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In this presentation, I will explore the literary and cultural importance of Peig’s autobiographies by looking at them through the lens of translation from an imperialist perspective.
The first time I heard of Peig Sayers was from my mother, who, for every year of my secondary school would inquiringly ask me whether I was studying Peigs Sayers. Being a typical Leaving Cert student my mother could not recall anything in the slightest about Peig except that it was a deeply boring and depressing text. I never did study Peig Sayers in school – it was removed from the course long before then. Yet that knowledge never stopped my Mother asking me, as if she were hoping we could bond over a mutual trauma.
Peig’s story is one of long-suffering throughout her life. She recounts many adversities from the interruption of her wedding day by the death of her niece, to the tragic death of her own son as a teenager. Yet I think it is striking to think about the general perception of Peig, exemplified in my mother, when we look at her. There is a particular generation of Irish people whose knowledge of Peig Sayers does not extend past that of my mothers. They consider Peig’s story bleak and miserable and full of hardship; however, in her lifetime Peig was anything but boring to those around her.
Peig was a storyteller of epic proportions to those of the Great Blasket community, renowned for her magnificent repertoire of European folk tales and Irish hero legends. Born on the mainland Peig left school at thirteen to work as a manual labourer. When her brother found her a match Peig took the opportunity to make her own home. She married Pádraig Ó Gaoithín and moved to the Great Blasket island with him. It’s crucial to contextualise how we came to have Peig’s autobiographies. During the literary and cultural revival many Blasket Islanders were encouraged by scholars and activists to write down and document their lives. One of the reasons the Blasket island texts became so important was because the islanders were seen as entirely separated from the mainland Ireland, with all its anglicisation and industrialisation. Peig enlisted her son Mike to transcribe her life’s stories as she could neither read nor write in Irish.
When encountering texts that have been translated it is essential to consider them a form of re-writing. Ttranslation almost always involves a renegotiation and ‘re’ or ‘mis’ representation of the original text. It causes a linguistic and cultural clash that cannot always be resolved and raises questions of re-appropriation and remaking – how much liberty can the translator take while still maintaining the integrity of the original? This is especially relevant when looking at Peig’s texts, as from the viewpoint of revivalists, these texts were intended to reawaken and revitalise the Irish language.
All that to say, the Blasket Island books, when written were seen as representing the peasant narrative of Ireland – this gave them a cultural and aesthetic ‘Irishness’ that reproduced adeeply authentic narrative in the eyes of many revivalists scholars. They were instrumentalized in guarding and perpetuating the Irish language in the face of anglicisation and reclaiming the indigenousness of Irish people. This narrative of the noble peasant is comparable with the noble savage we see in many colonial texts in other parts of the world for example New Zealand and Australia. Within the Irish context the peasant life was seen as the essence of Irishness before British intervention.
Since Peig’s stories were supposed to exemplify an authentic Ireland, both in subject matter and in language, there is a deep irony to read the now translated versions of her texts, as we are now studying them today. The stories of the Blasket islanders live on in the language of the coloniser, entirely antithetical to their aim. Yet we must still ask the question in our modern day, does the translation of the Blasket texts in some way revitalize part of Irishness or is it merely assimilating those stories into a colonial language? On a further note of translation it is of value to consider that Peig dictated her autobiographies. The most famous of her texts were dictated to her son Mike. Mike was a poet in his own right and many scholars have questioned whether the autobiographies where a joint endeavour by the two storytellers. Some critics have even claimed the biographies as Michael’s own writing. While this is most likely a typical whitewashing of women in writing that happens throughout history, it is still important to consider that there were two writers involved in the work. Dictation is itself a form of translation or at least in some instances can be. The writer has some freedom to rework and reimagine stories from how they are told. How much liberty Mike the Poet took when transcribing his mother’s stories we can never know for sure yet it is certain that even if inadvertently some alterations work their way into the finished texts.
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