Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s Ghostly Poetics of Female Translation
by Elizabeth McNeill
If a woman howls over her murdered husband, and none but the dead hear her, does she make a sound?
If, miraculously, her lament reaches across the centuries, carried in the throats of other women, is it still her voice?
If a ghostly echo is all that remains, who speaks?
Listening to echoes, summoning life out of death: In Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, the Irish poet illuminates the women whose shadows haunt the text that she, too, haunts. Nestled in the silence of school pickups, breastmilk pumps, and nocturnal feeds, Ní Ghríofa reads and re-reads Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire [Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire], widely praised as the greatest poem of 18th-century Ireland. Eibhlín Dubh’s words hold Ní Ghríofa steady as small children consume her hours, herself. Attached to a breast pump, she utters Eibhlín Dubh’s keen for her murdered husband, “inviting the voice of another woman to haunt [her] throat a while” (12). By giving living voice to Eibhlín Dubh’s grief, Ní Ghríofa calls the dead woman to rise. She awaits the breath which once lusted after her husband and cursed his murderer. She listens for the voice which, having passed through the mouths of other women in the Irish folklore tradition, now joins her own.
A double memoir of motherhood, desire, and possession, A Ghost in the Throat is an echo of one caoineadh to form another caoineadh. It is also a translation of 250 years of female voices crying the same lament, voices which have had to exist in the blank spaces between male ink. “Remember this lesson,” writes Ní Ghríofa, “in every page there are undrawn women, each waiting in her own particular silence” (78). Let’s listen.
This translation begins, as all things do, with love: Eibhlín Dubh catching sight of the swaggering Art Ó Laoghaire in the marketplace, a teenage Ní Ghríofa reading Eibhlín Dubh’s caoineadh in school. While Eibhlín Dubh expresses her desire for Art by eloping with him, a longing Ní Ghríofa reads beyond the text passed down to her, imagining this moment as Eibhlín Dubh jumping onto Art’s mare, her hair cascading behind them. Off they ride, death quietly trailing. Yes, both loves are linked by Art’s death, a stabbing at the hands of enemies. And the grief of Eibhlín Dubh, drinking handfuls of his blood as she carries a child who will never breathe. Drawn to the tragic romanticism of the text which survived both husband and wife, an older Ní Ghríofa rediscovers the caoineadh while carrying her own ill-fated pregnancy. She becomes obsessed, reading as she pumps breastmilk for her babies and others’, reading as she wakes in the night to a child’s cry. All too quickly, she realizes that the poet’s life has been lost to history: how little attention has been given to the woman who uttered the most famous caoineadh; how much attention to her male relatives. Unsatisfied with the scholarly renderings of Eibhlín Dubh as wife, widower, mother, and aunt, Ní Ghríofa—in love with a poem—decides to honor this unwritten life by donating her own. She decides to translate Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire into English.
Much as a translator moves between languages in trying to capture effusive meanings, it is both here, in the text, and not here, in the spaces between ink, that she searches for echoes of Eibhlín Dubh’s voice. Composed extempore at her husband’s wake and burial, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire moves through traditional themes of praise, memory, and revenge to mourn the life love built. Their children’s wails will not summon their father but, harmonized by the neighborhood mill-women’s weeping, the widow bids him return. “O my belovèd, steadfast!” calls Eibhlín Dubh in Ní Ghríofa’s translation, which follows A Ghost in the Throat, “Rise up now, do, stand, come home with me, hand in hand” (293). A caoineadh is not simply grief’s release from the animal body. It is folklore, passed from female mouth to female ear and, eventually, mouth to hand to page. A caoineadh is translation before text, one situated in the female body’s power to make meaning and inject originality into repetition. And we, readers of Ní Ghríofa’s translation, join in that old wake as we stand by her and hold her hand. Our breath merges with the women who cried out this caoineadh as Eibhlín Dubh grieved, and long after her children grieved her. Not for Art Ó Laoghaire do we mourn. We mourn for Eibhlín Dubh: the ghost in Ní Ghríofa’s throat, the ghost in our own.
