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Aistriú na Soinéad go Gaeilge: Saothar Grá! Translating the Sonnets to Irish: A Labour of Love

Muiris Sionóid gives us an insight into the art of translating Shakespeare's sonnets into Irish and shares with us his deep love of words. His translations are held at the Shakespeare Library and Archive.

Muiris Sionóid
Irish sonnets dust cover cropped
Dust cover Irish translation of the sonnets (Translation of title: 'The wheel of love')

Others abide our question, thou art free...

                                                                    Matthew  Arnold

Undertaking the translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets into any other language is a task laden with great difficulties. Attempting to render them into Irish involved confronting all of these and a number of complications over and above. The measures and meters of classic and traditionally popular Irish poetry bear no relation or resemblance to those of English. So it was generally believed that iambic pentameter was entirely unsuitable to poetic composition in Irish and in consequence my endeavours were almost entirely without precedent. Furthermore, since imitation is considered the most sincere form of flattery, and translation, the copying of another’s thoughts, is surely the ultimate form of imitation, then to render such sincerely flattering homage to a mind that was considered purely English and its totally English expression was generally regarded as incongruous, if not entirely incompatible with the love and devoted cultivation of the Irish language as the uniquely authentic medium of expression of the distinct independent Irish mind. So great however was my love of all true poetry and so great my veneration of the truly universal genius that is Shakespeare that for me these complications proved no “fál go haer”, no insurmountable obstacle.

My acquaintance with the Bard commenced on entering our secondary school system studying then two plays and many of his poems, mostly sonnets. Our teachers were very thorough, giving us copious notes and enumerating the diverse merits and excellences of all the prescribed works. Poetry however did not come alive to me nor I to it until I heard my late brother reciting aloud while on holiday from university. He had read all Shakespeare’s works while on a practical year in Wexford, our native county, and his soul had been awoken within him, so he himself stated it, while reading Measure For Measure: “Ah, but to die and go we know not where!” Strangely enough, it was his reciting Shelly’s ‘Cloud’ that awoke my spirit within me and gave me my revelation of what poetry really is. Very soon, however, Will Shakespeare was enthroned as supreme and undisputed monarch of our minds’ realm. Many indeed were the sonnets that we read and recited together, often deep into the night, during that gloriously long summer.

It was during the following and final phase of my education at University College Galway, now NUIG, that I formed indissoluble friendships with a host of Irish speakers, mostly from Connemara and the Aran Islands, holidaying regularly with families there especially with that of my great friend, Michael Powell, of Eochaill, Inis Mór. During that period among those wonderfully hospitable and golden-hearted people Irish became by dint of constant loving use what I had always fervently wished it to be, my mind’s first language. Thereafter throughout my years as a teacher of Mathematics and the Sciences, and as husband and father, my love of poetry, in English and Irish and indeed in Latin and a number of other European languages, though never waning, could naturally find no outlet − until early retirement beckoned. No bard, Irish or English, had been found fit in all this while to dethrone the mighty songster of Avonside in my Kingdom of Poetry. Every morning and evening, as I walked to and from work my mind, unbidden, had sustained itself by reciting to my inner ear “Shall I compare thee...”, “That time of year...”, “When to the sessions...” ... some one of the great number that, without effort or design, it had fully memorised, while allowing their beautiful measures and rhythms and images to work their never-failing magic.

Finally, one morning, with my retirement day near at hand, my mind commenced its first daily session with a startling innovation: “Mar thonnta mara ar dhuirling trá ag triall...” I heard within me. Gathering and concentrating my scattered and confused thoughts I realised that this was, in Irish translation, “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore...” So that night I set about attempting to complete the translation of the sonnet and to my delight succeeded without great difficulty. Next morning when I had recited my translation to the staff during mid-morning break and had received their generous applause, one of them spoke up and, totally in jest, challenged me to translate all 154 of the famous poems! This, coupled with a request I had just received from a local Irish language activist to produce a book of poetry now that I was about to retire, this challenge goaded me into an inward rejoinder to the jester: “Just you wait, me bucko!” I thus resolved to translate all the sonnets.

