26 April 2023
By Elaine Murphy
New Book: ‘Look Back to Look Forward’: Frank O’Connor’s Complete Translations from the Irish by Frank O’Connor, edited by Gregory A. Schirmer
While Frank O’Connor was known primarily as one of Ireland’s finest short-story writers, he was also an accomplished translator. In the long line of Irish writers given to translating poems in Irish into poems written in English – a tradition stretching back at least as far as Jonathan Swift – he stands out above all the rest.
Between the mid-1920s and the mid-1960s, O’Connor published 121 translations that give voice to the full range of this centuries-old tradition. Collected here in full for the first time, O’Connor’s work shows an uncanny aptitude for carrying over into English verse many of the riches to be found in the originals – the ancient voice of the Hag of Beare lamenting her decline into old age; the voices of the early monks describing the Irish landscape, Irish weather, their religious faith, and, in at least one instance, their cat; the voice of Hugh O’Rourke’s wife torn between loyalty to her husband and a rising desire for her seducer. All these voices haunted O’Connor throughout his career, whatever else he was doing. The collection includes the Irish-language sources for all 121 translations along with literal translations, enabling the reader to see what O’Connor started from.
O’Connor’s translations sprang from a compulsive desire to breathe life into Ireland’s past, to ‘look back to look forward,’ as he once put it; for him the Irish-language tradition was not for scholars and archives alone, but formed a living body of work vitally relevant to an Ireland that seemed puzzlingly indifferent to it.
Thanks to O’Connor’s profound love of his country’s language and its rich, literary subsoil – ‘a literature of which no Irishman need feel ashamed’, he once said – these voices from Ireland’s past can still be heard. Strikingly modern in tone, they conjoin flesh and spirit, the sacred and the secular, in a way that speaks to humankind.
About the author
Gregory A. Schirmer has written books on Austin Clarke and William Trevor, and Out of What Began: A History of Irish Poetry in English (Cornell University Press, 1998). He edited After the Irish: An Anthology of Poetic Translation (Cork University Press, 2009) and is author of The Midnight Court: Eleven Versions of Merriman (Lilliput Press, 2015). He lives in west Cork with his wife, the fiction writer Jane Mullen.