Answer by Olaf Almqvist
Irish translations of Latin literature begin as early as the 10th century when versions of Virgil’s Aeneid, Lucan’s Pharsallia, and more eclectic texts such as The Destruction of Troy were playfully and often quite freely adapted into the Irish language. Despite this early start, it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries and a very different literary and cultural climate that Irish editions of classical Greek literature appear. Far from the land of saints and scholars, translations of authors like Sophocles, Homer, and Plutarch were initiated as a small part of the Irish language revival, a movement beginning in the 19th century attempting to preserve an Irish culture and language stunted by centuries of British colonial rule. It is somewhat ironic in this respect that the task of translating Herodotus fell to an Englishman, George Derwent Thomson (1903-1987).
George Thomson or Seoirse Mac Tomáis to use the Gaelicised version of his name was born in London to an English father and Irish mother. Although Thomson is chiefly remembered as a Classicist and avid Marxist, the Irish language occupied no small part of his literary output and education. Indeed, his love of Irish coincided with his learning of Greek when a thirteen-year-old Thomson attended Irish lessons at the Gaelic League in London. This enthusiasm never dimmed and at the age of twenty, Thomson first set foot on the remote and often romanticised Blasket Islands off the coast of County Kerry. Thomson later noted that listening to the speech of the islanders was ‘as though Homer had come alive. Its vitality was inexhaustible, yet it was rhythmical, alliterative, formal, artificial, always on the point of bursting into poetry’ (1949: 540).
Thomson’s contribution to the Irish language was as formidable as it was diverse. Alongside encouraging and editing Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s classic autobiographical work Fiche Bliain ag Fás (Twenty Years a Growing), Thomson lectured in the Irish language at University College, Galway (1931-34), and translated a wide range of Greek works including editions of Plato’s early dialogues, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, and a now lost translation of the Odyssey which, the story goes, was last seen in the hands of a local schoolteacher. While Thomson never attempted to translate the entire Histories, under the Gaelicised version of his mother’s maiden name, Mac Laghmainn, he tackled a selection of Herodotean stories. These tales appeared in a bi-monthly column of the newspaper An Phoblact (The Republican) and include the story of Gyges and Candaules, Arion and the Dolphin, and Adrastus and the Boar.
Although we might pine for more, what Thomson offers is a rare gem – a Blasket inspired Herodotus ‘always on the point of bursting into poetry’. For example, where Herodotus describes Candaules’ wife through the three-word phrase ‘πασέων γυναικῶν καλλίστην’ (the most beautiful of all women), Thomson offers the more ornate and considerably longer ‘an bhean is fearr dealbh agus déanamh de mhná na cruinne go hiomlán.’ Literally this translates as ‘the woman fairest in features and form of all the women in the whole world’. Despite the considerable poetic licence taken by the translator in this instance, Thomson’s Herodotus never feels forced. Rather Thomson accentuates Herodotus’ charm as a master storyteller – a reminder perhaps, that though Thomson may offer the first and to this date only Irish translation of the Histories, the Herodotean spirit has always been very much alive in the Irish language.
- Alexiou, M. 2000. ‘George Thomson: The Greek Dimension’, in ed. Máire Ní Chéilleachair, Ceiliúradh an Bhlascaoid 4 Seoirse Mac Tomáis 1903 – 1987. Coiscéim.
- Ó Lúing, S. 1996. ‘George Thomson’, Classics Ireland 3: 141-162.
- Thomson, G. 1949. Studies in Ancient Greek Society I: the Prehistoric Aegean. Lawrence and Wishart.