(Disclaimer so that nobody gets their hopes up: I don’t think there is an early modern Irish phrase for “stress relief”. If there is, I haven’t yet encountered it. This blog post will not give you that information. I apologise if that’s why you’re here.)
At the weekend I resumed one of my most niche hobbies: translating the fifteenth-century Oidheadh Con Culainn. I began this during my MA, translating scenes I needed to reference in my thesis, and quickly discovered its value as stress relief in the nail-biting week or two after the offer first came in for The Butterfly Assassin. I don’t know how other people’s debut book deals have gone down, but for me, that initial negotiation period was extremely anxiety-inducing — and it turns out you can’t translate early modern Irish and think about publishing at the same time, so it’s a pretty good distraction. My supervisor was vaguely surprised when I handed him 130 lines of translation instead of the 20-30 I’d been planning to do that week, but so the Stress Relief Translation was born.
The bulk of the project so far — going back to the beginning of the text with the intent to translate all of it, rather than simply the key scenes featuring Láeg mac Riangabra — was done during April-June last year. I had a complicated housing situation last year (I moved house five times in ten months, which was not my choice and which I would not recommend), and that particular period was one of significant stress, so I used to sit at the dining table with my translation as a way of trying to force myself to feel more grounded in the house. It didn’t work, but I got a fair amount of translation done.
And then I moved again, and started my day job, and life got busier, and all in all, Oidheadh Con Culainn has fallen by the wayside. But the past week has been very stressful, and I very much needed a distraction that would take me offline for a day or two, so I went back to it.
It’s tricky, picking up a translation after you’ve abandoned it for the best part of a year. I did a small amount a few weeks ago, but not enough to really get back into the rhythms of it. Those first few minutes when I sit down with my handwritten pages, my glossary, and the printed text for reference — at first it feels impenetrable, as though I’m bouncing straight off the text. I rarely find I can dive right in with an easy sentence, because generally speaking, if a sentence is a string of easy, familiar words and I could translate it without so much as glancing at a glossary, I’ll have done it quickly at the end of the previous session, and left the hard part to start the next session.
I find myself looking at the text, and it resists me, and I resist it. And there’s a moment of, “Why am I doing this?”, and after that, a moment of, “I’ve forgotten how to translate, I’m getting worse at Irish rather than better, I’ll never do it.” The words are meaningless.
My mind — always scattered, fast, processing information as quickly as possible and then spitting it out in another direction — rebels against the need to slow down. It begs to be given something easier to play with, but easier means an ineffective distraction, means I’ll drift too quickly back to everything I’m trying to avoid. The only way past this initial hurdle is to push through the surface and allow my mind to slow and embrace the process.
So, I find a verb. I check the glossary, because these fifteenth century forms are weird and still, after twenty sections of this text, often unfamiliar. I place this first building-block of the sentence on the page, and reach for an adjective. (These usually come in strings of two or three, in early modern texts, with subtle if not imperceptible differences of meaning between them in English.) I begin to piece together the sentence, and then the next.
The first sentence is usually the slowest. But then I’ll spot a phrase I recognise, or a word I know, or a whole string of description that the text already used two pages ago and so I can pull it out, like tugging on a loose thread. Gradually, the text drags me under, my mind slowing to the speed of the task, my focus narrowing.
Sometimes, a phrase will defeat me. I’ll turn it upside down and shake it out, hoping some meaning will fall out; nothing comes of it. An idiomatic description of magic prompts the most inelegant of literal translations: it’s clearly a rote phrase, as it has now recurred three times in the text, but that doesn’t mean I’m any closer to understanding what it means. Another word, when looked up in the glossary, gives only the translation “?”; it’s comforting to know it defeated somebody else too, but also frustrating. When I check the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (“Help me, eDIL, you’re my only hope!”), I find that it’s attested only in this text, and nobody is sure what it means. Okay then. I take my red pen, draw square brackets around the word I don’t know, and move on.
