Interview with Isobel Ní Riain


Last week we talked to Dr Isobel Ní Riain, who teaches in the School of Irish, in UCC, and is also an accomplished literary translator from English into Irish and Irish into English, as well as a writer in the Irish language. You can read about her fascinating account of her experience as a translator below:

Welcome, Isobel!

Thank you. 

I’d like to start by asking you about how you started doing translations?

I’ve been translating for a very long time in one sense, insofar as the degree in Irish is very much focused on teaching people Irish through translation, so the classes are a mix of translation and grammar. Later on, when I started to write literary criticism I needed to translate some poetry from Irish into English if it hadn’t been translated otherwise.

But most of the time I am translating from Irish into English, or from English into Irish and from German into Irish, and I am also involved in Education theory, because I did the Masters in Teaching and Learning and I did my thesis through the Irish language. I had to translate a lot of education and pedagogical terminology into Irish, which got me thinking about the whole idea of translating terminology. Sometimes you find yourself saying “this is fine, I have found this very interesting word to describe a pedagogical term, but if I write this in my article, or whatever it might be, nobody is going to understand what it means”. So, will I translate it back into English and put it in brackets, or will I simply leave it alone and allow the person to go hunting for it? But then very often I found that, when I went back to my own work, I couldn’t remember what it meant either, so I ended up putting it in English in brackets afterwards… That’s more or less my beginning in the world of translation.

[Translation] is about translating an experience that happens through the medium of a different language altogether.

How would you describe the work of a translator?

For me, translating is more than just translating a text from English into Irish or Irish into English. It is about translating an experience that happens through the medium of a different language altogether. For example, when I lived in Egypt – I lived there for four years between 1997 and 2001 during the Mubarak era – I found that I had these experiences that I wanted to describe in the Irish language but which I had actually experienced either through Arabic or through English. For me, writing my novel on life in Egypt was to do with a fictional English language experience and fictional Arabic language experience, which I then tried to distill into the Irish language. And when I did that I found that it was very useful to use Arabic phrases in various parts of the novel.

One thing that I did that I found was quite nice and that appealed as well to other people that read the novel – it has not been published yet –  was the idea of “Mr so and so”. I wanted to write a piece on “Mr so and so”, but I did not want to write his name, he was an invented character. But very few people would have known what the word for “Mr so and so” was in Irish – I would not have known it myself until I went rooting for it. I think if I had used that, it would have gone over people’s heads, so I used the Arabic word, فُلان ‘Fulani fulani’, because it has a great ring to it, and people seemed to really take to this name. They would come up to me and say that they had loved the ‘fulani fulani’ chapter. That was really useful.

And I included a lot of Egyptian Arabic words, perhaps I went a little overboard with it because I had a little agenda of my own with regard to the Arabic in that book. I wanted the reader to have a working knowledge of Arabic at the end of the book. That I felt to be my gift to the reader: you don’t have to go to Egypt but, if you do, these words will come in handy.

Of course the translator is a bridge between languages, and sometimes, in this particular case, it is not so much a bridge between the English and the Egyptian speaking worlds, but especially between them and the Irish speaking world. At the moment I am translating Arabic stories from English into Irish and, surprisingly, the English translators barely use any Arabic words, but in some places, because of my knowledge of the culture, I was able to give a little bit of extra information. For example, in one of the stories, and I worked quite closely with the author on this one, a woman is about to get married and there is a remark about a man wearing a gold bracelet. Well, nobody in the English-speaking world would perhaps pay attention to that, but I immediately realised that this was a guy who wasn’t very religious, since he was wearing gold, which is taboo for men in Islam. So you translate not only words but all sorts of references from a culture into the English-speaking world and then the Irish speaking world. It’s a three-way process. And some people could say that there is a lot of loss in this process. I learned about translation loss through one of my students, who was doing a thesis about translation loss in the work of Peig Sayers, which was then translated from Irish into English and then into German. He looked at this three-way process of going from one language to another and yet another, and I can mainly look at my own translations of the English stories that were translated from Arabic and see that there is a very similar process as the one my student was analysing. 

Do you think it would be different if you translated from Arabic straight to Irish?

It could possibly be. I would not be capable of doing that because my spoken Arabic is intermediate level and my reading is a bit lower. The Egyptian Arabic that is spoken on the streets and that I would be very familiar with is almost a different language to Modern Standard Arabic. It would be a huge undertaking for me to try to translate anything from Arabic into Irish.


So you are talking there about the approach that you take about translation. Could you perhaps elaborate a bit on that? In a very practical sense, what do you do when you translate?

For me translation is rapid. I read a sentence in English, for example, and immediately something will occur to me in Irish. I do not really sit down and start making these decisions: will I do this or will I not do that? It just occurs to me and then I put it down in Irish. If I get stuck, if there is a word that jarrs or a word that I don’t know in the other language, then I obviously have to go chasing the word and make a decision between different ones. When you go to the dictionary you find lots of different possibilities and you say to yourself: “which one of these is going to convey the sense of the source language?” It is really only when you get stuck, and of course you do get stuck quite often, that you get reflective on what you are actually doing. Otherwise it is almost automatic.

