“Faoiseamh a Gheobhadsa,” written in Irish by Máirtín Ó Direáin, is a poetic pathway to peace and security. Although it speaks of walking between the shore and the sea, the poem is about the solid sense of identity we find in places and people, in land and language. My Ojibwe translation, “Niwii-aabiziwinge,” echoes that sentiment. The song that inspired my Ojibwe translation was found on YouTube and then reposted on Instagram.
These digital platforms are more ephemeral than print but also more easily echo the oral traditions of centuries ago. They may evolve in cyberspace but they are also broadly accessible to young people reclaiming their heritage languages. The digital format allowed me to efficiently share an Ojibwe version of an Irish poem with an English translation that differs from all English translations before it because it echoed the Ojibwe interpretation of music and meaning. To be clear, the poem moved between two endangered languages first and then the version in the dominant language was created.
As Irish and Ojibwe speakers are working to protect and preserve their linguistic and cultural identity, acts of translation illustrate the importance of global cultural diversity. Ó Direáin was born in 1910 on Inis Mór on the western shore of the Aran Islands and spoke only Irish as a child, later learning English at school. By contrast, I grew up a half century later speaking only English as a child and now teach Ojibwe at school on the western shore of Lake Michigan, the southwestern part of the Great Lakes region in North America.
Although we write about places 3,000 miles apart, in both of our poems there is a clear dedication to vast water, stories of home and the way words can be woven into soothing yet powerful symbols of life’s challenges and the spirit’s resilience. Ó Direáin is known as one of Ireland’s beloved poets. Many young students learning to protect and preserve their identity by speaking Irish memorize his poems. Translating one of his poems forges a connection to similar work to preserve linguistic diversity in North America.
This particular translation is inspired by a version of Ó Direáin’s Irish poem set to music by Zoë Conway and John Mc Intyre. The music of Conway and Mc Intyre distills and amplifies the rhyme and meter of the poem and captures the way it can serve as both a map and a lullaby. To ensure the Ojibwe version could fit the same melody, the length of lines had to match and when possible, the patterns of sound had to be preserved without altering meaning.
For example, the second stanza contains four lines that list what a reader might wish to escape. These lines begin in Irish with “Ó,” which is “for,” followed by various states of mind. The same lines in Ojibwe begin with “booni-” which is a morpheme indicating loss or release of emotion. An Irish prepositional phrase transformed into a single Ojibwe compound verb may not seem to be equal but it was possible this way to preserve the pattern established in Irish so that the song can be sung in Ojibwe.
In some instances, a bit of meaning was added. For example, the line, “Ó Luan go Satharn” is literally, “from Monday to Saturday.” However, “Saturday” in Ojibwe is “Giziibiigisaganigewigiizhigad” which would not fit the song or accurately reflect the length of lines in Irish. Because the same part of a week can also be described as all the days but Sunday, or Prayer Day, the line became “Gaawiin ge-anama’aasiiyaan” which is “When I am not praying.” These differences are part of the puzzle, part of the ongoing game of translation where we are reminded of the many ways human minds express meaning through sound.
The English translation is a reminder of linguistic colonization. English now surrounds both Irish and Ojibwe, but in my translation is not the primary vehicle for interpretation. Providing an English version of the poem ensures it can be read by Ojibwe speakers who may not know Irish and Irish speakers who may not know Ojibwe. It also reflects that this is a poem primarily concerned with the connection between Irish and Ojibwe which is a decolonial act of reclamation. Careful readers of the original will notice that the final English line defers to the Ojibwe interpretation and focuses on the sound and length of each line rather than a precisely equal replication of meaning. A reader seeking solace for “bhuairt aigne,” a troubled mind becomes one who has “boonibabaamendamaan.” A mind not wandering and being free from “chaint ghontach,” hurtful talk, is expressed as “booniwanaanimiziyaan,” being able to live without confusion.
The verb “translate” in Ojibwe is “aanikanootan” which begins with the same stem as “aanikoobidoon,” to be connected and “aanikoobijigan,” the word for ancestor. In our world where simple binary comparisons rarely reflect reality and there are multiple ways of knowing it is important that we know our ancestors and our ancestral languages. Yet it is equally important that we listen to the ancestors of others because some sentiments are universal. As Irish teacher and scholar Bairbre Ní Chiardha explains of Faoiseamh a Gheobhadsa, it speaks of “thiar ag baile,” being “in the west and at home” and allows us to believe “when we are home we are in a place where all the worries of the world evaporate.” These are the reasons we translate.