Alex's Reviews > The Tain

The Tain by Anonymous
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Jan 06, 2016

liked it
bookshelves: 2010, ireland, reading-through-history, rth-lifetime
Read in December, 2010

The Tain, sortof a bizarro Irish epic - like all the other Irish epics - was one of my favorite works in college. The definitive translation is by Kinsella (1969), but there's this newish one by Ciaran Carson (2007), which I've finally gotten around to judging.

Here's the spoiler-free gist of the Tain: the Irish king Ailill and his wife Medb argue in bed over who's richer, and on the spot they insist on having every item they each own brought to them so they can tally it up - herds and all. They find that Ailill is up by an enormous bull, the equal of which can only be found in Ulster.

Here's the rest of the plot, with some (view spoiler)

It's a terrific, bizarre, filthy story, and I haven't even mentioned that Cu Chulainn is basically the Hulk, prone to fits of rage where his body contorts into shapes that take whole pages to describe. I love the thing.

Carson's translation is fine. It modernizes the language, with the usual pros and cons of modernizations: it flows quickly and naturally, but every once in a while you get a line like "Two hearts that beat as one," and if Stacey Q references don't throw you right out of a thousand-year-old epic poem, I don't know what will. He also makes the grave mistake of trying to approach the rhyme of the original's occasional poetry breaks, despite having no rhyme skills whatsoever; witness this disgrace:

You've walked into the gap,
You're in the danger zone.
Sharp weapons will pierce you
and cleave flesh and bone.
This hero will take you
to another place
where you will find nothing
but death and disgrace. (p. 139)

Those are some shitty rhymes, man. (And, yes, another 80's music reference.) Compare Kinsella's version, in which he more or less throws his hands up at rhyme:

You have reached your doom,
your hour is come.
My sword will slash,
and not softly.
When we meet you will fall
at a hero's hands.
Never again
will you lead men. (p. 184)

Neither is terrific poetry, but Kinsella's is at least not distractingly awful.

Kinsella sporadically uses slant rhyme, which is a much better decision. And can you feel how numbingly rhythmic Carson's lines are? Like Run DMC at their worst, right? Whereas Kinsella breaks his metre up violently, which helps it feel a little less like a poem written by a sixth-grader. Carson is more faithful to the original; but metres that work in one language don't always work in another, and he should've admitted that in English, this sort of two-stress line sounds like nursery.

That's one sort of poem that recurs occasionally throughout the Tain. The other is called rosc, and it's entirely weirder. Sortof a show-off / ambiguous prophecy / flyting combination, it's purposefully obscure and pretty much impossible to deal with. Here's a comparison of the two translations, in a passage where Ailill says he doesn't really care that his wife slept with Fergus for no reason other than she's generally a trick:

I know the game well
likewise queens and women true what they say
the first fault theirs their sweet companionable wrath
Finnabair's fair shield valorous Fergus (p. 62)

I know all
about queens and women
I lay first fault
straight at women's
own sweet swellings
and loving lust
valorous Fergus (p. 105)

I chose these two passages at random. In general, both have moments of passable aesthetic value; Kinsella is generally more clear in his meaning, although that also means he's taking more liberty with the exact translation.

Overall, Carson's translation is serviceable, except for his crap poetry, and reads fast; I'm not too down on it, but Kinsella is still the king.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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David Kinsella may win on points, but Carson's translation of "The Inferno" is a thing of beauty.

Alex Belatedly, David: I will check out Carson's Inferno. I read Pinsky's translation and didn't get it; I know part of the problem is the many political references, which I'll never get no matter how many footnotes I read, but I'm holding onto hope that a different translation will make me appreciate that seminal work at least half as much as I'd like to.

I've heard good stuff about Mike Musa's translation, and I read and liked his Decameron, but I'll check Carson too when I revisit it.

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