On Reading Ancient Literature:
The Text and the Context

(Copyright 1995 by Michael Sundermeier)

There have been critics, such as some of the more dogmatic New Critics, who have stressed that the literary work must be treated as a thing complete in itself; that neither the cultural context nor the author's life can add anything to the meaning of the work. Some, such as the more recent Deconstructionists, have asserted that even the text itself has no inherent meaning; that all meaning is projected onto the work by the reader. However, the common experience of humanity suggests to us that meaning is found in a delicate balance between text and context; that the context puts limits on the possible meanings of the text, and the text, reciprocally, restrains the reader from depending entirely on the context. If, let us say, the New Testament refers to the "flight into Egypt," a knowledge of the context makes it clear that Joseph and Mary and Jesus didn't book passage on El Al Airline for a short hop from Jerusalem to Cairo; similarly, the contemporary reader who interprets The Scarlet Letter as an argument for free love, isn't paying attention to the text. Not all possible interpretations are clearly right or clearly wrong; some are quite problematic, but neither text nor context is infinitely elastic. If we wish to make a case for a particular reading, we must account for both.

No literature is created in a vacuum; nor is it ever read or otherwise experienced in one. The work may be misunderstood because the context in which it was composed is not known, but the literary artifact itself (the text) always exists in a context, from the moment of its creation right up to the most recent moment it is read. Context in relation to a work of art has two aspects: Context of Composition and Context of Interpretation Context of Composition is everything that the writer knows. Context of Interpretation consists of everything that the reader knows, and it may overlap to a greater or lesser degree with Context of Composition. Text is a subset of Context of Composition, consisting of the writer's selection of possibilities from everything that he/she/they know. To understand and appreciate a given work, the reader must be aware of a number of things: the language in which the text is expressed; the language used by the reader; the literary forms and/or conventions which are reflected in the text; the particular culture within which the text was created; the particular culture within which the reader exists; the cultural context within which the text is set, if that context is distinct from that of the author; the possibility that the text experienced by the reader is a translation, a redaction, or a retelling; and finally the possibility that the work at one time existed in an exclusively oral form.

The language in which the text is expressed. Although recent research indicates that language is, on a very fundamental level, biologically determined (Pinker), and hence that certain characteristics of language are universal, there is still an immense grammatical, idiomatic, and lexical range among the world's languages. Even the most gifted of human beings cannot hope to learn them all; some of us are fortunate enough to master a handful; many of us are fluent in only one. Those of us who speak English as our native tongue are fortunate in one sense: English has become the international language; it is basic to international commerce, science, and technology, and so we are seldom driven by necessity to speak another language. On the other hand, because we do not--or need not--speak another language, we are unaware--or forget--that most of the world's business, and pleasure, is or has been conducted in another language, or in a version of English which may be in many ways different from our own in idiom and vocabulary and possibly even grammar.

When those among us who are fluent only in English encounter a text in a language other than English, we are at least partially prevented from understanding it, and if we know little or nothing of the language in which it is written, we can only turn away in frustration or turn to a translation (about which, more later). Our lack of understanding of the context has closed the door to that text. If the text is in English but in an English somewhat or greatly removed from our own by time or cultural digression, the problem of comprehension may be less, but unless we are alert, we can often misunderstand what is being said. The student who first encounters Chaucer in Middle English knows he is in strange territory, and to a lesser extent this is true of the student reading Shakespeare; but even the differences between, for example, American English and English as it is spoken in England can cause problems, sometimes because the differences are not apparent. An American asking in an English shop for napkins might be astounded to be handed a bundle of what she had always called diapers, while an Englishman doing the same in America might come to the conclusion that American infant excretory outputs are remarkably restrained--not to mention the varying meanings of vests and waistcoats, jumpers and sweaters, trousers and pants.

Still, American English and the English of England share much in common; had America and England been totally cut off from one another for, say, one hundred years, their inhabitants might now find it much more difficult than it is to communicate. The two languages have shared their changes with one another to a considerable extent. But even so, since at least the seventeenth century they have different histories. It is remarkable that the United States, considering the vast numbers of non-English-speaking immigrants over the course of its history, still speaks English at all; but the variety of linguistic backgrounds, oddly enough, probably accounts for that as much as anything else. In addition to the determination of the dominant English speaking class in America to preserve its cultural-linguistic heritage, the necessity of settling on some common tongue by means of which all those Germans and Poles and Czechs and Italians and Chinese and Mexicans and Swedes and all the other linguistic groups which came together to constitute the United States could communicate, led ineluctably to the English language as the common denominator. At the same time, those languages changed--indeed, helped to create--what we have come to know as American English.

