Dabbling With Dictionaries and Dunn

Dabbling With Dictionaries and Dunn

If you’re reading this post, it means the URL change didn’t break my blog subscriptions completely. Hooray! If that’s the case, I’d be grateful if you’d pop over and leave a comment so that I know that it’s all working, especially if you’re reading from an email subscription. I know it can be a pain to comment if you’re on mobile, but it would mean a lot to me to be sure that I haven’t broken my blog.

(The whole process was easier than I expected, actually. I haven’t tested all of them, but it looks like all the links embedded within posts themselves automatically updated to the new domain name, so that they’re not broken. And there should be a redirect in effect for any links that still use /miriamjoywrites.com/. But again, if you want to leave a comment to confirm or deny these facts, I’d appreciate it.)


I’m doing a bit better since I wrote my last post. I haven’t gone back to bookstagram yet, but I’m beginning to miss it, and I think I’ll be ready to start thinking about taking photos again. There have been a few things that have helped, one of which is that I’ve been busy trying to sort out my name change on all the many social media platforms I’m on (nearly there now), so I’ve had something concrete to focus on.

I mentioned there that I was working on a big translation project, and I wanted to talk a bit about that here. Although I’ve posted detailed updates on Tumblr, I suspect the majority of you who read this blog don’t follow me there, and it seemed worth giving a summary of the whole thing anyway.

I was determined when I graduated not to abandon my academic interest in medieval Irish literature. I haven’t ruled out a possibility of doing a Master’s at some point (though for a long time I was adamant that I wouldn’t), and I want to keep my skills and knowledge ticking over in the background. There’s so much I never got a chance to learn or research during my degree, so I’m continuing to dabble, and this translation project is part of that.

The short version is that I’m translating passages from Comrac Fir Diad as found in the Stowe manuscript of Táin Bó Cúailgne. For those interested in the details, this is a later manuscript of the second recension of the Táin, using modernised spelling/language but otherwise largely the same as the Book of Leinster version. But not identical.

This screencap of me waving around different versions of the Táin effectively sums up my entire personality at this point.

There are a couple of passages in the Stowe version of Comrac Fir Diad (the part of the text dealing with the combat between Fer Diad and Cú Chulainn) that aren’t in the Book of Leinster version. This includes nine stanzas of poetry spoken by Fer Diad, as well as roughly 100 lines of prose towards the end of the fight.

I thought, when I began this project, that these hadn’t been translated before. Cecile O’Rahilly’s edition of the Stowe manuscript (unlike her R1 and Book of Leinster editions) doesn’t include a translation, and cursory Google searches didn’t find any reference to translations of Stowe specifically.

My plan was to translate these passages as best I could, and then use O’Rahilly’s translation of the Book of Leinster text to create a working version of Stowe, cutting out the parts that aren’t there and translating any extra lines and phrases, in order to best see what Stowe emphasises and what it leaves out.

I struggled through the verse passage, discovered I’m terrible at translating poetry, and decided to spend some time working on the prose before coming back to it. eDIL has become my new best friend, and I also feel like I’ve consulted Strachan’s Old Irish Paradigms more times in the last fortnight than I did throughout my degree (whoops).

Then, when looking for one specific phrase I couldn’t figure out, I discovered I’d been wrong that these had never been translated.

Joseph Dunn’s 1914 translation of the Táin is an amalgamation of all the versions and recensions, and as such, it includes these passages from Stowe. I had thought I was doing something new, and while that surprised me, there was something exciting about being the first person to pay attention to something. But it turns out, inevitably, that it’s all been done before.

Prose translation is infinitely easier than poetry, but 15th century Irish continues to be terrible.

At first this made me think the project was pointless. There wasn’t a lot of point spending hours of my life attempting to translate something when it’s already been done; I’d be better off finding a text that genuinely lacks a functional translation, and tackling that. Where a few weeks ago I might have been delighted to find that someone had translated Stowe, this project was one of the few things that’s made me feel productive recently, and losing it was a blow.

I spent a bit of time fiddling around with Dunn’s translation, chasing up a few intriguing points that emerged from finally being able to read these passages (most of them to do with Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, some of them to do with Fer Diad’s), and trying to follow along with the translation while looking at O’Rahilly’s edition.

I came to the conclusion that the translation project hasn’t been rendered pointless by this discovery, even if the parameters have changed somewhat. There were a few reasons to keep going:

  1. Being from 1914, Dunn’s translation isn’t perfect. It’s got a very fussy style, full of thees and thous that bog down the text. It also uses the word ‘fairy’ for anything related to the Otherworld, which is academically suspect at best. I might not be the best translator, but I can at least modernise it, and I think in places it’s not 100% accurate, either.
  2. Because his translation is an amalgamation of different versions, it still doesn’t allow me to explore the Stowe version specifically. To understand what this manuscript does differently, I’ll still need to put together my ‘working copy’, and any analysis I do will still be new.
  3. I want to get better at translating, instead of just letting my medieval Irish moulder now that I’ve graduated, and since I only really care about Cú Chulainn at this point, there’s no real reason why I shouldn’t choose this text even if it’s been done.

Having Dunn’s translation in another tab does mean that when I get extremely stuck on a tricky grammatical passage, I can check how he translated it, but I think I’m going to have to be disciplined and avoid looking at his too much if I want to actually improve my own skills.

So that’s where I’m at with that. I still have a project, it’s just not quite the project I thought it was when I started. Having glanced over Dunn’s translation and had a chance therefore to get an impression of what’s happening in that new prose section, I also have several other research questions to follow up, some of which I’d already been thinking about but which now feel more crucial.

Don’t worry, though — not all of my current forays into medieval Irish literature are this difficult and academic. For a start, I’m back on the YouTubes, making videos in which I retell Irish stories for a general audience with a lot of jokes, sarcasm, and wild hand gestures. I’m currently on Longes mac nUislenn, which I think is my favourite of the series so far:

I need a new name for the playlist, though. It used to be called Medievalist Miriam, and I’m still trying to think of something suitably alliterative and/or punny that goes with Finn.

tl;dr I graduated but I’m still a huge nerd.

What are you guys up to? Any niche projects in your lives at the moment?

12 thoughts on “Dabbling With Dictionaries and Dunn

  1. I’m here: the only niggle was that some of my bespoke privacy settings are at the domain level, so I had to fiddle around a bit to find where the ones I needed to interact with the blog were.

    According to several people who drink too much good coffee not to be wise, I can be summoned by the phrase “abstruse nuance” if delivered when the stars a right, so my entire life is arguably a niche project.

    1. Glad you can still see me, even if the settings needed fiddling :) (I’ve more or less resigned myself to selling my soul to internet corporations and only have standard/basic privacy controls at this point. I should care more but I’m never going to win.)

      Heh, I can relate to that. Being niche is a good thing, though. Someone’s gotta do it.

  2. What a cool project, Finn! That honestly sounds amazing, and it’s cool that you can figure out a new way to look at such an old text. Are you posting the translation on Tumblr too, or is it just for yourself at this point?

    1. I’m occasionally posting excerpts there, but I’m not confident enough in the accuracy of my translation to post it completely on there. I might when I’m done and have had a chance to check it all more extensively. But at the moment my translation only exists on paper (handwritten), barring the stuff I’ve sent to my friends in search of grammatical help. I just don’t want to put it out there when it could be misleading or completely wrong!

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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