Ian McMillan: Ode to joi

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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At school we were doing French one afternoon (après-midi, if you will) and the teacher, a bright-eyed lad newly out of college, asked us to tell the rest of the class, in French, what we’d been up to over the weekend. One girl, perhaps trying to show how grown up she was, said that she had spent the evening “dans les bras du Jardinier”. She’d intended to show off about the fact that she’d had a couple of lager-and-blackcurrants in the Gardener’s Arms but what she actually told us contained a more DH Lawrence-ish scenario about being in the arms of the gardener.

Ah, translation, that trap for the unwary, that minefield of misunderstanding, that fringe festival of nuance and ambiguity! I love reading poetry in translation, particularly those dual-language volumes that have the original language on one side and the English version on the other, so that the reader can try to tease out the meaning from one tongue to the next as they go along.

I gaze at the unfamiliar words and I find my brain just bounces off them like a ball from the wall of a squash court.

I can understand a little French and a bit of Spanish, and that’s both a help and a hindrance when I’m reading translated work, partly because I arrogantly think I can do better myself, so I end up scrawling all over the book, writing lines between the two poems, connecting them, disagreeing with the translator but in the end, usually, admitting they were right all along.

I’ve just been reading a fantastic book of poetry in Scots Gaelic and English by the poet Peter Mackay (or Padraig MacAoidh in the Gaelic) and because I can’t, despite my Scots ancestry, speak any Gaelic, I gaze at the unfamiliar words and I find my brain just bounces off them like a ball from the wall of a squash court.

Here’s just a couple of lines in Mackay’s Gaelic from a poem about a nightscape in a busy town: “Tha na dorsan a dunadh sna buithtean anmoch/luchd-dion ma shagartan aig na glasan” and, in the English, “The doors are closing in the late town/security guards like priests at the locks”. I love the idea of the security guards being like priests, and I really like the rhythm of the English and those lines in Gaelic, unfathomable as they are, seem beautiful and mysterious. I tried reading them aloud to myself in my Barnsley accent but that didn’t sound right. The poem made me want to learn Gaelic and try to make my own way through the thicket of the images and the ideas in the poem.

And maybe that’s the attraction for me of reading translated work; it can be like, as the man said, eating chips with gloves on, but it can also be a fantastic half-open door (porte, if you will) that just needs a gentle push into a complex and interconnected world, which is something I think I need right now.

Galore by Peter Mackay published by Accair Books.

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