The English spoken in Ireland has its own history as well. Unlike the population of the United States however, the Irish were compelled to replace or at least supplement their own language of Irish Gaelic with English. Without going into the reasons for this, one result is that the English spoken in Ireland has been heavily influenced by the Irish language in vocabulary, idiom, and even to an extent in grammar. Although few people in Ireland (some estimates are as low as 30,000) use Irish on a day-to-day basis, and the vast majority of Irish citizens do not have a fluent grasp of Irish, all of them are affected by this linguistic blending. Texts written in Irish English are best understood if the reader possesses at least some knowledge of the associated/underlying language and the possibilities of expression which that association affords.

--I suppose you were in love with this Michael Furey, Gretta, he said.
--I was great with him at the time, she said.
. . .
--It was in the winter, she said, about the beginning of the winter when I was going to leave my grandmother's and come up here to the convent. And he was ill at the time in his lodgings in Galway and wouldn't be let out and his people in Oughterard were written to. He was in decline, they said, or something like that. I never knew rightly.
(Dubliners 221-22)
The preceding passage from James Joyce's splendid short story "The Dead" demonstrates the point clearly. Gretta, the woman uttering the lines, is from County Galway and reflects the fact in the idiom and the rhythms of her speech, which show a close relationship with the underlying Irish. Her language carefully distinguishes her from her husband, Gabriel, university educated and with an English virtually untouched by Irish.

The language used by the reader. Being aware of one's own language is a reciprocal of being aware of the language of the text. If we take our language as normative for the text, we may, even though we understand the content of the text, miss some of the subtler aspects of the language. In these days when Americans struggle to keep up with the shifting preferences of various ethnic groups, it is important for social harmony to know whether to use, for example, the term Colored or Negro or Black or Afro-American or, most recently African- American. We know enough never to say Nigger. We are jarred when we hear the term used, and so we are inclined to react in the same way when we see it used in Huckleberry Finn or The Nigger of the Narcissus. And yet we misunderstand the text to some extent if we assume that Twain and Conrad have deliberately violated one of our contemporary social taboos and that the word should have the same connotations in the universe of the text as it does in our own universe. Similarly, when we read Jonathan Swift, it is important to realize that when he argues for the political rights of the Irish, he does not mean what we understand by the term Irish when applied to the people of Ireland. He means, in fact, the Anglo-Irish governing class, the Ascendancy, as they are known collectively. It is clear that making an assumption about this apparently unambiguous word based on our contemporary definition would be a serious mistake

The literary forms and/or conventions employed in the text. Is it a novel? a short story? an epic? a saga? a lyric poem? a vision poem? an elegy? a satire? a comedy? a tragedy? a sonnet? a villanelle? and so on and on. All art, perhaps all forms of human behavior, involve the use of conventions. The first of anything is a great puzzle to observers because they don't have an adequate frame of reference within which to understand it. Vincent Van Gogh's paintings were so different from those of his contemporaries that most of them remained unappreciated and unsold throughout the painter's life, but his sweeping, feverishly energetic technique is much admired and imitated today. Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins' literary executor, declined to publish an edition of Hopkins' work until 30 years after the poet's death on the grounds that his technique was so unorthodox that it would have been unappreciated had it been published earlier; in the years since their initial publication, the poems of Hopkins have come to be considered some of the finest poems written in English in the nineteenth century. A successful departure from the norm itself often results in the development of a new convention. Walt Whitman's use of free verse was regarded by many nineteenth century readers as totally unacceptable; much twentieth-century poetry in English is in free verse. It is so accepted as a poetic convention as to have become a cliché. "Free verse," Robert Frost told us, "is like playing tennis with the net down." The cliché itself can be the basis for development as the artist seeks a means of rejecting it; but the observer must be aware of the cliché in order to appreciate the new direction into which the artist is striking out.

