Mikitish: Translation and the time of ice

There is a beautiful Old Irish poem, often used as an example text for the language, in which the speaker is a messenger bringing tidings of winter. Though the whole work is wonderful (and short), only the penultimate line will concern us here. Says the news-bearer, simply, “aigrid ré.” One translation of this line, in David Greene’s “Golden Treasure of Irish Poetry,” is “it is the time of ice.” I have seen more colorful renderings yet — “it is the season of ice crystals” — but Greene’s is interesting because it shows exactly a certain kind of tension: between literal and figurative translation. The word “ré” means “time,” “season,” “moon,” etc., and can hereafter be ignored. The first, and interesting, word, “aigrid,” is a compound: “aig” (“ice”) plus “red” (“time”). In English, we have no compound “icetime” equivalent to these other expressions. So, translate it as the same-meaning but more acceptable “time of ice” and move on! What’s the problem?

The problem of translation is often described as a tension between fidelity, faithfulness to the original, transparency and readability in the target language.

In other words, should a “word-for-word” or a “thought-for-thought” translation be preferred? However, I would posit that the problem does not end here. There is another difficulty which faces the “literal” translator, he who prioritizes fidelity: What does it mean to translate a word “literally”? I don’t just mean choosing between more-or-less similar words in the target language (“boorish” vs. “crude” or some similar agony). There is actually a theoretical problem in the representation of certain types of words in translation: namely, compound words and words constructed via regular derivation. And that is the problem we face with our Irish poem. Let me explain.

Though we don’t have a word “icetime,” we do have the word, “winter.” Old Irish, of course, also has this word: “gaim.” The real question is: What’s the difference? To an Irishman in the ninth century, did “gaim” mean “winter” and “aigrid,” literally, “ice-time” (but usually “winter”), or did they both just mean “winter”? Consider a seasonal example, to which I’ve already alluded, from English: “summertime” vs. “summer.” I can write, equally well, “It is summertime” or “It is summer.” Should a translator, working with a target language with only one word for the sultry season, tack the target language’s word for “time” onto the translation of my first little sentence? Probably not.

Or how about our American season-word “fall”? It means “autumn,” but its name is not incidental: Autumn is the time when leaves fall. Should a translator use some expression to denote the fall of leaves, or just a simple word for the season? Definitely the latter. Or how about “spring”? After all, it is the time when things spring up (from Middle English expressions like “springing time” — the old word was “lencten,” German “Lenz,” Modern English “Lent”)!

So we can see the problem. But why is it a problem? Well, there are dangers in both a lexical equivalence (“winter”) approach and in an etymological one (“time of ice”). In the former case, we risk blurring distinct shades of meaning in the source language. We also risk, in some cases, producing a very boring translation. However, there is also great danger in the method here exemplified by Mr. Greene. By rendering what might be common, simple words in the source with elevated or strange turns of phrase in the target, the translator risks giving the source a strange, or “other-ly,” quality to a very common sentence. After all, saying “the season is winter” is a lot more pedestrian than writing “it is the time of ice.” Certainly the latter makes better reading. But should that be the criterion to decide between two arguably “literal” readings?

Perhaps the only recourse we have here is to Mr. Samuel Johnson, who once said: “Poetry cannot be translated; and, therefore, it is the poets that preserve the languages; for we would not be at the trouble to learn a language if we could have all that is written in it just as well in a translation. But as the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved in any language except that in which it was originally written, we learn the language.”

Old Irish, anyone?

J. Max Mikitish is a sophomore in Silliman College.


  • The Anti-Yale

    At 66, I am on the cusp of entering the Time of Ice, not the winter, of my life. I am also Irish, and the blood once thrashed through my veins like fire. I know exactly what the poet meant by the “time” of ice..


    PS–Only an egalitarian Yalie would remove the “Dr.” from Samuel Johnson and replace it with “Mr.”

    *From Wikipedia
    Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 [O.S. 7 September] – 13 December 1784), often referred to as **Dr Johnson**, was a British author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. Johnson was a devout Anglican and committed Tory, and has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”.[1] He is also the subject of “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature”: James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.[2]*

  • penny_lane

    I loved this column. To tell the truth, it doesn’t add much to the long and thoughtful discourse between poets and their translators, or really even cover the full complexity of the dilemma. Nevertheless, it is nice to be reminded, every so often, of the power of language and the uniqueness of poetry, and it’s nice to think that many who never thought about these things before and won’t often again will have some exposure.

    Also, your columns are nice to read, both because they aren’t riddled with solecisms as so much else is that appears in the YDN, and because you actually manage to write with a certain degree of elegance, which is just as rare here as solecisms are frequent.

  • cfleitas

    I just wanted to stop by and say thanks for writing this column. I spent most of my senior year (’03) and have spent many a pleasant hour since mulling over exactly these sorts of dilemmas as part of my senior translation project in Old Norse poetry (which I’m still trying to complete to my satisfaction). The previous commenter is right in that the issues go far, far deeper, but it is absolutely lovely to know that Yale is still inspiring these sorts of thoughts and that the YDN is the sort of place that provides a forum for them.