, ed., Aspects of The Táin (Belfast: December Publications, 1992), pp. 31–2.

(81) On this point see Máire ní Mhaonaigh, ‘The literature of medieval Ireland, 800–1200: from the Vikings to the Normans’, in Margaret Kelleher and Philip O'Leary, eds, The Cambridge History of Irish Literature: Volume 1: To 1890 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 53.

(82) Frank O'Connor, The Backward Look: A Survey of Irish Literature (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 30.

(83) Thomas Kinsella, The Táin: Translated from the Irish Epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. xi.

(84) Kinsella, The Táin, pp. xiii, xi.

(85) Donna Wong, ‘Literature and the oral tradition’, in Margaret Kelleher and Philip O'Leary, eds, The Cambridge History of Irish Literature: Volume 1: To 1890 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 642, 639.

(86) Bernard O'Donoghue also observes that Carson's ‘modern version’ ‘testifies to the stylistic and episodic vagaries of the medieval text, seeing these as an inalienable aspect of the original’. Bernard O'Donoghue, ‘Review of Ciaran Carson, The Tάin’, Translation and Literature 17 (2008), p. 239.

(87) ‘The Táin, or Cattle Raid, is the nearest approach to a great epic that Ireland has produced. For parts of the narrative, and for some of the ancillary stories, achievement at the highest level of saga literature may fairly be claimed.’ Kinsella, The Táin, p. vii.

(88) Tymoczko, Translation in a Postcolonial Context, p. 66.

(89) Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, p. 16.

(90) Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, pp. 35, 7, 13.

(91) On the depiction of Medb see Patricia Kelly, ‘The Táin as Literature’, in J.P. Mallory, ed., Aspects of The Táin (Belfast: December Publications, 1992), pp. 77–84.

(92) Massey, for space, p. 9.