Zen Talks on Irish Translations

Found in Translation – The Four Great Vows

Na Ceithre Mhóid Mhóra (The Four Great Vows)

Ilchruthú gan áireamh, móidím iad a scaoileadh.

Siabhráin gan ídiú, móidim iad a chloí.

Darma gan teorainn, móidím iad a thuiscint.

Tá an bealach soilseach gan sárú, móidím é a shealbhú

Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.

Dharma are boundless, I vow to be teachable by them.

The enlightened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

I translated the Four Great Vows into Irish at the instigation of Miriam Healy, a zen teacher and founding member of the Grey Heron sangha which is based at the Dominican Retreat Centre, Tallaght. Miriam studied for many years with the American zen master Fr Robert Kennedy who frequently directs retreats in Ireland. I have also translated the Evening Gatha into Irish, and both verses are now chanted / sung at the close of our weekly zazen sessions on Tuesday evenings (online). 

When translating the two chants, I tapped into the rich vocabulary of Irish words which were already in use. To take the first word of the Four Great Vows, ilchruthú, it is formed from two early Irish words, il- meaning ‘many, manifold’ and cruthú, ‘creation’ (see cruthú an domhain, ‘creation of the world’). Ilchruthú gan áireamh therefore literally means ‘countless manifold creations’. The word siabhráin, ‘delusions’ comes from siabhair in Irish, meaning ‘a phantom’, ‘a supernatural being’. Having considered various possible translations of the ‘enlightened way’ I opted for bealach soilseach. The second word comes from solus, an adjective which is recorded in Old-Irish meaning, ‘bright, lucid, light-giving’.

Another spiritual source which we can readily access in Irish is the deeply- rooted tradition of native prayers, hymns, charms and so on. There are many evocative ‘occasional’ prayers in the language which were recited by ordinary people at different occasions throughout the day, such as beginning and finishing work, beginning a journey, before speaking etc. These prayers probably functioned in the same manner as the awareness of breathing does in zen, as they focus one’s attention on the present.

I set the Four Great Vows to a traditional air in Irish. It comes from a tune recorded by a great traditional singer from Co. Waterford, Labhrás Ó Cadhla (1889-1961), who had previously learnt it from his mother. Elegies or laments were formerly sung to the tune in Ó Cadhla’s native district at the foot of the Comeragh mountains. Indeed, it is a very venerable air, as Eoghan Mór Ó Comhraí (1744-1825), a renowned singer and tradition bearer from Co. Clare, sang an early hymn to the Virgin Mary – as well as Ossianic lays in syllabic metre – to a variant of it.

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