It is really only when you get stuck, and of course you do get stuck quite often, that you get reflective on what you are actually doing.

Would you say you are bilingual?

I would. I would always be better in English but I am almost bilingual.

And do you think that affects the way you translate? For instance, as someone who speaks Spanish as a second language, the way that I would translate from Spanish into English might be slightly different. The image would not necessarily click into my head like that.

In a sense, I think you are almost better off if you are not completely a native speaker in the second language because you have the flexibility and you can almost estrange the language a bit more. If it is really your native language, then you take so much for granted, and you do not stop and wonder at meaning. You don’t say: “ok, I can do something better with this, I can play with this, I can be creative with this”. I think if it is completely your native language, you are so confined to the conventional way of speaking and writing that somehow you cannot break out of those limitations.

I know you have translated yourself. Is that different?

It can be. My first real experience of translating myself was when I was doing the Masters in Teaching and Learning. There was an article which I was going to write in English and Irish. I started by writing it in Irish first. Then I wanted to translate it into English and when I started off I had the best of intentions. But basically, the first line is the same and then it went completely off in a different direction! I ended up with a totally different article.

In a sense, I think you are almost better off if you are not completely a native speaker in the second language because you have the flexibility and you can almost estrange the language a bit more.

So that seems to show that you experienced things in totally different ways in different languages. And even at different points in time.

But then, recently, I had to translate an article that I had written in English and now needed to be in Irish for publishing. I translated it word for word, and it was so easy. It was the easiest translation I have ever done! You don’t have to say: “what does the author mean here?” You are already in it. You are inside the article, and you are working from that inner knowledge. It is like putting on a different coat over what you already have. It was a very pleasant experience, actually.

I would say a lot of translators would love to be in that position sometimes!

When you self-translate, do you ever feel satisfied with the target text? There is often this idea that maybe the original is the one that is closest to your heart?

The way I feel is down to the relation I have with English and Irish. In English I can be quite sophisticated when I am writing. In Irish I am not so sophisticated. Although I have been told that my English is not so academic, when I compare it to my Irish, it is extremely academic. In Irish it is harder to be academic without being very stilted or strange. For me anyway, it is more of a colloquial experience than writing in English. So when I compare my two texts, I do feel that the register is a little bit different.angelina-litvin-32188

This relates to my next question. How do you feel when you are translating into English, the language of the “colonizer”?

I did have that experience with regard to English as the “colonizer” when I was teaching English in Egypt. I always felt: “I should not be doing this, this is not right – bringing English to the Egyptians”. Although they were dying to learn, I did not feel right about it and I could not have continued year on year doing that. I had a bad conscience about it. But in terms of my own writing, English is my native tongue. It is the native tongue of my parents and grandparents – not my great grandparents, but it is as much mine as it is anybody’s who comes from England. I have made my own of it, we have all made our own of the English language here, and it has made its own of us, whether we like it or not. So I no longer see it really, in terms of writing and translating, as the language of the colonizer at all.

My feelings of loyalty are less to languages as to the sociocultural context involved.

Being an Irish speaker and translating into Irish and out of Irish, do you feel a responsibility to the Irish language?

I do. I feel even a greater responsibility when I am translating the Egyptian stories into Irish.  As a translator sometimes you have these impure thoughts. You might like to edit the text, or you might like to change things, or to censor things out of the texts. For example, when I am translating a story about Egypt I feel: “if I write this story as it is, Egypt is going to come out in very bad light. It is going to be very sleazy”. And Cairo can be like that, but it is not something that I want to show the Irish-speaking world. So I do feel bad about it. My feelings of loyalty are less to languages as to the sociocultural context involved.

I suppose that represents the reason why you want to include these foreign words in the text.

Yes, exactly.

As an outsider and a non-Irish speaker, introducing these other terms in the language for me is representative of the vitality of the language in a way. Some people may consider it an old, dying language, but this actually shows that Irish can be used in very modern and very inventive ways.

There is no doubt about it. When you look at the young writers, the contemporary writers, they are doing all sorts of exciting things with Irish. Look at the poets. You can think of people like Biddy Jenkinson. She is someone who does not allow her work to be translated into English. If you analyse her poetry, what she does with the words, the creativity – it is hard to read, it is not the easiest poetry in the world to read, but she does fantastically creative things in Irish.

You mentioned that you have worked closely with the authors of some of the pieces you have translated. Can you describe that relationship?

The main example that I have of that type of relationship comes from when I translated the work of Salwa Elhamamsy. She is a contemporary Egyptian writer and she has written a lot of stories in Egyptian Arabic and they have been translated into English by Egyptian translators, which is also quite interesting. Their English is Egyptian English, so you are translating Egyptian English into Irish English and then into Irish. I have talked to her about various points. It has been a very easy and fruitful relationship. It has been great to get to know the original writer of the texts. I know where she is coming from, and she has told me the background of one of the stories, which was fascinating.

