It's time for Cre na Cille in English

The novel has been hailed by Declan Kiberd as an Irish classic

The novel has been hailed by Declan Kiberd as an Irish classic. Alan Titley has described it as a major achievement in writing, storytelling and imagination. It is commonly held to be one of the greatest Irish novels of the 20th century. And most Irish people have not read one line of it.

The novel in question is Cre na Cille by Mairt in O Cadhain, first published in 1949. Set in a graveyard, it is a rich, powerful, unsentimental account of the lives, dreams and grudges of small communities. It is not only an Irish but an international classic which deserves to be on the bookshelves of any educated reader. Through the excellent offices of the Ireland Literature Exchange, we now have translations of Cre na Cille in Norwegian and Danish. Yet, quite incredibly, over half a century after the novel first came out, there has still been no agreement on the publication of a translation in English. Danes and Norwegians may now read the novel, but not O Cadhain's compatriots with no Irish, not to mention US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand or South African Anglophones who might want to know what all the fuss is about.

In a letter to David Marcus dated March 31st, 1980, the poet and critic Eoghan O Tuairisc wrote of the particular genius of Mairtin O Cadhain: "Though the bulk of his stories and (his best) are solidly based in Cois Fharraige, he was a man of wide reading and a European range of mind." For O Tuairisc, the name of the writer from Connemara was synonymous with literary openness and generosity. It was indeed O Cadhain's very receptiveness to other literatures which brought him to writing in the first place. The experience of reading Maxim Gorky in a French translation had a profound impact on O Cadhain and encouraged him to give a voice to his own people in writing. Reading a translation was a transformative experience for the young writer, but it is precisely this transformative experience which is being denied to O Cadhain's readers who cannot read him in the original.

O Tuairisc indeed showed what was possible with translation in his own inventive renditions of O'Cadhain's stories published as The Road to Brightcity in 1981. Cre na Cille is a linguistically and aesthetically complex text, but it is difficulty not facility which makes translation a superlative art. A la recherche du temps perdu is not an easy text either, but it is the gifted generosity of translators like Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin which allows English-language readers to understand Nuala O'Faolain when she says, "Proust makes being human the most exquisitely complex and precious of conditions". Literary texts are generally written to be read, and it is the translator's task and privilege to make sure that they can be read by as many people as possible. Translations themselves bring new ideas, offer fresh perspectives, enrich the depleted word-hoards of languages. Translation demonstrates that literature does indeed belong to the world and not some defensive corner of it.

There is a perfectly good case to be made for a text being allowed to live its own life in its own language. However, in the case of a text which has been out for 50 years now, the argument does not hold. O Cadhain himself had no objections to his novel being eventually translated into English, a position which was consistent with his own indebtedness to translation. We need an English translation of Cre na Cille for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the full extent of O Cadhain's achievement must be more widely recognised. It is not enough for readers to go on critical hearsay. No matter how often a book is praised, the praise is meaningless for English-language readers without Irish until they can read the text in translation. There are believed to be three existing unpublished translations of Cre na Cille, and even if these were found to be unsatisfactory, there is no shortage of extremely able literary translators in Ireland who would be equal to the task.

Secondly, the imaginative life and history of the country can only be deepened, not impoverished, by specific acts of exchange in the form of translation. Not to give countless Irish people access to the inventiveness, insights and wit of O Cadhain's masterpiece is to exclude them from part of their own cultural and emotional history. The retort that they should in that case learn Irish out of a fundamental misconception as to why people learn languages. When language learning does not come from strict practical necessity, it is motivated by desire. Translation excites desire, it does not cancel it. The better the translation, the more compelling the case for going to the original. The translation is the fundamental stepping stone. Without the evidence it provides, calls to buckle down and make the effort to read the source text will remain unconvincing and sound like the joyless self-righteousness of language purism.

A third point relates not so much to Cre na Cille as to the whole tradition of prose writing in modern Irish. In his magisterial study of the Irish-language novel, An tUrsceal Gaeilge (1991), Alan Titley showed the extraordinary range and complexity of prose writing in Irish. Whereas Irish-language poets through the medium of translation have enjoyed a certain public profile in recent years, Irish prose writers have remained almost wholly invisible to a large section of the Irish reading public. The translation of an emblematic prose text like Cre na Cille would surely act as an incentive to explore further the considerable riches of Irish-language prose and give the writers themselves long overdue recognition.

Writers and publishers are properly protected by rights to the works they write and publish. But rights also imply duties. One basic duty is to make a work available to the widest possible audience on this island and beyond. Cre na Cille deserves all the English-language readers it can get. And it is translation which will allow for dialogue with the grateful dead.

Michael Cronin is director of the Centre for Translation Studies, Dublin City University. His most recent work is Across the Lines: Travel, Language, Translation, published by Cork University Press