Cré na Cille, Translated Twice.

For ages I’ve been saving this American Scholar link, in which Stephanie Bastek compares two versions of the same passage from “Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s modernist masterpiece, Cré na Cille,” Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson’s translation, called Graveyard Clay, and Alan Titley’s, called The Dirty Dust. The first begins “. . . Nóra Filthy-Feet standing for election! Good God above, they’ve lost all respect for themselves in this cemetery if the best they can offer is Nóra of the Fleas from Mangy Field,” the second “. . . Toejam Nora standing for election! Jesus Christ Almighty, they have no respect left for themselves in this cemetery, especially if they can’t put up anyone else only Fleabag Nora from Gort Ribbuck.” I love that sort of comparison, and if you do too, hie thee to the link.

And now Trevor sends me this interview with John Donatich, Director at Yale University Press, about the two versions:

“The book was so difficult to translate in the first place. The stakes were made higher as this would most likely be the first exposure many global readers might have to this purported classic. We had to make sure to get it right. That said, we felt the book could stand two different kinds of interpretations, much like a great musical piece might stand several interpretations: a rigorous, elegant and faithful version and one that took more expressive risks.”

I have two books by Ó Cadhain, but alas, not Cré na Cille; one of these days I’ll have to remedy that. I love modernist masterpieces!

Update (April 2020). Athel Cornish-Bowden linked to another comparison, which also has thoughts on translation in general (and translation of humor in particular). Some interesting tidbits:

• [John Donatich] first heard about this book decades ago when he was working for a corporate publisher who wanted to get the rights to Cré na Cille. Although the book had the reputation of being an “untranslatable masterpiece,” the real stumbling block to producing an English version was that the Irish publisher was a hardcore nationalist and didn’t want it to be translated. If you wanted to experience this great piece of literature, you had to learn Irish.3 [fn3: Even as a translation advocate, there’s something about this viewpoint that inherently appeals to me. Admittedly, it’s rare for me to come across a “fuck you” that I don’t like.]

• Yale hosted a couple events featuring the three translators—and let them argue it out. That’s admirable and sounds so much more interesting that a normal reading. If recordings of these exist, I’ll post them as soon as I find them.

• He was only willing to publish both translations of the book because they were so different. Had they not taken such different approaches—with such different results—it’s highly unlikely Yale would’ve gone ahead with this experiment.

• The two editions of this book are the second and third best-selling titles in the Margellos series behind Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences.4 [fn: Open Letter has yet to have a book sell as many copies as either version of Cré na Cille. In fact, our total sales for all our books combined, is just barely more than the number of copies Yale sold of the Modiano. Hearing other publisher’s sales can really put one’s life into perspective. To be completely honest, I don’t know of a single press our size/reputation that doesn’t have at least one book that far outpaces our top selling books. This is why I drink and write rambling essays about humor. Because if you can’t laugh, right?]

• The Titley version was published first to introduce readers to the energy and voice of the novel, whereas the Iomaire and Robinson is more intended for academics.


  1. What’s the curse that’s translated once as Good God above and the other time Jesus Christ Almighty? Something religious that doesn’t quite mean either of those things?

  2. I wrote at the site:

    Alas, it seems the American Scholar is not scholarly enough to print the original Irish so that those of us with that language, but who have never read the book, can see how the translators actually did.

    (Not of course to imply that I myself am one of “those of us”.)

  3. A Google Books search gives:

    Cré Na Cille: Leagan Drámatúil
    Máirtín Ó Cadhain – 2006 – ‎No preview

    (Emphasis added.) Not even snippet view? Why, Google Books, why??

  4. Easily told. The publisher is not one with which Google has an agreement, nor is the book held by any library that Google is dealing with. Or if so, it has yet to be scanned. Worldcat shows only six hits for the original work: Harvard College Library, the University of Notre Dame, St. Francis Xavier University (in Antigonish, N.S., home of the little man who wasn’t there), the National University of Ireland–Galway, the University of Limerick, and Dublin City University.

    So what you are getting is pure metadata from one or more of Google’s ten thousand metadata providers. When it comes to metadata, it’s not that Google thinks it knows better than the experts; it’s that it knows all too thoroughly how much the experts disagree.

  5. per incuriam says

    What’s the curse that’s translated once as Good God above and the other time Jesus Christ Almighty?

    A Dhia agus a Chríosta = God and Christ, in the vocative.

  6. Thanks. I was having a hard time believing there was a curse for which both translations might be reasonable . I see the error of my ways now, a Dhia agus a Chriosta.

  7. I’ve lost most of my Connemara Irish learned over forty years ago and briefly practiced on the Aran Islands, but I can still respond to the greeting “Dia dhuit” ‘God with you’ with a crisp “Dia is Muire dhuit” ‘God and Mary with you.’

  8. You can listen to the leagan drámatúil here (I had to click ‘Download’ rather than the ‘play’ arrow because Chrome was being overprotective).

  9. Thanks very much! And many thanks to whichever LH reader gave me a copy of the book in Irish for my Kindle; it will inspire me to immerse myself in that wonderful language again.

  10. Have you read the book at all?

  11. Not yet!

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