The naive reader is in much the same position as the reader who first encounters a totally new form or convention; that is, even though the form or convention may have long existed, he has been unaware of it, either because he hasn't yet had much literary experience or because the work is part of a body of work with which he has little acquaintance. The child who first encounters a Shakespearian sonnet hasn't a clue to what is going on formally in the poem. The average adult reader in, let us say, England or America, will do considerable head scratching over a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead if she doesn't know that the purpose of the text is to prepare its possessor for an examination which will admit him or her into the afterlife. The reader of an ancient Irish epic, such as The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Tain Bo Cuailnge), will find it useful to understand the characteristics which epics tend to have in common--and thus also to understand the ways in which The Tain is distinctive.

The particular culture within which the text was created and the particular culture within which the reader exists. Like the language of the text and the language of the reader, the culture of the text and the culture of the reader are in a reciprocal relationship. One must know the culture of the text lest one make the error of substituting one's own culture and thereby misreading the text. Every culture assumes a world view, religious, philosophical, and scientific. Each has a history, a social structure, and an economy. It relates more or less to other cultures. It exists within a physical nature, and is affected by geography, geology, and climate. For example, what is the importance of honor in a given culture? How does one gain it? How does one lose it? What difference does it make? What relationships do people believe they have with God or the gods? Do people believe that the gods have obligated themselves to give justice to human beings? Or do they believe that God must be appeased? Or do they believe that God doesn't care? Or do they believe there is no God? What is wealth? Do the people lead settled lives? Do they have towns? Cities? Is the climate arid or tropically lush, or cool, or frigid? All these cultural variables combine to make cultures of infinite variety and subtlety--but at the same time cultures do tend to fall into certain patterns based upon the particular configurations of these variables, so we can see similarities from which to infer comparisons. For example, the culture of the Iron Age Celts of pre-Christian Ireland looks remarkably like the culture of those people known by Caesar as the Gauls who occupied what is now known as France. Literature can act as a window into another culture, and, in a recursive fashion, a knowledge of another culture can help us to understand the literature of that culture. If we are not aware of this, and think that one culture is very much like another, then we tend to view other cultures as costume parties, put on, if we care at all, for our amusement. What is true of languages, is also true of cultures; while, at bottom, there are certain fundamental values in all cultures, they are expressed and ranked differently from culture to culture, sometimes being honored more in the breach than in the observance.

The cultural context within which the text is set if that context is distinct from that of the author. When we read the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, we may well be caught up in the world which Scott has created; he tells stories spanning centuries, from medieval times to the eighteenth century. But as we read we must be aware that Scott is interpreting these stories with an early-nineteenth-century sensibility for an early-nineteenth-century audience. Knowing this should not diminish our pleasure in reading Scott; rather, it should make us aware, that late- twentieth-century readers are getting an extra layer of meaning for their effort. Similarly, when we read the stories of the Ulster Cycle in the literature of ancient Ireland, we must be aware that the persons who wrote down these tales were already far removed from the time and the place of the events being described, and with no particular inclination to be scrupulous regarding historical accuracy may well reach for contemporary details to flesh out or drive home some contemporary political point. As a consequence, the reader often must maintain a kind of double vision when reading literature of this sort.

The text is a translation, a redaction, or a retelling. To make things even more difficult is the possibility that the text itself is a translation or a redaction or a retelling; that is, a text which attempts to approximate, but not duplicate, another text. If it is a translation, it is an approximation of the original text in another language. Translations can open the world of another culture to those who do not speak the language of that culture, but such readers must always be aware of the limitations of translation. When we read a translation, we are experiencing a re-creation--the creation of the translator who is trying to approximate not only the content but the spirit of the original. She may be more or less successful in doing so. What she cannot do, by definition, is re-create the style of the original. Consider the following translations of the opening lines of Homer's Odyssey:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
............................ He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will nor valor could he save them,
for their own recklessness destroyed them all--
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Hêlios, . . .
And now:
The man for wisdom's various arts renown'd,
Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound;
Who, when his arms had wrought the destined fall
Of sacred Troy, and razed her heaven-built wall,
Wandering from clime to clime, observant stray'd,
Their manners noted, and their states survey'd.
On stormy seas unnumber'd toils he bore,
Safe with his friends to gain his natal shore:
Vain toils! their impious folly dared to prey
On herds devoted to the god of day; . . .
The first translation, by Robert Fitzgerald (208), unrhymed, employing a simple diction and an unobtrusive rhythm, is a twentieth-century poem, while the second, by Alexander Pope (1), cast in closed couplets and moving to a strong and regular beat, can instantly be recognized as a product of eighteenth-century Neoclassicism. Under the circumstances, doing any close textual or prosodic analysis would be pointless--unless, or course, the intention were to study the technique of Fitzgerald or Pope. Which one is more "faithful" to the original? We must rely on authority to answer that question, unless we are fluent in Classical Greek.

