In about a month I’ll be starting my sabbatical with two weeks walking hills and visiting important pre-historic, Celtic, Roman, and medieval sites in Great Britain, starting with Melrose Abbey in Scotland, St. Cuthbert’s Way, Lindisfarne in England, Hadrian’s wall, Jedburgh, etc. As I visit these sites, I’ll be blogging and sharing pictures, continuing my self-study of Irish Gaelic (refreshing my learnings from my summer 2008 time at NUI Galway and adding to them in preparation for more study there this summer), and working on translations of the poetry in Úna ní Ógáin’s hymnal Dánta Dé idir sean agus nuadh (Hymns to God: Old and New).
I’ve been working on this for a couple of years and, let me tell you, translating old Gaelic verse into rhyming and metrical English is not easy! I usually end up with more something of my own authorship that is inspired by the original than a translation of the original. The process requires four foundational steps before anything like a singable text can even be considered:
First – the hymns in Dánta Dé are printed in old Gaelic script and in the older form of Irish Gaelic in which there are a lot of letters which have been dropped from the modern standard Irish. So my first task is simply transliterating the Gaelic script into the Latin alphabet. My old eyes aren’t what they once were, so I make frequent mistakes confusing, for example, the letter combination “id” for “ro” and similar errors.
Second – once I’ve gotten the old Gaelic transliterated is to figure out what form the word has taken in modern Irish; spellings in many cases have changed and although the changes follow a pattern, there are sometimes difficult choices to make.
Third – review ní Ógáin’s translation. Her translations are more prose or free verse than rhyming/metrical lyrics. They are fairly direct, but they are also informed by a deep early 20th Century Irish Roman Catholic spirituality so that adds a “flavor” that a more direct translation might not have.
Fourth – my own direct translation. This involves a lot of dictionary work and a lot of grammar review!
Then comes the work of recasting the ideas, images, and spirituality of the piece into singable lyrics….
And we haven’t even considered what to do with the music…..