On Reincarnation

The intention of the poet is spontaneous, primary, graphic; that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational.

Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator

The Irish Epic ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’ was first transcribed in the twelfth century by Aedh mac Crimthainn, a monk and scholar who recorded the cycle of stories known as the Book of Leinster and since then it has been translated many times over. In the essay component, I had the pleasure of examining Louis le Brocquy’s ink brush drawings on restoring a mythological quality of otherness to the narrative. In this digital component, I will highlight the unknowability essential to the translation.

The Irish Epic ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’ was first transcribed in the twelfth century by Aedh mac Crimthainn, a monk and scholar who recorded the cycle of stories known as the Book of Leinster and since then it has been translated many times over. In the essay component, I had the pleasure of examining how Louis le Brocquy’s ink brush drawings restore a mythological quality of otherness to the narrative. In this digital component, I will highlight the unknowability essential to the translation of text, and how Thomas Kinsella achieves it. Kinsella’s translation is an artistic practice that bolsters the artistic energy of the artefact, much like le Brocquy’s images.

Kinsella includes a translator’s note at the beginning of the 1969 Dolmen Press edition of The Tain that outlines concisely what he felt was missing from previous translations as well as what he hoped to achieve in his edition. In his introduction, Kinsella explained that his aim was “to produce passages of verse which more or less match the original for length, ambiguity and obscurity” (Kinsella xii). It is not intended as a “scholarly work” but as a “living version of the story, leaving as few obstacles between the original and the reader” (Kinsella vii). This directly echoes Walter Benjamin’s arguments in his treatise on translation, The Task of the Translator. Benjamin’s essay outlines the activities necessary to be a successful translator, according to his own understanding of the practice. He sees the ideal translator as searching for the “intended effectupon the language into which [they are] translating which produces in it the echo of the original” (Benjamin 76). He makes it clear that while a translation must be in dialogue with the intentions of the original, it must not be a plain retelling:

A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator (Benjamin 79).

Kinsella concurs with Benjamin’s explanation, stating that the intention of his edition is to leave “as few obstacles as possible between the original and the reader” in order “to give an idea of the simple force of the story at its best” (Kinsella vii & xi). He notes that the structure and tenses of sentences have been changed “without hesitation” as he is not bound to reproducing the “actual texture” of the original narrative (Kinsella xi). This coheres with Benjamin’s suggestions that syntax be dissolved and word choice be of primary concern. Kinsella explains that this edition is not a literal translation but “a close compromise with one” (Kinsella xi).

As well as this, Kinsella’s edition is “reinforced by its own medium” as he looks beyond the manifestations of previous translations and chooses to create a livre d’artiste. In his introduction to the text Kinsella deconstructs the impact previous editions have had on his translation. He notes that Lady Gregory’s translation captures “the best idea” of the original story, even though it is a paraphrase rather than a complete translation. Gregory “refin[ed] away the coarse elements and rationalis[ed] the monstrous and gigantesque”, which encouraged Kinsella to highlight them in his reincarnation of the story (Kinsella vii). Previous to the Dolmen Press publication, all that was available according to Kinsella were “romanticised, fairy tale, versified, dramatized, and bowdlerised” editions (Kinsella vii). The Dolmen Press edition was born out of the belief that there was a need for “a readable translation… tidied a little and completed from other sources” (Kinsella vii).


For what does a literary work “say”? What does it communicate? It “tells” very little to those who understand it. Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. (Benjamin 69)

Kinsella’s decision to reconsider original rhyming schemes in favour of visual symmetry in passages of verse confirm his preoccupation with the physical form of the narrative (Tymoczko 14). His edition does not preserve the Irish verse form, instead favouring “unrhymed stanzas with symmetrical line lengths, alliteration, and off-rhyme.” (Tymoczko 14). Prioritising the visual manifestation of the translation highlights Kinsella’s agreement with Benjamin. The communication occurring between reader and translator is much larger than an exchange of languages. The “essential quality” of the folkloric narrative cannot be captured through language alone. This meditation on form and the folkloric genre results in the authentic representation of a visceral, fantastical, emotional, and mythological Epic in a written and printed form. Kinsella, the so-called “master of form”, has created an artefact, along with le Brocquy and Miller, that critically considers the physical form that a translation of the ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’ can take (Tymoczko 14).

