My friend and coworker Dana Resente, who turned me on to Flann O’Brien a few months back, has a tendency to leave notes in Irish for me and my other coworkers whenever she gets a chance. For the most part, the members of my department regard this practice as endearing, and although we never quite know how to respond to Dana’s missives, we smile appreciatively when we receive them and hope that they’re neither shot-through with insults nor full of vital information like your car is on fire or the dean wants your head on a platter (again). Now, however, with the help of Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s stirring book of poetry, Tattoo: Tatu (Arlen House, 2007), I can at least reply with a witty (if non-sequitur) riposte of my own in the Irish language.
To backtrack just a little bit, Chonchuir is an Irish poet whose work is both sensual and provocative. Her imagining of Virginia Woolf’s suicide in “Virginia’s Last Walk,” for example, leads the reader through the final moments of the writer’s life in minute, intimate detail (without, it should be noted, recourse to the rubber-nosed costumery that marks the same event in the film version of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours). Likewise, her treatment of Western body-image issues in a poem titled “Pandemic” toys playfully with the odd language we use to describe our relationships with food and each other: “Fun-size women/ bite each other’s backs,/ every flesh-inch/ tasted and tested/ against their own.”
Yet while Chonchuir bares her soul and examines the world around her in visceral and challenging ways throughout the collection, what’s most fascinating about Tattoo: Tatu is perhaps the poet’s work as a translator. Professing a love for the Irish language throughout her introduction, Chonchuir juxtaposes many of the English-language versions of her poems with Irish-language versions of the same. And while I know absolutely nothing of the Irish language, simply seeing both versions of the poems side-by-side is an eye-opening tip-off to the vagaries of translation. What becomes clear in Chonchuir’s work as both a poet and a translator is that translation is never an exact science; rather, it is an art that speaks a language of its own. That is, in the gap between one language and the next, there is occasion, as in poetry and as none other than TS Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock might attest, for a hundred indecisions, a hundred visions and revisions, yet the translator, like the poet, must settle on only one.
Of course, there’s also a practical value to Tattoo: Tatu—at least for me. The next time Dana leaves a note in a foreign tongue on my office door, I can reply with a line or two from one of Chonchuir’s poems—something like “Ta me fuar i mo lui i lana daichead poll ionam stroichte o bhiorain!” (“I lie cold in a laneway, forty stab wounds pulled from needles!”).
Hmm… On second thought…