We face much the same difficulty when encountering translations from the Irish. We can augment the information we receive from authority by looking at a number of different translations of the same or similar works. Like the blind man, dependent on the descriptive powers of others, we can build up a composite impression. Consider the following translations from the beginning of The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Tain Bo Cuailnge). Queen Medb is sending a messenger to Dáire mac Fiachna, who is in possession of a bull which Medb wants to possess. As part of her inducement to Dáire, Medb says,

if Dáire himself comes with the bull I'll give him a portion of the fine Plain of Ai equal to his own lands, and a chariot worth thrice seven bondmaids, and my own friendly thighs on top of that.
Or does she say,
let Daire himself come along with him, and I will give him the equal of his own lands on the smooth plain of Ai, and a chariot that is worth three times seven serving-maids, and my own close friendship along with that.
The first is from the excellent contemporary translation of Thomas Kinsella (55), while the second is from the very fine, older translation by Lady Gregory (Cuchulain 143). When reproached by Yeats for her delicacy of expression, Lady Gregory replied,
I say in my dedication "I have left out many things that for one reason or other you would not like." I think that is sufficient explanation--& I give the source of every story, & I doubt that anyone who takes the trouble of looking , will regret any of my slight Bowdlerizing, . . . Do be calm. (Murphy 9)
Kinsella, while admiring Lady Gregory's work, took a more scholarly approach to his translation.

Occasionally, and particularly with texts which were originally composed before the advent of the printing press, a work will survive in fragmentary form in a number of texts which may not be identical with one another. In order to create a readable text, an editor may yoke together passages from different sources, smoothing the edges of the join as best she can, may correct what she regards as corruptions of the original text, and may even make guesses as to the nature of missing material. Such a product is called a redaction. Thomas Kinsella's The Tain is a redaction of this sort.

In such circumstances, the reader needs to be aware that the editor's judgment plays a part, possibly considerable, in the final product, and that a comparison of texts may be necessary to determine what may have been left out or smoothed over or rearranged. Such changes may sometimes be problematic, and if they change the sense of the text will probably be challenged by other scholars.

It is also possible that the text bears only a general resemblance to the original. It may be a retelling, an attempt to recast the text into a more contemporary form of the language, or to recompose the story in a contemporary setting--or some setting other than that of the original. Kinsella refers to Lady Gregory's Cuchulain of Muirthemne as a paraphrase (vii), but one needn't go so far back in time as The Tain to find a major text being retold: Charles Lamb, in his Tales from Shakespeare, recast the plays as much simpler stories for a young audience unable or unwilling to deal with the complexities of Shakespeare's work. To a degree, Kinsella's own work is a retelling, but it is useful to know to what degree the editor has departed from the author's text for his or her own purposes.

The "text" is or has been, oral. And finally, it is possible that the text is--or has been at some point in its public existence--not a text at all, in the sense that it has been committed to a "fixed" form in print or by means of a recording, audio or digital, but exists in variant forms in the memories of individuals, or possibly only one individual, and is in a sense recreated--and very probably altered--when it is uttered in the presence of others. Such works tend to be fluid in form and adaptable in content. In the pre-literate culture of pre-Christian Ireland, the tales of gods and heros almost certainly circulated in oral form, and even after the introduction of writing, it is unlikely that the fili or bards felt any obligation to consult a written version before recomposing their stories in front of an audience. In fact, it is probable that some of the variation from manuscript to manuscript is attributable not to scribal error but to the fact that transcriptions were made from different oral performances--possibly even from different presenters.

