Posts Tagged ‘Fionn mac Cumhaill’

How many times I have heard that a translation is no substitute for the original? Countless. This is a trite remark that is obviously wrong. It’s just a piece of folk wisdom that is just untrue. It’s amazing how many people fall into this trap.

People who say that translations are no substitute for the original imply that they have the means to recognize and appreciate the source text as opposed to its translation. Without this ability they wouldn’t be able to make this claim. If you are unable to tell a Chianti from a Merlot then you can’t possibly compare them. In the same way, the ability to discriminate between a translation and its original implies that you master both languages, the source and the target. How many people have this set of skills? Not too many…

Then the question is: is the average reader able to tell if they are reading a translation? If the translation was made by a professional, absolutely not. As a matter of fact, countless writers in the past have devised originals as translations and vice versa.

For example, in 1761 a minor Scottish poet called James Macpherson claimed to have discovered and translated from the Gaelic an epic on the subject of Fingal, related to the Irish mythological character Fionn mac Cumhaill (Anglicized to Finn McCool) written by Ossian.

The following year the Scottish poet published, to great acclaim, “Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books”.

For many decades, this poem was considered to give precious insight into the ancient culture of the original inhabitants of Ireland. Eminent figures such as the great Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson and also well learned ones like the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried von Herder were fascinated by the poetry of Ossian, the “Gaelic Bard”. He was soon proclaimed as the Celtic equivalent of classical writers such as Homer. Many writers were influenced by these works, including one of my all-time favorites: Sir Walter Scott.

But they were all wrong! The story of Ossian hadn’t been invented by Celtic poets at all. It was written directly in English by James Macpherson himlf!

Authors may have different valid reasons for disguising an original work as a translation and vice versa. Sometimes it’s done to get through censorship or to serve individual or collective fantasies about national of linguistic authenticity. What all such deceptions tell us is that by reading alone it’s simply impossible to tell if a work was originally written in that language.

Francesco Pugliano

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