After the Second World War, with the establishment of the monthly magazine Comhar and the publishing house Sairséal & Dill, new writers came to the fore in poetry and prose, and there are now more books in print than ever before. Long isolated from the rest of the world and with an unacceptable degree of poverty and emigration, Ireland opened up in the 1960s and a youth culture began to assert itself. This was also an era of civil rights in many places around the world and that movement would be echoed in Ireland, North and South, eventually spilling over into linguistic and cultural rights for Irish speakers who by now were very much a small minority of the total population of the island.
Meanwhile, there was the challenge of establishing an official written standard, one that could be employed by journalists and communicators, as well as educators, and the task of creating new terminology to meet modern needs. This was accomplished, more or less, and every so often we hear of plans to simplify the grammar. There are many websites available which offer sophisticated services to the writer and translator, Irish spellcheckers, downloadable dictionaries, word banks, a thesaurus, a gazetteer of place names and so on. There are rich archives of texts and sounds available for those who are on a quest.
Today, Irish is a core school subject. To matriculate, you need to pass Irish in the Leaving Certificate. This important status is frequently debated however and the situation could easily change in the future. The battle might have to be fought all over again. If Irish were to lose its status as a core subject in schools and if the Gaeltacht areas were to decline any further, the situation would become increasingly artificial and the chances of having a real, vibrant, evolving literature in the future, with a readership to sustain it, would grow dim. But if we can be optimistic for a moment, we have survived well enough thus far in spite of historical vicissitudes.
It seems to me that an opportunity was lost by not developing an Irish-language subtitle culture in the field of films. Perhaps it’s not too late to attempt to set this up. Film is the most popular art form today. Subtitling would have contributed to a reading culture and would have helped to lessen the barriers between the three major dialects and, indeed, made standard forms more acceptable. As things stand, there is still a marked preference for reading material in one’s chosen dialect.
What is the average print run of a book of prose and poetry today? Probably 500, though recent fiction with a populist detective slant could easily risk a print run of 2,000. The quality of Irish-language writing is generally high and it’s unquestionable that there are a handful of geniuses, no less, whose work should be known around the world. But who is going to invite these writers to festivals abroad when there is such a dearth of translation – even a dearth of information! In this internet age there is no excuse whatsoever for a dearth of information.
Culture Ireland/ Cultúr Éireann was set up to assist Irish artists to promote their work abroad and is open to artists, whatever their language or medium. It has helped the staging of high-profile events abroad. Of course, Irish-language writers don’t have literary agents to arrange international readings, tours, lectures, interviews and signings for them. An agent depends on a percentage for his or her promotional and contractual work on behalf of the client, and Irish-language writers don’t earn enough to warrant the use of an agent. Most of them operate on a loss! But should there not be an agency, nonetheless, to cater, say, for European writers in minority languages? I don’t see why not. Writers create a national literature, translators create world literature, as José Saramago once said.
Take a great Albanian novelist such as Ismail Kadare. His work has appeared in over 30 languages. His novels appear in English, as far as I understand, as secondary translations, that is to say they are translated from the French. An agency such as the one I propose could commission translations from Irish into English and the English can then serve as the text to be further translated into French, Albanian and so on. There is nothing wrong with this process. Why wait until we have someone who is perfectly fluent, let us say, in Irish and Albanian?
There are a number of Irish-language publishing houses, notably Cló Iar-Chonnacht, which recently took over two other older imprints and their back lists, namely Sairséal Ó Marcaigh with a strong literary list and An Clóchomhar, best known for academic research. Coiscéim seems to be able to produce a book a week! Other publishers such as An Gúm and O’Brien Press specialise in educational material and leisure reading for the young. Futa Fata, Cló Mhaigh Eo, An tSnathaid Mhór and Móinín have produced attractive books for young people, including graphic novels. CDs often accompany picture books for children. And there are books for adult learners as well, with restricted vocabulary and simplified style. The very able publisher Cois Life maintains a website which features pen-pictures of their own writers and an array of others. (This bilingual website should be consulted to find out more information on dozens of contemporary Irish-language writers: http://coislife.ie)
Speaking of websites: the internet age means easy access to everything by everybody. Has this changed what publishers expect from writers, what readers expect from writers, what writers expect from themselves? One writer who refuses to compromise is Pádraig Ó Cíobháin. He is fond of quoting this section from an essay by Calvino: “Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function …”
That certainly gives us something to think about. There’s lots to think about if we bother to think at all. There is the problem of reviewing, for instance. First of all, everybody knows everybody else in the Irish-speaking world and this means that rapiers are seldom drawn. My essay An Nuafhilíocht ar Strae, published in Gaelscéal, caused a furore. But it was necessary to shake us out of critical complacency. Secondly, only a tiny proportion of Irish-language books ever get a mention in mainstream English-language media, and even Irish-language radio and television have over the years been loath to deal with books. They are driven by market forces and a public service remit doesn’t extend as far as covering new titles in Irish. And now is hardly the time to suggest some kind of sponsorship, as the Republic now owes her body and soul to the International Monetary Fund.
The business of literary translation is a very hit and miss affair. It often boils down to the whim or fancy of an individual translator or his or her personal contacts. Rarely are translations actually commissioned, as is the norm among dozens and dozens of European publishing houses. Until such time as we have a handful of literary translators whose full time job is to translate into and out of Irish, the situation is unlikely to improve.
An online Irish-language bookseller (www.litriocht.com) has remarked that most of its orders are for books of a local nature rather than works of literature – and certainly not international works of literature in translation. Surely this must reflect badly on the way languages and their literatures are taught in our schools and third-level institutions? Does it suggest that students are cramming so much that the thought of a book causes their stomach to churn? What a tragedy!
The cult of the local has also meant that until recently it would have been something of an anomaly to see an Irish-language title dealing with global issues. The distribution of Irish-language books is an area that has suffered from lack of funding, lack of vision and lack of staff for decades. The state-sponsored distributor, ÁIS, has been in serious decline for decades.
I would like to see more book clubs springing up around the country. One of the difficulties with this idea, and one that immediately comes to mind, is that in all likelihood people who might be interested in a book club, getting together in each other’s homes or in libraries, might conceivably have different levels of Irish or different dialectical preferences. (This would not be the case in most Gaeltacht areas). Do we need more bilingual books with parallel text to solve this problem so that a reader unsure of a phrase or a word could easily glance at the opposite page?
So-called minority literatures should not face their challenges alone. The raising of universal consciousness on the issue of writing in smaller languages must be a strategy shared, worked out and executed among all the relevant players. Just as biodiversity is vital for the future of the living environment and ourselves, so too the health of minority literatures affects us all.
Any good news? Inspired by the Booker antics across the water and Ireland’s IMPAC awards, there is now an Irish-language Book of the Year event and shortlisted books receive more publicity than usual, but the follow up to the optics is weak.