Can translation—conceived of as a ghost haunting one body after another—breathe for the dead? Can translation reveal the dead still breathing, how our breath is made of theirs? For Ní Ghríofa, no breath is singular. Breath is embodied voice, a sign of life which the translator resuscitates for as long as she can, despite knowing she must suspend that breath for it to become text. This is the origin of A Ghost in the Throat, a 282-page record of listening to the breath she hears while translating Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. “No,” writes Ní Ghríofa of her process, “my favorite element hovers beyond the text, in the untranslatable pale space between stanzas, where I sense a female breath lingering on the stairs, still present, somehow, long after the body has hurried onwards to breathe elsewhere” (42). With so many female voices joining Eibhlín Dubh’s in her caoineadh, she is here as not-here, she breathes in the breath she gives to others. The present cradles the past, Ní Ghríofa continually reminds us. And we, the living, hold the dead within us.
With this ghostly poetics emerging from her translation of the caoineadh, Ní Ghríofa concludes her efforts, frustrated that the timbre of Eibhlín Dubh’s voice has eluded her, and she begins to translate the poet’s life by shining a light on the ways our “now” is suffused with her “then.” A Ghost in the Throat is the result of this translation of the past into the present, of deletions into doublings. Eibhlín Dubh’s letters no longer exist, nor does her tombstone. After eloping with Art, she is seldom mentioned in her relatives’ letters. And so, reasons Ní Ghríofa, another method must find her in this archival dark. Comparing herself to a mother bat “guided by the echoes that answer her voice” (21), Ní Ghríofa devises a system of echolocation situating Eibhlín Dubh amongst those with whom she shared her life. In so doing, Ní Ghríofa finds herself tied to Eibhlín Dubh, and to all women, in distinctly female lineages: in breastmilk, in oral storytelling, in inherited china, in the arrangement of rooms, in the DNA passed down through mothers and found in our hair. 18th-century women’s letters may not have been thought worth preserving, yet echoes of their voices remain. These echoes are ephemeral—repetitive calls to another whose meaning lies in the ways time and space shape each call—but they, too, are real. Echoes are everywhere, echoes are life. Are not placentas echoes of births, shadows echoes of forms, lies echoes of truths, and crossed-off words echoes of the words themselves and the hand holding the pen? In deletion, Ní Ghríofa finds proliferation. Calling out Eibhlín Dubh’s name in the historical dark, she hears a chorus of female voices respond.
As Ní Ghríofa bends over microfilm and visits the meadows and houses Eibhlín Dubh once inhabited, the two women come to haunt each other. If Ní Ghríofa’s translation at the end of the book fuses her voice with Eibhlín Dubh’s, A Ghost in the Throat—her translator’s introduction—fuses their breath. Might this deeply empathetic, even self-obliterating method of translating be a way to birth the silent women of history from the page, wonders Ní Ghríofa? What do possession and translation and childbirth have in common, if not erasure’s generativity? If we allow another voice to haunt our throats, can its ghostly calls transform absence into presence laden with multiple meanings? This haunting of a mother’s body through poetry is A Ghost in the Throat’s central image, suggesting a poetics of translation identifying deletion as an opportunity for doubling. For Ní Ghríofa, translation is not the production of a second text from an original text, as if a daughter were a carbon copy of her mother. Translation is the reproduction of multiple meanings in the absence of an original text, just as a daughter is both a duplicate of her mother’s DNA and a life with infinite possibilities. One plus one is two and more than two. Translation here is rooted in the female body, a storytelling space which existed long before texts became texts and translations became translations. We hear howls and labor pains. We hear the whispers of female folklore, of illiterate women bearing narratives across generations. We hear echoes: not the women’s voices themselves, but their refractions in time and space. “We cannot know from whose mouths the echoes of our lives will chime,” notes Ní Ghríofa (191).
Connected by breath, we speak.
Connected by echoes, we listen.
Elizabeth McNeill is a writer and literary translator completing her Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. From her perch in upstate New York, she writes about female creativity, motherhood, and ghosts in contemporary literature. She is currently translating Carmen Stephan’s Mal Aria, narrated by a repentant mosquito who has infected her human victim with malaria. When not learning Irish or French, she’s busy doing her cat’s bidding.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, March 22, 2022