The Inadequacy of Translation

I met him only once. He came to do a reading at the university. I knew some of his work but only in translation. I thought the poems I had read were very good. A colleague told me that to hear him read was a unique experience. ‘Nobody sounds like him,’ the colleague said. ‘He does not so much read as intone. You should go if you can.’

The room was not very big, and neither was the audience – about twenty, no more. When I arrived the poet was already there, speaking to the organiser. I went to the back of the room and sat on a chair that creaked. I sat very still when the poet was reading because I felt that every sound, however small, that did not come from his mouth, was an intrusion and a distraction.

He read each poem first in English and then in Gaelic. He seemed to resent that he had to bother with the English versions but nobody in the room except himself had Gaelic. I know this because he asked, and none of us put up a hand.

I recognised several of the poems, and liked them as I had done before, but he kept complaining that the translations were very poor, very poor indeed. They did not convey either the true sense or the true sound of the originals. Somebody asked who had done them. He had done them himself, he said. There was laughter. He said it was no laughing matter. The fact of the matter was that English could not convey what the Gaelic conveyed.

Afterwards I bought a copy of his book, as did several others. Gaelic was on one page and English on the facing page. I asked him to sign my copy and said that in spite of his reservations I greatly admired the English versions of his poems.

He looked very mournful. ‘They are inadequate,’ he said as he signed his name. I felt that he knew what he was talking about, and that I too was inadequate. Then he smiled at me, as if to apologise for making me feel that way.

That smile has stayed with me.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Harmonium: Kit Downes
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