This policy — to move on, not to linger, not to get stuck on those tricky sentences — has served me well, and it’s one of the reasons this process works as stress relief. It helps me break through the impenetrability and fear that characterises the first few moments of every translation session. I move onto the next sentence, find the pieces I recognise, gather them together. Sometimes, a later sentence brings clarity to an earlier one, the vital context needed to understand a phrase. I go back, fill in a gap. Other times, it remains a mystery, but I’ve already been drawn ahead, deeper beneath the veil of language.
Just one more sentence, I find myself saying as the afternoon wears on. A few more words. Just that little adjectival run there. I’ll just polish off this bit of dialogue, it looks similar to a previous one, it’ll only take a moment–
Before I know it, I’ve covered half the section I’d thought I might start over the course of the next week. The translation net has caught me again.
I am not a particularly good translator of early modern Irish. I am not a good translator of any form of Irish, though I have at least studied medieval Irish, and modern Irish, while I’m still a learner, offers me more recourse to the advice and translations of others. Fifteenth century Irish, by comparison, is a mess: a little too early to suit most of the early modernists and far too early to be modern, but grammatically, not particularly like medieval Irish, leaving me stranded between resources and dictionaries.
To some extent, the grammatical anarchy of transitional periods of the language suits me. I have a purely vibes-based approach to grammar, far more inclined to rely on context and meaning to infer details than to memorise a paradigm. If I were more grammar-minded, perhaps I’d be puzzled when the language doesn’t do what I expect, but as I also don’t know what the verbs are supposed to look like, I don’t notice when the scribes get it ‘wrong’ either, or do their own thing. (I can see the philology types wincing from here.)
The language of Oidheadh Con Culainn hasn’t fully lost the dative case yet (though it’s inclined to give its endings to words that should never have had them), and still has some of the older verb forms, though independent pronouns abound and are usually emphatic, just to make it extra clear what’s going on. Had I only the modern Irish knowledge to rely on, I would find these verb forms challenging, but I’ve found that I remember more from medieval Irish grammar than I would have consciously expected. Verb endings I once cried over (literally; second year undergrad was rough) now come naturally, almost without thinking. And the modern Irish does help too: where I would once have overlooked nasalisation as an indicator of first person plural, now I process that information on an almost unconscious level, endless Duolingo repetition making it second nature. Ár bportán is not a useful phrase, but when I come to translate dá n-ucais, it helps.
There is a phrase I once heard used in the context of Irish dance: what is hard for you today will one day be your warm-up. It’s true. I’ve seen it in the studio, both as a dancer and as a teacher of dance. I remember beginners struggling to master jump-2-3s in October, when our uni society classes began, and by January they thought nothing of circling the room with them as part of our cardio warmups. Sometimes, Irish grammar feels like that. Trying to memorise the form of a verb felt like trying to learn a new step out of a book, in the wrong shoes, with no mirror: nearly impossible. But after years of repetition, casual use, practice… it’s there in my mind, even if I still wouldn’t be able to draw you a chart of it.
Despite these grammar victories, and the small confidence boosts they represent, I am, as I’ve said, not a particularly good translator of early modern Irish. Somebody else could do a far better job of Oidheadh Con Culainn than me: they would do it more quickly, more stylishly, with less reliance on the glossary and fewer baffled gaps whenever I couldn’t piece together the jigsaw puzzle of phrases. But I have discovered, in these last few years, the joy of having particularly niche research interests: it doesn’t matter if I’m good at it if I am the only person doing it.
Now, I believe there are others who are, or have been, working on translations of Oidheadh Con Culainn — but with none published or immediately forthcoming, still it is much as though I’m in a world where nobody cares for this text except me. And thus I can be both the text’s best translator and its worst, and it doesn’t matter, because what is important is that I want this text translated and if I do it, then it will be done.
Some of the other texts I intend to work on, like Eachtra na gCuradh, are even more niche — one might fairly describe them as “obscure” — and there, too, I have the automatic status of Best Translator For The Job, even while being objectively poorly qualified to do it. If nobody else is doing it, then why not? Why not be the one to make it happen? Who cares that I don’t have a PhD, that I’m not an established scholar, that I can’t memorise verb tables? I can still sit there with a glossary and a set of paradigms and Make It Work, however slowly, and I can produce something that is of value to me.
