the current version of the midnight court
Last year (1997), idly paging through a book entitled “1000 Years of Irish Poetry,” I happened on a reprint of Percy Arland Ussher’s translation of Cúirt an Mheán Oíche.
Most Irish school children of my day (and other days, for all I know) learned, in Irish, the first eighteen or so lines of Cúirt an Mheán Oíche by heart. These few lines, anthologized in school poetry collections, were presented to us as a complete stand-alone work, a short lyrical piece about the beauty of nature on a fine summer’s morning (of which Ireland had few enough).
There was never a hint in those classrooms that a thousand more lines followed the measly eighteen we were allowed to glimpse nor, even more so, that stuff in the former was a whole lot more complex and more fun than that in the latter, lyrical though the latter may have been. Had we known, there might have been a good deal more interest in the language.
In any case, looking at Ussher's translation with the original of those famous eighteen lines still remembered after these many years, it struck me how weakly the English version had captured the original. I had always been particularly struck by the word-picture of two particular lines (7-8):
Ba thaitneamhach aoibhinn suíomh na sléibhte
Ussher translates this as:
The hills rear their heads on high
I thought this a disappointingly weak treatment of the original which speaks vigorously of mountains thrusting their heads over each others' shoulders though in reality Loch Gréine is not exactly surrounded by peaks, thrusting or otherwise.
My interest was piqued enough to seek out a copy of the full original poem in Irish (which, tellingly, I had never seen) and also others of the several translations I knew existed.
I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a copy of one of the most famous works in the Irish language. Even the many translations seemed no longer to be available in print any more.
(At the time, I was unaware of Seamus Heaney’s 1993 translation; I still don’t have a copy of it as I only recently became aware of its existence—and, as it happens, it was a limited edition of only 1,000 copies. Since Heaney titled his translation “The Midnight Verdict”, it did not show up in database searches for “The Midnight Court” and neither did a search on “Merriman” since Heaney, and not Merriman, is identified as the author. Even when I sent an e-mail to Hodges Figgis, Dublin’s premier bookstore, I was told that there was no translation of the work in print. Obviously the respondent from the store was also fooled by the “Midnight Verdict” title since I now know that the book actually shows up in the Hodges Figgis on-line catalogue.)
There are two recently produced Irish version of the text:
On the theory that if you want anything done, you may as well do it yourself, I decided why the hell not.
Living in the Washington DC area with the inestimable resources of the Library of Congress at hand, I was able to locate a version of the poem in Irish, edited by Riseárd Ó Foghlú and published in 1912. The library also had four translations: the Ussher (1926) translation I already had, Frank O'Connor (1945), David Marcus (1953) and Cosslett Ó Cuinn (1979).
In putting the poem on the Internet, one thing I was able to do was to imitate what I understand Patrick Power had done—a translation side-by-side with the original. That way, people with a little, but by no means fluent Irish, could get a feel for the original as they read through the English version.
The first problem in putting this combined Irish/English version of the Midnight Court on the Internet is the fact that the 1912 Irish edition looks quite archaic and forbidding to modern readers of Irish, young ones at least. In the 1950s, the typography and spelling of the language was updated (not necessarily for the better in many people’s eyes). Therefore, in putting the poem on the Internet and making it accessible to modern readers, I needed to update the language.
To get an idea as to what this means, take the single word:
in Ó Foghlú's text (line 177), it being the present tense form of a verb meaning “to go.” The “t” and the “g” in the middle of this word are silent (the dot over each of the letters is called lenition, séimhiú in Irish) and the whole word simplifies down to “imíonn” in the modern version, which looks a lot less formidable (though giving less, nearly no, information about its roots).
For a more extended example and picking a couple of lines at random (not quite at random, in fact, since the selection illustrates a couple of points I want to make), the original lines 683 and 684 look like this:
In the current version, this becomes:
In this endeavor, I was not about to edit Merriman’s text itself. Outside of the spelling modernization and other minor cosmetic changes (such as, for instance, the elimination of a separate form for the dative case which, in most instances, it is no longer used—changing “gríosaigh” to “gríosach” in the quoted lines or filling in the lacunae indicated by the inverted comma above, “comhartha easnaimh,” so that ’s colann becomes is colainn), the text is unchanged.
