A number of writers, mostly poets it must be said, such as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, Cathal Ó Searcaigh and myself, have been given the opportunity of reading on the international circuit. Poets who meet up at such festivals as Struga in Macedonia, Vilenica in Slovenia or Kritya in India often strike up a working relationship with other poets, which can result in translating each other’s work. If English is the common denominator, well and good.
I have translated Kristiina Ehin into Irish without knowing Estonian, I have translated Nikola Madzirov into Irish without knowing Macedonian, and K. Satchidanandan without knowing Malalayam, but I can stand by my versions and I hope, in a very small way, that they add some little colour to the Irish-language literary scene. Only pathological purists fear cross-fertilization. I know many Irish-language writers who have never been invited to a literary festival abroad. We need to set things in motion!
An important scheme to help up and coming writers is a tutoring programme called Scéim na nOidí.What this means is that an aspiring writer can apprentice himself/herself to an established writer for a year.
A year is more than enough as one wouldn’t want a young voice to be muffled or over-influenced by a senior or more experienced writer, but the advantages of the scheme are obvious. The senior writer acts, in a way, like an editor, suggesting ways in which a manuscript might be improved or urging the apprentice to experiment with different approaches. It is a situation that must be handled delicately.
Success is not automatically ensured. But it’s something. There is also the long-running Writers in Schools scheme administered by Poetry Ireland/Éigse Éireann, which is open to writers in both languages.
Books in Irish are rarely seen in bookshop windows. Window space is frequently bought by London-based publishers and other big players and I don’t think we are going to stage or win any battles with them. We must rely on one or two small specialist bookshops and on electronic shopping from now on.
If this series of articles is short on facts, figures and statistics there is a reason: sales figures and market analysis are difficult if not impossible to obtain. I hope we’re not hiding anything too unpleasant to know.
To look no further than the literatures of the Celtic nations, clearly no discussion can be had on literature or literature in translation without taking a sober look at the state of the languages which is as follows according to Unesco’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger (December 2010):
Cymraeg/Welsh: Vulnerable (611,000)
Gaeilge/Irish: Definitely endangered (80,000 speakers)
Gàidhlig/Scottish: Definitely endangered (58,652 speakers)
Brezhoneg/Breton: Severely endangered (200,000 speakers)
Gaelg/Manx: Critically endangered (revitalised) (1,689 speakers)
Kernewek/Cornish: Critically endangered (revitalised) (2000 speakers)