Earlier reincarnations of the story of ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’ were created with specific cultural and political intentions. The Cuchullin Saga in Irish Literature, an abridged collection of stories compiled by Eleanor Hull in 1898, was created to preserve the content of the story for future generations in order to “feed and stimulate the love of [Ireland’s] inhabitants”, as outlined in my essay component (Hull xii). Hull believes that the story of Cúchulainn does just that, seeking it be considered “pure literature”, as opposed to a source for Irish language linguistic studies (Hull xii). The second reincarnation of the narrative examined in the essay component is Lady Gregory’s adaptation commissioned by The Gaelic League, Cuchulain of Muirthemne. She outlines her editorial approach explicitly in her introduction:

It is what I have tried to do, to take the best of the stories, or whatever parts of each will fit best to one another, and in that way to give a fair account of Cúchulainn’s life and death. I left out a good deal I thought you would not care about for one reason or another (Gregory 5).

This edition focuses on the patriotic power of Irish storytelling traditions, and is edited in accordance with what Gregory, and The Gaelic League deemed useful. Benjamin posits that a translation cannot be successful if it is created with an audience in mind as it conceives of an “‘ideal’ receiver” (Benjamin 69). Translating purely for the sake of sharing information dismisses the “essential substance of a literary work” (Benjamin 69). The story of‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’ interacts in an interesting way with this idea as it comes from an oral storytelling tradition which expected an audience. This is in part how Kinsella, Miller and le Brocquy restore the original and mythological otherness of the narrative; through engagement with the oral storytelling tradition by considering the material substrate. This returns the story to the genre from which it arose: the Irish oral storytelling tradition.

Kinsella’s edition maintains the enigmatic nature that is essential to maintaining the otherness of representing an Epic; the visually inviting verse passages, the unregimented approach to representing exact translation, and so on. The reincarnations that have appeared across centuries make up a large part of what The Tain means in the Irish cultural conscious today. The widespread dissemination of the story became the most relevant factor in Hull and Gregory’s editions as they looked for the Irish public to acknowledge their own heritage. Kinsella’s edition took the want to present “a living version of the story” as its motivation and this is reflected in his translation practice (Kinsella vii). He understood that “the meaning and significance of a collection item, or its history, must always evade the curator to some extent” (Cameron & Robinson 171). This idea is bolstered by Benjamin’s outlines of an ideal translator as needing to represent that which is “essential” while evading exact language. Kinsella has preserved the text in a way that reintroduces creativity to the historic Epic, implicitly asking audiences to engage with the mythic and distinct qualities of the narrative.


Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. The Bodley Head London, 2015.

Gregory, Augusta, and William Butler Yeats. Cuchulain of Muirthemne: The Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster Arranged and Put into in English by Lady Gregory. with a Preface by W.B. Yeats. Edited by Daniel Murphy, Colin Smythe Ltd., 1979.

Hull, Eleanor. Cuchullin Saga in Irish Literature. David Nutt, 1898.

Kinsella, Thomas, and Louis le Brocquy. The Táin. Dolmen Press, 1969.

Cameron, Fiona and Helena Robinson. “Digital Knowledgescapes: Cultural, Theoretical, Prctical, and Usuage Issues Facing Museum Collection Databases in a Digital Epoch” “Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, The MIT Press, 2010, pp. 165– 191.

Redshaw, Thomas Dillon. “Making The Tain, 1951–70: Thomas Kinsella, Louis Le Brocquy, and Liam Miller.” New Hibernia Review, vol. 23, no. 1, 2019, pp. 86–105., doi:https://doi.org/10.1353/nhr.2019.0006.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. Vintage Books London, 2001.

Tymoczko, Maria. “Retranslating The Tain.” Irish Literary Supplement,
2009, pp. 13–15.