Humor and Translation

By Mark Herman
Multiple Translations: Cré na Cille


In a column in The Nation,1 Aaron Thier writes:

Maírtín Ó Cadhain’s [1905-70] Cré na Cille,2 originally published in 1949, is often said to be the greatest Irish-language novel of the 20th century. It consists of a cacophonous dialogue between corpses in a graveyard. No surprise there: [James] Joyce [1882-1941], [Samuel] Beckett [1906-89], and Flann O’Brien [pseudonym of Brian Ó Nualláin, 1911-66] may have written in English and French, but [Joyce’s] Ulysses3 contains a protracted descent into the underworld, Beckett’s plays and novels take place in a kind of purgatorial wasteland, and the hero of O’Brien’s The Third Policeman4 is in hell. What happens when we die? We wake up in an Irish novel.

Two recent English translations of Cré na CilleThe Dirty Dust,5 by Alan Titley, and Graveyard Clay,6 by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson—were recently published by Yale University Press. They were published so close together (2015 and 2016, respectively) that it’s impossible to say whether Yale intended the second as a re-translation of the first, or both of them as multiple translations. Re-translations and multiple translations are not the same; they are related, but have different intentions. Re-translation occurs when an old translation is considered unsatisfactory for one reason or another. Multiple translation occurs when a single translation is thought to be unable to reproduce all the effects of the original, so multiple translations, sometimes all done by the same translator, are created, each bringing specific aspects of the original into the target language.

Aaron Thier treats the two books as multiple translations—a way to divine the original without any knowledge of the source language:

I read them simultaneously, so “reading” Cré na Cille meant reading Graveyard Clay and The Dirty Dust and then trying to imagine what the real thing must be like. This wasn’t easy. Titley anglicizes character names but not place names; Mac Con Iomaire and Robinson anglicize place names but not character names. Thus each translation appears to involve a different set of characters talking about a different set of places. Titley loves obscenity, and his translation is a Rabelaisian cataract of inventive insults; Graveyard Clay is a modest rendering that returns again and again to the same insult—“streak of misery”—as if to a refrain.

Sometimes the texts of the two translations are direct opposites. For instance, where Titley writes, “Make sure that Tom doesn’t get the large holding,” Mac Con Iomaire and Robinson have “Take care that Tom gets the big holding.”

There are footnotes in Graveyard Clay, such as “What looks like a typing error is in fact a play on words,” and “The following passage in the text involves elaborate wordplay in Irish, French, and Breton.”

Thier’s solution for understanding the original Gaelic—which, he surmises, “is full of untranslatable puns, idiomatic language, bits of traditional songs and stories, and dialect jokes”—is not more footnotes, or a study of Gaelic, but even more multiple translations. He states: “competing translations, too many translations. Yale should publish a new one every year.”

  1. Thier, Aaron. “Máirtín Ó Cadhain: Found in Translation,” The Nation (July 28, 2016),
  1. Ó Cadhain, Maírtín. Cré na Cille (An Chéad Cló: Sáirséal argus Dill, 1949); Reprinted in 2009 (An cló seo: Cló Iar Chonnachta Teo),
  1. James Joyce’s Ulysses was first serialized in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920. It was first published in its entirety by Sylvia Beach in Paris in February 1922. This is a reprint of the revised 1932 text (Wordsworth Editions, 2010),
  1. Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman was written between 1939 and 1940. It was first published by MacGibbon & Kee in 1967, and reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press in 1999. See:
  1. The Dirty Dust. Translated by Alan Titley (New Haven: Yale Margellos, 2015),
  1. Graveyard Clay. Translated by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson (New Haven: Yale Margellos, 2016),


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