The Irish Translation of Quo Vadis.

Alan Titley of University College, Cork wrote a paper Polish, Romish, Irish: The Irish Translation of Quo Vadis? (Studia Celto-Slavica 5: 47–58 [2010]; pdf) that is not only full of interesting material but a pleasure to read. Here’s the abstract:

During the height of literary translation into Irish in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, I can only think of two Polish books that were translated into Irish. One of these is Henryk Sienkiewicz’s famous Quo Vadis?, which helped him secure the Nobel Prize for Literature, and which has been translated into numerous languages, and made into several films or series of films for television. It was translated into Irish by An tAthair, or Fr. Aindrias Ó Céileachair (1883–1954) in 1935. There is a long journey from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s travels into the mind of ancient Rome and turning a vicious and genocidal Latin culture into a more civilised Polish, to an English version of this great book by an Irish-American linguist who himself collected stories and tales in Irish, to a learned priest who used the ingenuity of his own people, and particularly the native knowledge of a great storyteller, to fashion one of the finest translations that has been done into modern Irish. I am not sure what Sienkiewicz would have made of it, but I am sure he would have been very pleased.

Here’s a passage from near the start:

It was translated from the English, which in itself is a story that bears investigating. The background to this translation is a project instigated by the Irish state a few years after independence, and which sought to provide much reading material for the new Irish-reading public which they were beginning to create. The scheme is generally known as ‘An Gúm’, which is simply a dialectical word for ‘scheme’, and did manage to provide a wide-range of books for the public within a short number of years (Uí Laighléis 2007). A great deal of these books were translations, as indeed must needs be the case in any minor or less-widely used language.

A great many of the classics of world literature were translated into Irish as a result of this project. Many other translations were done before this scheme, and others after it, both as forerunners and as further exemplars. So, for a reasonably small language like Irish, it is remarkable that we have novels, apart from potboilers and contemporary bestsellers, like Don Quixote (although the translation is suitably quixotic), David Copperfield, Robinson Crusoe, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dracula, four versions of Alice in Wonderland as well as stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Daudet, de Maupassant, plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, Aeschylus, and world classics like The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, some of Plato’s dialogues (Apologia, Crito, Phaedo), Augustine’s Confessions – indeed, it is possible to be widely read in the literature of much of the world if you only spoke or read Irish.

Some of these translations are brilliant, and some of them are truly awful. The reason for the discrepancy in standard was because the state publishing company had no stated policy on how translations should be conducted. They trained nobody, and neither did they give advice. As a result of this, translators could do more or less what they wished, provide they came up with the goods, or the bads, as they often did. The editors were far more interested in the production of good idiomatic Irish than in the faithfulness of the translation. In translation-study terms, the target language was the god, not the source-language. The source language was merely an excuse to allow the translator to indulge himself. And some of them did just this.

(Does anybody know the etymology of gúm ‘plan, scheme?) There’s a section on the story of Aindrias Ó Céileachair, the Irish translator, which includes the following bit of background:

He studied Irish in Maynooth College and edited a poem for the journal Ériu. There was talk of sending him on the foreign missions, but during one summer he read through Thurneysen’s Grammar of Old Irish. This seems to have been a reverse conversion, and the only example of Thurneysen frightening somebody from the mission fields. The scholar Gertrude Schoepperle thought very highly of him, saying that he could read old Irish texts by sight. He applied for a position of lecturer in Irish in UCD, but for some reason this position was never filled.

And this is about Fr Peter O’Leary’s originally providing a shortened version of Don Quixote:

O’Leary’s translation amounts to about one tenth of the whole; he turns the Don and Sancho Panza into farmers from the west of Ireland, and similarly avoids any mention of the more robust and Rabelaisian humour that the original contains. In one famous scene of the original a serving girl is trying to climb over Don Quixote in order to get to the bed of another traveller; O’Leary turns this into a situation where she is actually looking for a barrel of wine, giving arise to the belief that sex was a far more pernicious sin in nineteenth century Ireland than booze in sixteenth century Spain.

(See here for Peter O’Leary, aka Peadar Ua Laoghaire and An tAthair Peadar.) The story of how Ó Céileachair went about the translation is fascinating, as is the biography of Jeremiah Curtin, an Irish-American first-generation scholar and folklorist and the official translator of Quo Vadis in English, with which Titley’s article ends. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Jen in Edinburgh says

    MacBain just says that the word is found in Cormac’s Glossary, whatever that might be. (spelt ‘guim’)

  2. Thanks! But I can’t find it in Cormac’s Glossary, either the 1862 or 1868 edition.

  3. Jen in Edinburgh says

    No – there’s this, but all the supposed search hits seemed to actually be Latin ‘cum’

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    As one of the three remaining people who has actually read Quo Vadis (in English), I must say that my overriding memory of it was of its grotesque antisemitism. And its literary merits are pretty questionable. Perhaps it missed something in translation. However, religiose Schwärmerei is not enough to make a Classic of World Literature.

    [I didn’t like it.]

  5. All I know of Quo Vadis, the movie adaptation anyway, is a joke that an 8th-grade friend’s mother told me:

    — Where are you going?
    — To the movies.
    — What are they showing?
    Quo Vadis.
    — To the movies.

