Translator’s nightmare, this ‘Tain’ is a dream

Times Staff Writer

Within the West’s small but precious hoard of archaic literary epics, “The Tain” is surely the most complex and least known outside its native Ireland.

Even in its homeland, it’s a work more often respectfully acknowledged than read. With justice and a bit of luck, this brilliant and altogether engaging new translation by the Belfast poet Ciaran Carson should change all that. Indeed, Carson has performed an act of aesthetic recovery that, in every sense, deserves to be ranked with his old friend and colleague Seamus Heaney’s bestselling version of “Beowulf.”

In old Irish, “tain” literally means “a raid,” usually for cattle, though like any good Irish-language word, it has other meanings as well. The ancient epic by that name is often called “Tain Bo Cuailnge” (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), and it is, as Carson explains in his introduction, “the longest and most important tale in the Ulster Cycle, a group of some 80 interrelated stories which recount the exploits of the Ulaid, a prehistoric people of the north of Ireland, from whom the name of Ulster derives.”


It’s also a translator’s nightmare, since there is no single canonical text but fragmented and sometimes quite different versions, which survive in three medieval manuscripts. All appear to draw on 9th century transcriptions -- now lost -- of far, far older oral traditions. Indeed, two of the medieval manuscripts include accounts of how dead poets struggled to pull the tale from fading memory. One begins, “The poets of Ireland one day were gathered around . . . to see if they could recall the ‘Tain Bo Cuailnge’ in its entirety. But they all said they knew only parts of it.”

For that reason, as formidable a writer as Frank O'Connor called it “a simply appalling text . . . endlessly scribbled over.”

In Carson’s skilled and sympathetic hands, however, the version that emerges is compellingly coherent, while fully faithful to its strange, rich and ancient roots. Essentially, the story begins with a quarrel after sex: Ailill and his wife, Medb, the queen of Connacht, fall to fighting over which of them is richest. As it turns out, they’re evenly matched in all possessions but one. Ailill owns a great, magical bull, Finnbennach, the White-Horned. Medb vows to resolve the matter by securing the Brown Bull of Cooley from neighboring Ulster. When bribery doesn’t do the trick -- and Medb knows her way around a bribe -- she resolves to take the bull by force, gathers an army and invades her neighbor. The raid is timed to take advantage of the fact that the warriors of Ulster all are abed, suffering under a curse. Years before, they had abused a pregnant woman. She cursed them, so now they regularly suffer the pains of a woman in labor.

The only fighter to escape the curse is the superhuman teenage warrior Cu Chulainn, who is the tale’s hero. He engages the most formidable of the invaders in a series of bloody single combats, chariot fights and various feats of what might be called -- in a literary sense -- magic guerrillaism. Finally, Medb tricks Cu Chulainn’s best friend and foster brother, Fer Diad, into a final single combat. Cu Chulainn kills, then mourns him, and the men of Ulster finally arrive and defeat Ailill and Medb, who flee back to Connacht with the Brown Bull. The Brown Bull fights and kills the white-horned one and finally succumbs to its own wounds, but only after rampaging across Ireland with its dead foe impaled on its horns.

It’s all quite fantastic, but in Carson’s version never preposterous. In part, that’s because he’s such a skilled translator. Carson has done deft poetic justice to book-length works by Dante and the 18th century Irish poet Brian Merriman. This “Tain” also benefits from the fact that, among the formidable group of poets to emerge from Ulster over the last few decades, Carson has remained closest to the roots of that troubled province’s traditions. He is the author of two fine books on traditional music, and this translation is dedicated to a traditional Gaelic storyteller. Because he is a fine poet and -- in that Yeatsian sense -- “a rooted man,” Carson’s translation teases from “The Tain” several of the things that make it so remarkable:

First and foremost among them is the fact that -- unlike, say, the Iliad -- the characters in “The Tain” don’t stand as archetypes. They’re real people -- conflicted, complex, alternately admirable and reprehensible, capable of courtesy and deceit, generosity and cunning. Cu Chulainn is a superhero and a vain adolescent, a warrior sometimes thrust into mourning by his own skill. He, like other characters in this “Tain,” is also very funny. Here he stands by while his friend Cethern is treated for his wounds by a physician, Fingin:

“ ‘What’s the outlook for me, comrade Fingin?’ said Cethern.

“ ‘I won’t lie to you,’ said Fingin. ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t be counting on my cows to calve . . .’

“ ‘Your sentence is the same as all the others,’ said Cethern, and he dealt him such a blow with his fist that it sent him reeling across the shafts of the chariot and broke the chariot itself.

“ ‘That was a cruel kick to give an old man,’ said Cu Chulainn. . . . ‘You’d be better off battering your enemies and not your doctors.’ ”

Yet Cu Chulainn can mourn his dead foster brother in verse: “You dead, I bursting with life. / Courage has a brutal core.”

One of this translation’s particular strengths is Carson’s ability to render “The Tain’s” complex mixture of prose, poetry and what appear to be poetic asides (whose original purpose and compositional scheme are lost to us) into a compelling whole. Another is the way in which he captures the astonishing earthiness of this ancient epic. It begins with a quarrel in bed and, in the penultimate battle, Cu Chulainn comes on the helpless Medb, who has her period and has left the field to urinate. (He chivalrously spares her life.) For her part, Medb likes to sweeten her frequently proffered bribes by offering the recipient “the friendship of my thighs.”

Every translator who approaches “The Tain” works in the shadow of Thomas Kinsella’s magisterial 1969 version, and Carson modestly writes that he thinks of his own translation as a homage to that landmark in Irish literature. (Indeed, up until now it was the only version accessible to readers who aren’t scholars of the Irish language.) Kinsella’s “Tain” -- coming as it did in a bleak year of deepening civil strife -- stunned and heartened the Irish literary world with its austere grandeur. Today, no serious writer or reader of Irish literature is without a copy of the Kinsella version.

It’s this reader’s opinion that Carson’s translation surpasses Kinsella’s. It’s a view shared by Heaney and their fellow Ulsterman, Paul Muldoon. In a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement, both listed the Carson “Tain” as one of the year’s best books.