Even after those texts have been more or less fixed in written form, vestiges of their former state often remain, and being aware of this can enhance the reader's appreciation of the work. For example, the episodic nature of The Cattle Raid of Cuailnge very likely has something to do with the fact that it was recited over a number of days, and that the bard needed convenient starting and stopping places. It is also likely that the whole of the epic grew out of the accumulation of the parts. Among the consequences of this are a certain amount of repetition and internal contradiction. Furthermore, a recitation of such a work was a performance for a particular audience, and the peculiarities of that audience would dictate that certain elements of the basic story were stressed, certain ones were downplayed or omitted. The superiority of the Leinstermen in the armies of Connacht would certainly have been greatly appreciated before a Leinster audience!

It is more or less helpful to be aware of these possibilities whenever we read. Sometimes it will be part of the strategy of the creator of the text to point out one or more of these possibilities. For example, Kinsella begins his version of The Tain with a passage describing the manner in which the poets of ancient Ireland, each of whom recalled only a part of the story, were given it by a supernatural visitant, Fergus, who recited the whole thing for them (1). Popular literature makes it as easy as possible for us by using language, forms, and conventions with which we are thoroughly familiar, and so we seldom if ever find ourselves at a loss when reading that sort of thing. But yesterday's popular literature may become today's classic, and today's reader is not quite so familiar with yesterday's culture and language and literary conventions. In the case of early Irish myth and legend, which certainly began existence as popular literature, language and culture conspire to make comprehension, let alone enjoyment, difficult for the contemporary reader. That is a shame, since the stories and the literary strategies employed to tell them are enjoyable in themselves and, at the same time, afford valuable insights into the cultures in which they were created.


Kinsella on Translation

"Nothing has been added in the translation beyond a very occasional word or phrase designed to keep the narrative clear; these additions are noted. But there are two aspects of the translation not fully 'covered by guarantee.' The first has to do with the main purpose of the work, which is to give a readable and living version of the story: it is that no attempt has been made to preserve the actual texture of the Irish narrative. Sentence structure and tense, for example, have been changed without hesitation; elements are occasionally shifted from one sentence to another; proper names have been substituted for pronouns, and vice versa; a different range of verbs has been used; and so on. This is not, therefore, a literal translation. But it is a close compromise with one, and tries not to deviate significantly at any point from the original.

"The second exception has to do with the verse passages: greater freedom has been taken with the verse than with the prose, though the sense and structural effects are followed with reasonable faithfulness. For one category of verse, however, the guarantee has to be withdrawn completely--the passages of rosc or retoiric which occur in 'stepped' form throughout the translation. In the original these are extremely obscure. This is partly because, as is generally believed, they are more archaic, but it seems likely that in some instances, where the utterance is 'deep' or prophetic, the obscurity is also deliberate. Scholars have preferred on the whole to leave these verses unattempted, but it seemed worthwhile to try to make some sense out of them, especially where something central to the action is going on, as in the long sequence in chapter VI. The aim has been to produce passages of verse which more or less match the original for length, ambiguity and obscurity, and which carry the phrases and motifs and occasional short runs that are decipherable in the Irish. It is stressed that they are highly speculative and may reproduce little if anything of the original effect. It would have been impossible to attempt these rosc passages without expert help, and for most of those in the I>Táin itself this was given with much tolerance, patience and generosity by Dr. Proinsias Mac Cana of University College, Dublin. His suggestions were offered as starting points for the imagination and they have undergone much violence in the process that followed, for which the translator is solely responsible. No attempt has been made to follow the Irish verse forms."

(Kinsella Táin xi-xii)

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Kinsella on Redaction

Taking as his basic source, the Yellow Book of Lecan, Kinsella describes the process of redaction as follows:
As far as possible the story has been freed of inconsistencies and repetitions. Obscurities have been cleared up and missing parts supplied from other sources, generally the Book of Leinster text, but this has been done as economically as possible, sometimes with only a word or phrase. The passages introduced by the compiler or interpolator, where they are not involved in this tidying process, have been left undisturbed; they will be readily recognised by the changes in style. Such matters are noted (it is hoped adequately) as they occur, together with any changes in sentence order or other similar amendments. A reader who is anxious to know how the text actually runs should be able to restore the original disarray.

(Kinsella Táin xi)

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