And this is… liberating, I have found. I’m doing this because I want it done. There — an all-important independent pronoun. If only English had a stylish way of emphasising it. Misi. Me. It is being done by me (liomsa) for me (domsa): by me, for me, emphatic 1st person singular pronoun. I myself want it done.
Others may benefit from my work, if I reach a point where I am confident enough to share it. In the meantime, I am translating this text because doing so enables me to read it. No matter how badly I do it, I’m achieving a goal! I’m bringing myself closer to understanding the story that I feel I’ve only glimpsed in small pieces before now.
And the more I read of it, the more interested I am by the complicated dynamics at work in it. Oidheadh Con Culainn is a complicated story, and a long one, and there hasn’t been a great deal written about it as a story in its own right, but every section I translate presents new ideas for consideration.
One could, for example, approach it with reference to disability studies and crip theory, and explore how the Children of Cailitín are Othered through physical difference, and how these ‘deformities’ are both the source of their power and a sign of their evil natures. Or one could consider how noncombatants are characterised within the text, with the entire category of “noncombatant”, encompassing poets and druids and women, seeming to function almost as a gender within the story. Or one might look at the personal, human relationships at work: the question of whether the Ulaid are trying to keep Cú Chulainn safe because they value him as a person, or simply because he’s useful to them…
I keep a document on my computer of “papers I’d like to write one day”, though in truth, it’s as much “papers I would like somebody else to write so that I can read them” as it is a list of things I seriously intend to tackle myself. Every time I sit down and translate more of this text, I add new things to that list.
This, too, is a gem: treasure in the form of a small boost to my confidence. I have transformed this text into something I can understand, and in doing so, teased out another idea that I could explore with it, and another, and another. It’s a reminder that I’m still an academic, still a medievalist, even outside of formal academia. That I have ideas, and thoughts to contribute.
On Saturday, I was joined on a Discord call during my translation session by a medievalist friend of mine. Periodically I would share with them a phrase I was struggling with, or an idea it had sparked, and we’d toss back and forth our thoughts and articles we’d read and details that seemed relevant. We described the articles we’d write to counter flawed arguments we’ve seen from past scholars; we discussed the future of our field. I felt awake, the same way I felt awake after the Lament symposium a few weeks back. Like some part of my brain that is so often dormant these days had been prodded into life.
And though on Sunday I spent my translation session alone, uninterrupted by chat, I could feel those ideas and that sense of scholarly community still humming through me, helping me feel connected to the work.
By the time I set my translation aside on Sunday to focus on other things, I felt more Me than I have done in a long time — and significantly less stressed than I had been earlier in the week, when doomscrolling filled most of my non-work hours. My wrist was aching, because handwriting is a key trigger for my chronic pain (but I’ve never mastered translation without pen and paper being involved somewhere in the process), but my mind was settled again.
Translating early modern Irish is an odd form of stress relief. When I first told my MA supervisor that this was why I had translated so much more than he expected, he laughed, and said that most people found early modern Irish the cause of stress, not the solution to it. But what matters about this project is that it asks something of my brain that the rest of my life does not demand of it: it asks me to slow down. It asks me to be wrong. It asks me to put things together with fumbling hands from small, scattered pieces, until gradually the picture emerges.
Don’t start translating unless you’re prepared to make a mistake, said Seán Ua Súilleabháin at that Lament symposium and perhaps, in the end, that’s what I need from this. The chance to be wrong about something that doesn’t matter at all. The chance to cross things out and puzzle over it and not have the answers and take my best guess. That’s healing, for a brain that always feels scrutinised, a brain that is always performing. Top speed, top volume, all the time. To take a step back and give time to something that nobody is asking me to do, that I am not good at, but which is useful to me, and which feeds my curious, creative, academic brain: that has value.
It will be a long time before I finish translating Oidheadh Con Culainn, but that’s okay. I’m making my peace with that. There is, after all, no rush.
To support my ongoing translation efforts, consider buying me a coffee. Alternatively, you could buy my books. They have nothing to do with early modern Irish, but they did still come out of my brain, so you might still like them.