An eighteenth-century Irish lament, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, and its translation by Ní Ghríofa, are central to the premise of the book. “This is a female text,” Ní Ghríofa pronounces in the opening chapter, “which is also a caoineadh; a dirge and a drudge-song, an anthem of praise, a chant and a keen, a lament and an echo.” The caoineadh provides the necessary architecture for Ní Ghríofa’s joyfully wayward prose and thoughts to unfurl, alternating between translation, memoir, poetry, auto-fiction, and fabulation. Each of the book’s seventeen chapters begin with a phrase from the translated caoineadh, as does the epilogue, which speaks to the strained history of female voices in literature: “Dá dtéadh mo ghlao chun cinn / Go Doire Fhíonáin mór laistiar”: “Should my howl reach as far / as grand Derrynane.” The entirety of Ní Ghríofa’s translation of the caoineadh is also provided at the book’s conclusion, suggesting one crucial end to which the work strives. The vulnerable and impassioned prose displays Ní Ghríofa’s qualities as a bilingual poet of several critically acclaimed collections of poetry. This includes her first two collections, Résheoid and Dúlasair, published in the Irish language in 2011 and 2012 respectively by Coiscéim, and her most recent collection in English, To Star the Dark (Dedalus Press, 2021).
As a translation memoir, A Ghost in the Throat is a radically honest account of the embodied process of translation and how a translated work is intertwined with the lived experiences of its translator. In Ní Ghríofa’s case, she draws parallels between the work of reading and translating the caoinead with her experience of pregnancy, postpartum motherhood, and the performance of domestic labor. Pumping breast milk, and its repetitive, often-tedious nature, and burden on women’s bodies, becomes a central activity alongside her reading of the caoinead: “my weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text, weeks that soon pour into months, and then into years.” She also uses analogous descriptions of homemaking for her work of translation:
In every translated line of this verse, I feel that I am mimicking the homemaking actions of centuries before, stuffing quilts with duck-feathers, painting walls and kneading dough. For months I work methodically, deliberating between synonyms, stitching and re-stitching the seams of curtains until they fall just so, letting my eye move back and forth between verbs, straightening the rugs, and polishing each linguistic ornament.
Her presentation of translation as a particular kind of domestic and female labor instills the work with an understanding of the physicality of working with words and a life of engagement with literature; it is not solely an intellectual activity, but one that takes place in tangible spaces between bodies that exist in certain economic, political, and aesthetic hierarchies. This approach also enables Ní Ghríofa to engage with several aspects of literary translation that have troubled translators: the substantial, sometimes unrecognized, labor involved in such work; the economic precarity faced by translators (“the walls of our rented bedroom are decorated not with pastel murals, but with a constellation of black mould”); and notion of authority and mastery in translation (“I know how unqualified I am to attempt my own translation,” she notes; “I hold no doctorate, no professorship, no permission-slip at all—I am merely a woman who loves this poem”). Admittedly, A Ghost in the Throat spends comparatively brief time discussing the minutiae of translation and the process of word selection involved in translation. It would have been interesting to understand further how Ní Ghríofa considers previous versions of the translation lacking.
Ní Ghríofa’s wholehearted approach to translating the caoinead and researching Ní Chonaill’s family history, in the face of historical erasure, also recalls Madhu H. Kaza’s notion of translation as hospitality. In Kaza’s editorial note to the Kitchen Table Translation issue of the Aster(ix) Journal in 2017, she argues that “translation can be a practice of hospitality that acknowledges that the host, too, will have to be changed by the encounter. We may unravel and have to remake ourselves with others.” Ní Ghríofa’s gesture of hospitality toward the caoinead and its author seems particularly compelling; she makes it the organizing principle of her life (“I could donate my days to finding hers,” she tells herself; “I could do that, and I will.”) and she lovingly imagines Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s past when met with archival silence:
Today, I hold my cup and imagine her belongings into being. I give her a large, sturdy chest with a clasp of polished brass. Within, the ordinary treasures of a life: a locket, a favourite cup wrapped in a blanket, a shell, a quill, a diary, nightdresses and gowns, a looking-glass, a heavy winter cloak, table linens, a necklace, and a clutch of letters neatly ribboned together. I will never touch the belongings I conjure for her, and yet, each one feels right to me as I imagine lifting them to the light and then placing them back in her chest, one by one.
It reads partially as a list poem, this act of intimate looking and reconstruction. It is resonant of the singular work of Saidiya Hartman and the concept of critical fabulation, expounded in her essay “Venus in Two Acts.” In that essay, Hartman focuses on the figure of Venus in discussions and the archive of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and critical fabulation is proposed as a methodology that seeks “to displace the received or authorized account, and to imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done.” Although Ní Ghríofa’s critical fabulation is addressed toward a noblewoman with a name and traceable history, and thus the historical silence is different from those Hartman is filling, A Ghost in the Throat recalls that powerful creative approach to remembering and writing between women.
The most profound aesthetic achievement in A Ghost in the Throat is Ní Ghríofa’s treatment of time, “the ricochet of thought that swoops, now from my body to yours,” to establish intimate connection with both the reader and the figure of Ní Chonaill. “When we first met, I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries,” she says at the start of the memoir and “I am determined,” she says, toward its conclusion, “to rewrite the air here until it sings the songs of long ago; I want it rewound and purring with bees.” A Ghost in the Throat makes visible the particular relationship to temporality that translation and word-work holds and how translators have to deal with words that may have been written centuries ago. In this way, translators navigate chasms in historical time to find connection and meaning, as well as different understandings of time and tense in language. Ní Ghríofa cites the work of the modernist poet Mina Loy in the epilogue of To Star the Dark, which was written alongside A Ghost in the Throat: “The past has come apart / events are vagueing.” In Ni Ghríofa’s work and translation, the “vagueing” can refer to the silences and mystery of translation and acceptance of the untranslatability of the poem. She judges her translation at the end as “a failure—an inevitable failure, but a failure.” Yet she recalls the reverence of the work and finds something sacred:
. . . my favourite 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, onwards to breathe elsewhere.
Without Ní Ghríofa’s commitment to the caoineadh, the life of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, and to producing her own translation, this exhilarating work would not exist. Her life would also, arguably, have looked very different, perhaps without the same color, richness, and breadth. That is the unreal power of literature and translation, Ní Ghríofa argues in this radiant memoir: to form connections and relationships through time and space and blood and milk and labor, and to form a life of meaning through the pursuit of words and their translation.
A Ghost In the Throat. By Doireann Ní Ghríofa. Ireland: Tramp Press, 2020. 202 pp.