I am working on my dissertation on An Táin Bó Culaigne. I (sadly) can't work from the Old Irish text but am relying on using translation to explore a point I am making about Early Irish society.

Is this a valid mode of inquiry?

I am reading some postcolonial theory on the unequivocal nature of translation and some mythology theory on myth as an ahistorical presence and am doubting my decision to work from two translated editions.

1 Answer 1


This has always been a painful area in philology for several reasons:

  • In many cases, verses in the original text can have several inferred meanings. For some languages and cultures, this is actually part of the tradition. For example, in Literary Chinese, each verse of the Tao Te Ching can be translated in several ways, each with a significantly different meaning.
  • Translations, especially early translations, were usually done by missionaries and are coloured by the religious convictions of the translator. For example, in early translations of Chinese text, you ill often come across the phrase "Mandate Of Heaven", where the word choice of "heaven" is preferred to match Christian cosmology. But this is not exactly the same or limited to what the Chinese text infers.
  • Idioms can be very hard or impossible to translate, as this study details.

If you have to work from translations, I would recommend to compare as many translations as possible and pay special attention to textual variants. Specifically for the Táin Bó Cúailnge, I would recommend ignoring the Victorian translations as they tend to censor the explicit content of the original text.

The version by (Kinsella 1969) is generally considered to be the most acurate translation in English. If you master German, (Windisch 1905) is considered to be complete, and lacks alterations and omissions due to conflicts of interests in the mind of contemporary Irish scholars.

I would also recommend verifying against decent studies that were already done on the subject matter, such as A Study Guide for Anonymous's "Tain Bo Cuailnge"

Hope this helps.

  • I agree! My favorite example of this is in the Brothers Grimm text #47 “The Juniper Tree.” It has always been my belief that no reader of any English language translation of the text in the last 200 some odd years has ever actually been able to understand the text as every German reader has been able to. This is all because of 1 word – “stew.” Ralf Manheim, and Jack Zipes have both translated the German word as “stew.” Only Margaret Hunt wrote it pretty well as “black-puddings”. The actual German words used in the texts are “swart Suur” and “Suur.” Mar 24, 2023 at 21:23
  • Not to get too complicated, but these are German dishes made with the flesh and critically the blood of a butchered animal. What the father eats in the text is the flesh AND THE BLOOD of his son. No English language reader ever know about the father also drinking the bold of his son? How is any English language reader ever going to interpret it? They can’t. Best to always use original sources. I do explain it all in my translation of the text. Mar 24, 2023 at 21:23
  • If you read Manheim and Zipes, you have little chance. If you read Hunt's version you at least have a chance at understanding since you can look up what "blood-puddings" are and what they are made of. Mar 24, 2023 at 21:44

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