‘Ceist na Teangan’/ ‘The Language Issue’
Modern poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill writes in the Irish language. ‘Ceist na Teangan’ which we look at in this section is the final poem in her 1990 volume Pharoah’s Daughter. The poems in this bilingual collection are translated into English by a range of other poets including Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Ciarán Carson and Michael Longley. The critic Patrick Crotty has highlighted Ní Dhomhnaill’s importance as a ‘key figure in continuing the dialogue between the poetries of Ireland’s two languages’ (Crotty, 1995).
Below you'll find the poem in both Irish and English, as well as an audio recording of Nuala reading the poem herself. The title of the poem gives us an important clue as to its theme. How does the speaker of the poem represent the theme of language? Why the reference to the ‘Pharaoh’s daughter’?
Ceist na Teangan
Cuirim mo dhóchas ar snámh
i mbáidín teangan
faoi mar a leagfá naíonán
a bheadh fite fuaite
de dhuilleoga feileastraim
is bitiúmin agus pic
bheith cuimilte lena thóin
ansan é a leagadh síos
i measc na ngiolcach
is coigeal na mban sí
le taobh na habhann,
cá dtabharfaidh an sruth é,
féachaint, dála Mhaoise,
an bhfóirfidh iníon Fharoinn?
The Language Issue
I place my hope on the water
in this little boat
of the language, the way a body might put
in a basket of intertwined
its underside proofed
with bitumen and pitch,
then set the whole thing down amidst
and bulrushes by the edge
of a river
only to have it borne hither and thither,
not knowing where it might end up;
in the lap, perhaps,
of some Pharaoh’s daughter.
(Translation by Paul Muldoon)
You will most likely have noticed that the Old Testament story of Moses is used as a metaphor for the poet’s use of the Irish language. The poet is imagined as a mother who commits her hope for the future to Irish, just as Moses’s mother set him afloat in a basket of rushes.
In the book of Exodus this part of the story ends happily as Moses is rescued by the Pharoah’s daughter. Politically speaking she is an enemy of the Hebrews but she still takes pity on the baby and adopts it, allowing Moses to survive to manhood and become a great leader. So perhaps the poem is suggesting that although the Irish language is something fragile and vulnerable now, it will have enough strength in the future to survive oppression and bear hope.
But if we recall the context of the original Bible story the message is perhaps less optimistic. Moses is only put in the basket to save him from the Egyptian massacre of Hebrews. When Moses grows up he becomes a hero but is burdened with the task of liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. If we emphasise this part of the story, the ‘little boat’ of language is always overshadowed by the danger of extinction, in spite of the maternal faith and care of the writer.
As we saw earlier, the poems by O’Leary and Tynan also focused on the image of the courageous mother. It’s interesting that Ní Dhomhnaill’s poem in fact dramatises two maternal figures - Moses’s birth mother and the Egyptian princess - and you might like to think about the reasons for this.
In dialogue with the poet
Below we've included an interview with Nuala Ní Dhomnhaill and Angus Calder.
The conversation covers a wide range of topics concerning language, translation, gender and identity in Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry which you might find interesting to link back to the discussions of Irish women’s poetry featured in our other articles. Here however we will focus on just a couple of these points.
Questions of translation
In the interview, Ní Dhomhnaill explains why Irish is such a natural and inspirational language for her to work in as a poet. Given this, we might expect her to be quite sceptical about translations of her work.
Listen now to the first part where Angus Calder asks what has been lost in Paul Muldoon’s English translation of ‘Ceist ne Teangan’. Is there anything that strikes you as interesting about what Ní Dhomhnaill has to say here?
Ní Dhomhnaill is very positive about Paul Muldoon’s translation overall, saying that she has ‘gained a poem in English’. As for the details, she notes that he leaves out Moses’s name in the English version-- but this doesn’t matter because the reader can easily recognise the reference from the rest of the poem.
She also praises the way that Muldoon manages to convey the rhythms of the original Irish, explaining the great importance of rhythm, assonance (use of similar-sounding vowels) and half-rhymes in Irish poetry. You may also remember that later on in the interview, Ní Dhomhnaill says Muldoon is right to translate the title as ‘The Language Issue’ when it could be rendered as ‘The Language Question’, as ‘issue’ is the term normally used to discuss Irish in Ireland- it is a ‘political issue’.
So overall we learn that the poet sees the English version as a complement to the Irish version, rather than misrepresenting it in any way. However, there is some disagreement between Calder and Ní Dhomhnaill as to the actual meaning of the poem, with Ní Dhomhnaill resisting Calder’s claim that she is in some way presenting herself as a figure of ‘Mother Ireland’ sacrificing her son.
Language, gender and poetry
Ní Dhomhnaill is well known for addressing feminist themes in her poetry and for making a very important contribution to the body of literature in Irish by women. In this part of the interview, Calder asked the poet which is more important-- the fact that she is a woman writing, or the fact that she writes in the Irish language. What did you think was the gist of Ní Dhomhnaill’s argument about gender and language?
Ní Dhomhnaill’s personal view is clearly that her use of Irish is the most important thing about her work. Her identity as a woman writer is also very significant, but she feels secure in this, saying female identity is something that cannot be taken away from her.
However, she explains that the Irish language itself is something vulnerable and can be taken away from her as an artist by being ‘dropped out of the cultural menu’. In her view, her identity as an Irish-language writer is always threatened by the possible disappearance of the language itself.
Remember that this interview was conducted in the mid-1990s, so you might feel that there is cause to be more optimistic today about the future of Irish language and literature, than Ní Dhomhnaill is in this particular conversation.
Taking it further
We hope you enjoyed working through this material and reading these three Irish poets. This material has been adapted from the ‘Literature and Gender’ unit of the past Open University course A210, Approaching Literature. If you want to explore these topics further you could opt to study A100 The Arts Past and Present which includes material on Irish national identity in the unit ‘Tradition and Dissent’. A multi-disciplinary course, AA100 also introduces you to literary study. If you enjoy in-depth discussion and analysis of literature, you might be interested in taking the second-level course A230, Studying Literature.
Sources and References
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