Muiris  Sionóid and President Higgins
Muiris Sionóid and President Higgins at the Presidential Residence, Áras an Uachtaráin

I commenced “work” that summer in my lone glory in a younger brother’s home in my native Wexford in the very heart of my spirit’s cradle-country, with its rolling hills and rivers and streams and woods, an ideal setting for the labour of love I was beginning, an endeavour which would require me to generate and sustain a state of mind, elevated above and liberated from the spirit-stifling repetitive dullness of everyday work and humdrum mass activities. My purpose, my idea of translating the poems of this great mind was to reproduce, in so far as the difference of the languages allowed, every aspect of the original work, its music and rhythms, its images and thoughts; its effects on the senses; but even moreso the impact on the mind and thoughts of the reader; to reveal as truly and accurately as possible to one who had not read the original the mind of the original author. To do this I had to (attempt to) penetrate the mind of the great man and dwell with him within it, attempting total sympathy. However this may sound, the experiences that striving to attain this forever unreachable state gave me throughout all the work were wonderful beyond all telling. One device my imagination employed was to merge two rooms, my old childhood bedroom and one such as Shakespeare would have had, placing myself in this hybrid habitation with snow falling outside on a cobblestoned Elizabethan courtyard. At times during my work in Wexford and later in my upper room here at home in Mullingar where I brought it all to a conclusion I could almost sense the great man looking over my shoulder, generally approving and encouraging me. As I said, it was a truly uplifting and exhilaratingly rewarding experience. I had of course several times daily to return to the terra firma of everyday dull “reality”, but of course this repeated commuting between two different worlds or dimensions, two parallel universes, is surely and always has been a skill indispensable to the poet.

The work was completed and highly acclaimed generally by the lamentably sparse, rather select group with a sufficiently extensive knowledge of Irish and familiarity with Shakespeare’s works to fully appreciate it. This was in fact no less, in truth more, than this translator expected. As regards undertaking the translation of further works of the great author time is, I fear, no longer on my side. I should indeed have liked to be able to start earlier in life and translate the great plays. It is for his poetry, however, that I have really loved the Bard, and many study and read his plays for, as they see it, their poetic content and character. Even the great John Milton, the supreme classicist, seems to have shared this view:

“Then to the well-trod stage anon
If Johnson’s learned sock be on;
Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child
Warble his native woodnotes wild.”

Here before concluding I wish to be allowed, indeed I feel obliged, to return to that glorious summer in which the true beauty of poetry and that of Shakespeare in particular was revealed to me by my brother’s reciting. With a vividness that never fails to alarm and delight me I can still see him standing by his bedside and still clearly hear him delivering with a fervour approaching ecstasy,

"When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment ...”

down to its last syllable, the last syllable of the recorded sonnet, I suppose I should say here in this context. As I listen to that voice within, the excitement is rising in me again, just as it did then. That, however, is Shakespeare, the quintessence of him, is it not: enunciating truths that have held since the first dawning gleam of Humanity and will stand equally true until, in its last individual manifestation, it sinks finally and irreversibly into that “black night ... that seals up all in rest”; and proclaiming these truths in a language of crystal clarity and perfect exactitude, a language of a magnificence and beauty that some may occasionally have matched, but that none can ever surpass.

So in an age in which many insightful thinkers and observers see such a lowering of culture levels and standards as to constitute for Humanity in its highest manifestations a serious threat to survival, as exemplified by some who assert that Shakespeare should be omitted henceforth from our school courses, because “it is irrelevant”, to such appalling assertions be this our reply: “If Shakespeare is irrelevant to modern life then modern life needs urgent, radical adjustment”.

President Higgins and Muiris  Sionóid
President Higgins and Muiris Sionóid at the Presidential Residence, Áras an Uachtaráin

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