Translating The Midnight Court
If putting the Irish text and English translation side by side on the web was to be a useful exercise, the translation would have to follow the original quite closely for a reader to be able to follow the original from the translation. None of the four translations I had met that test—for instance, the Ussher translation is about 130 shorter than the original; the O’Cuinn version takes four lines to translate each two of the original, etc.
In short, the exigencies of the project called for a new translation (which had the added and considerable benefit of avoiding copyright problems). And that is what is on this site; not a single line is taken from any of the aforementioned translations—actually, I lifted one line (601) from Ussher: For love is a lustier sire than creed, which seemed so well put, I couldn’t resist.
I worked within a couple of constraints.
The translation imitates the original in that it is in rhyming couplets. Furthermore, as far as possible, I kept a one-to-one correspondence between the Irish and English versions where each line in the English text translated its corresponding line in the Irish. This was not always possible; sometimes within a particular couplet, I found it worked better to flip the first and second lines. However, each couplet corresponds exactly to its opposite number so that each two lines in the English translates the corresponding two lines in the Irish. I followed this constraint strictly and there are no exceptions to it throughout the poem although the translation is more literal in some cases than others, depending on what was needed to get across the sense of the original within the constraints adopted.
One of the things one quickly finds in this exercise, is that Irish is quite an economical language in that it can put more ideas in fewer words than English can. Thus, I found that Merriman might have four concepts in a line (in describing a person, for instance) but that I could only get two of them to fit in a line of similar length in English. It was presumably to this fact that Coslett O’Cuinn formally surrendered in basically using twice the number of lines in English for his translation as are in the Irish original. For myself, I put as many ideas of the original as I could fit in the available space and left it at that.
Merriman uses adjectival exuberance in his descriptions of people, whether in praise of the beautiful or in excoriation of the ugly. The head, the face, the neck, the chest, the legs, the fingers and toes, all can become candidates for elaborate, florid description. Sometimes, this becomes the equivalent of a riff in jazz or a cadenza in classical music, parenthetic flourishes where the music of the words counts for more than the meaning they impart. Elaborate alliterative word-play is involved where it is almost impossible, in translation, to convey the effect.
It’s like a set of equations in mathematics: the more constraints you impose, the harder it is to arrive at a solution. Just to translate the poem into rhyming couplets that make sense is a difficult enough chore; to try to introduce alliterative requirements makes it next to impossible.
In fact, I tried it with just one of the passages of this sort:
Mo chuma is mo chrá ba bhreá san éad
Ar lúbaire láidir lánmheas léadmhar
Shantach sháiteach shásta sheasmhach
Ramsach ráflach rábach rabairneach,
Lascaire luaimneach, cuardaitheoir cuimseach,
Balcaire buan nó buailteoir bríomhar,
Ach seanduine seanda cranda creimneach,
Fámaire fann is feam gan féile.
Bejasus, such jealousy could be understood
In a strapping, stout-hearted, sterling stud
Panting, pushing, pulsing, preening
Roistering, romping, rollicking, riproaring
A roving rogue, a sensitive searcher
A steadfast stalwart, a topnotch thresher
Not in an ossified oldster, a grumpy grunt
An incompetent idler, a reclusive runt.
It can be done but it is an exhausting exercise. One can sympathize with the poets of the bardic schools in Ireland who did this sort of thing for a living and who would lie down in a darkened room for a day and a night striving to come up with the just-right word. Staring at a computer screen rather than into a dark void doesn’t make it any easier.
As a final aid to students of the language, I have included a glossary. It is extensive (860 definitions for a 1,026-line poem, many of them referring to multiple occurrences) but it is not exhaustive. There is no great rhyme or reason to whether I included a word or not (I think that as I went along through the work, I increasingly realized that the glossary might be a valuable aid and, thus, I became more inclusive) but, generally, I think I have included all the more difficult or unusual words.