  6. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I’m now looking at a scan of the original, and it’s the link to Cormac which is the mistake, not the spelling ‘Carm’ – it means ‘Dr Alexander Carmichael’, although just what he has to do with it I’m yet to discover.

    He comes under ‘Authors quoted’, but the only Carmichael listed there is ‘Carmichael’s Agrestic Customs of the Hebrides, in the Napier Commission Report’ (i.e. the 1884 report into crofting conditions).

    Were plots and schemes an important part of crofting?

    (‘Agrestic’ might please you, though. ‘Of or belonging to the countryside; rural, rustic’, says the OED)

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Mention of the movie reminds me of the highly enjoyable Hail, Caesar! (though I think that the movie being sent up there is something more like Ben Hur.)

  8. Not that that helps with etymology, of course.

  9. David Marjanović says

    Any connection to goon? …Apparently not.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    From Irish Wikipedia:

    Is é is brí leis an bhfocal sin gúm ná “plean”, “scéim”, “cleas”, nó “tionscadal”. Focal é nach gcloisfeá i ngach Gaeltacht sa bhunchiall seo, ach nuair a bhí an teanga á labhairt i gContae an Chláir, ba chuid de chanúint an cheantair sin é. Focal nádúrtha é freisin i nGaeilge Bhaile an Chláir taobh thoir de Chathair na Gaillimhe.

    If you accept this claim (no source is given for it), then the word was from the Clare Gaeltacht (there are no longer native speakers there, although the word is also attested in Baile an Chláir east of Galway city). The above Irish synonyms are along the lines of plan, scheme, activity (cleas means other things, but this is the relevant one), project.

  11. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Aha, it’s from Carmina Gadelica

    As quoted in Dwelly, which I looked at first, so I’m back where I started 😀

    I’m getting the impression that quite possibly no one does know – there seems to be surprisingly little Irish etymology around (even by the Gaelic standards where works from ~100 years ago might be the best there is)

    (Presumably this is the Cormac whose counterfeit I wanted to be a few weeks ago!)

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says

    If you accept this claim (no source is given for it), then the word was from the Clare Gaeltacht

    Interesting – when it was turning up in Scottish Gaelic dictionaries I thought it might be a Donegal word.

  13. eDIL has s.v. “coim”

    (a) body, breast, bosom, waist; also appar. (front or breast of) cloak, mantle, covering


    (c) V. freq. with prep. FO: fá ch. … In secret, surreptitiously

    which might explain where “conspiracy” comes from if not “system, plan”. Perhaps old Ireland had the very modern idea that all plans are conspiracies.

  14. Sounds plausible to me.

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    I think something like this is the answer. I know there is older dialectical/nonstandard writing which has gomh for chomh (but I cannot say this habit applied to Clare) and medial g for c is more typical. I was thinking more of the verb cum, which can also mean plan.

  16. I am unable to get to a library for a while, but perhaps someone else can follow up and consult the following article in the journal Éigse:

    Séamas de Barra (1986) “Nótaí ar an bhfocal gúm” Éigse 21, pp. 232–240

    (Record on CODECS here.)

  17. There is a précis of de Barra’s argument by Pierre-Yves Lambert in this review of the volume of Éigse that I mentioned above. It’s at the very end of the review, middle of page 374, in Études celtiques 24 (1987):

    Séamas de Barra, « Nótaí ar an bhfocal Gúm » 232-240: viendrait non pas de l’angl. dialectal gome (= game), mais de l’expression d’(a)udmaib, sur le mot aidhm (virl. aidimm) « instrument, moyen ». Cf. mar dúmas « sous prétexte (Déise, Ring).

    In the eDIL, aidemm.

  18. Thanks! That also sounds plausible.

  19. That also sounds plausible.
    Now you remind me of that rabbi in the joke who has to decide in a dispute between two members of his congregation. 🙂

  20. As one of the three remaining people who has actually read Quo Vadis (in English)
    Who’s the third one? 😉
    I read it in German when I was a boy – it had Latin in the title and took place in ancient Rome, so how could I not read it? I was too young to specifically pick up on the antisemitism, but coming from a relatively non-religious family and having a weak spot for the Greek and Romance deities due to reading Schwab’s Sagen des klassischen Altertum, it rubbed me the wrong way how the book took for granted that the Christians were the good guys. The one character who stuck in my memory is the arbiter elegantiarum.

  21. I’m the third one. Kind of weird that all three of us should be readers of this blog. I have to admit, I have zero recollection of anti-semitism, though I can sometimes be oblivious. I liked it pretty well, though the ending–where Sienkiewicz gets all smug about how, oh how, back in the day, Christianity was small and persecuted, but now it RULES THE WORLD, I found pretty rich. I say in response, yes, but a dominant Christianity with political power has very little in common with the persecuted sect depicted in the book.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Marius the Epicurean is set in the same world, more or less (though in Marcus Aurelius’ day, rather than Nero’s) It’s rather more subtle in its treatment of the issues, though. I don’t think Pater actually did “unsubtle.”

    I enjoyed it myself, but you have to be in the right frame of mind for it.
    I would have some sympathy with anyone who found it too irritating to be altogether readable …
    Apparently (per WP) TS Eliot didn’t like it, which is a plus.

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