Raindrops in pond
(Photo: Scott Murray)

Toying with an idea
This will be my last blog for some time. Other writing projects are claiming my attention. For example, I’m toying with the idea of translating Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot into Gaelic. Only toying with the idea, I must emphasize. It’s a long and difficult poem. It’s Eliot’s culminating achievement as a poet, and specifically as a Christian poet. It’s a meditation on time, the world, language and much more. It’s one of my favourite poems and I would enjoy the challenge of making a Gaelic version of it. But should such a thing even be attempted? I haven’t decided yet.

The pros
It’s such a great poem and great poetry is worth translating into any language, even though the numbers speaking the target language are few, and even though much of the poetry will be lost in translation. The kind of poetry Eliot wrote is so alien to the Gaelic tradition that its very existence in a Gaelic version would be a reminder. A reminder of what? That great poetry, and great religious poetry exists in the Modernist tradition. We often think of Modernist verse and art as being secular, but certainly Eliot’s verse, after his conversion, is surely the great exception.

Leaves reflected in water
(Photo: Scott Murray)

The cons
The cons are probably much greater than the pros. The difficulties of translating prose from one language to another are immense, how much more so is the translation of great poetry. In fact many would say it’s impossible and that for a very simple reason: the resonances and connotations of words vary from language to language because they are part of a complex web of meaning. Another question I ask myself is, How many would read such a poem in Gaelic? The readership for poetry in any language is small. The readership for Modernist religious poetry in Gaelic – however good the poetry – would be tiny. In any case, they could read the original in English. And it is always more rewarding to read the original.

Translation difficulties
I mentioned the resonances and connotations of words. Something which is relevant to the first five lines of the poem: ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past. / If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.

Time in the abstract and clock time
Thinking about the word ‘time’, it differs radically in English and Gaelic. There are various words for time in Gaelic and they are used differently from English. For example, ‘time’ is used in an abstract and a concrete/ specific sense in English as in ‘time and eternity’ (abstract) and ‘What time is it? (specific). Yes, it’s ‘tìm agus sìorraidheachd’ (abstract) in Gaelic but ‘Dè an uair a tha e?’ ‘What time is it?’ (specific) The word ‘uair’ (cognate with Latin ‘hora’) is used for clock time in Gaelic. ‘Tìm’ appears to be a direct borrowing from English.
There are various other common words for time in Gaelic, for example, ‘tìde’ ‘Chan eil tìde gu leòr agam’ – ‘I don’t have enough time’. ‘Tha an tìde dol seachad’ – ‘Time is passing’. Notice that English uses ‘time’ in different senses where Gaelic uses a different word.

Tha last birch leaf
(Photo: Scott Murray)

Other words for time
Other words for ‘time’ in Gaelic are ‘àm’ – a time or a period in/of time, e.g. ‘Aig àm nam fuadaichean’ –‘At the time of the Clearances’, ‘Droch àm dhen bhliadhna’ – ‘A bad time of year’, and the word ‘uine’ – a spell of time, e.g ‘Chaidh ùine seachad’ – ‘A period of time passed’.
It should be obvious that even in the first 5 lines of Eliot’s poem the question of translation is delicate, and merely because of the different ways in which time is treated in both languages. I said I was toying with the idea of translating Four Quartets. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea after all!

Thanks
A million thanks to Scott Murray for the wonderful photos he has kindly provided for the Blog. They are among the most artistic nature photos I have ever seen and have added tremendously to the Blog.

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