When you are translating, do you think about the potential readers of your work and who you are translating for? Does that influence the way you translate?

It does. When you are translating into Irish, you are always thinking about the students. I have a lot of students and I think: “if my students read this, what would they think?” I am a teacher first. Everything I do, everything I write is steered towards the students. That has been a criticism of Irish writing down the years insofar as the notion of “the school boy”. “The school boy” has always been the ultimate censor, and writing for “the school boy” has been the factor determining whether works were published or not. If it was not suitable for “the school boy”, it was not going to be published in this country. I suffer a bit from that. If it is not suitable for the students to read, maybe I won’t write it the way I might have liked to write it to a point.

Do you agree that the counterpoint of publishing for the wider audience in Irish should also exist?

Absolutely. My domain is quite small, since I am very much within the university setting. But if you were writing for the larger audience – which is not very large; there is actually quite a small audience for Irish language literature of a few thousand people – it is quite depressing. You wonder: how many people would ever actually read these Egyptian stories that I am translating at the moment? Possibly a very small number of people.

Do you find that you have any constraints or recommendations from the publishers?

Not so far. With the book of short stories that I am dealing with at the moment, it was the publisher who had the idea for that book and then approached me. He knew the translator of the stories from Arabic into English, and he was able to liaise with him and me for this book that is in the making at the moment. So I have found the publishers so far very accommodating and open-minded about what could be done and what could not be done.

I have found the publishers so far very accommodating and open-minded about what could be done and what could not be done.

I am interested in the paratextual and epitextual elements with regard to the translator. As a translator, do you prefer to be visible in text? With a translator’s note or footnotes, for example.

I do. I have my little voice there in the footnotes all the time!

And “translated by” on the front?

Yeah, on the front page! There would be then a little piece on me, as well as all the other translators. Because there would be other translators who worked from Arabic into English. They would all be mentioned as well.

Does that depend on the publishing house?

Nothing was said about it. They just accepted that this was the way I was doing it.

So do you feel you have a voice with the publishers?


Do you think it is because you are translating into Irish?

Maybe so.

Do you always choose what you translate? Could you?

No. Those stories were sent to me, but I could, yes.

I wonder if that has to do with size and the particularities of the Irish literary market. I know it is the same in Galicia, where some translations are requested from the publishers but I think the translators have a clear voice.

Is there anything you would love to translate?

There are so many things! At this stage almost everything has been translated into Irish. One of my students was looking for something to translate, and it took us a few months to find something that had not been translated.


Going back to self-translation, where in one case it was a very straight-forward experience for you and in the other the text took you in a completely different path,  would you say that was because of the characteristics of the languages as such? Or is it more of a case of the personal relationship you have with the languages?

I think that in those two cases it was the subject matter. The first one was part of a Master’s thesis that was developing as I was going along and going in all sorts of directions at that point in my head. So I think that was characteristic of what was going on in my mind in relation to the subject matter. The other one was a “closed book”, in a sense, because that was an article that I had written years ago, and I was happy with it. It was not developing, it was static, it had come to its conclusion. All I had to do was translate it. I think it is about where you are in relation to the subject matter.

[Academic analysis of translations] is a good thing if your motivation is to improve it. But if your motivation is simply to criticise the translator, that is not so good. It has to be productive.

In your position it may be a bit different because you are not only a translator, as you were saying, you are above all a teacher, and you are very involved in academia, but how do you feel about people analysing translations to study them from an academic point of view? Do you think that is productive, or does it depend on how is it done? Does it make you uncomfortable that people may dissect a text?

I am slightly aware that, for example, these stories may be analysed from the Irish point of view and the choices that I have made. At the end of the day, if they can improve it, fine. That’s a good thing if your motivation is to improve it. But if your motivation is simply to criticise the translator, that is not so good. It has to be productive.

Would you ever be scared that the author would find a problem with your translation?

With regard to the Irish translation, I think the Egyptian authors in question would not have access to the Irish language. But the English translation will be there. It is accessible online, so people would be able to say “that is not the correct translation of such and such a word”. That is always going to be there.

But you do not have to worry about it so much.

I probably would have to worry about it at some stage, but I do not see it as a completely negative thing.

Do you have maybe any advice for people who want to become literary translators?

In terms of the Irish language and literary translation, all I would say is that the jobs are in Brussels. The legal type of translation, that’s where the jobs are. Literary translation is beautiful, it is a lovely thing to be involved with. But in terms of getting a job, go to Brussels.

That was a fascinating conversation, thank you very much for your time, Isobel.

Thank you.

One comment

  1. I like your emphasis, Isobel, on the “experience”-character of translation. I would assume, however, that this is experience in a more profound sense than just the so-called ’empirical’ – perhaps it has more to do with what the German idealists called ‘transcendental experience’, or “intellektuale Anschauung”?


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