Bert McMenamin, A Life in Letters

by earthquakeinthepoorhouse

Even though wise men know the dark is okay at the end of the day,

because they didn’t shoot lightning bolts with their words

they don’t go quietly or calmly into the night.

They yell and carry on.


A consummate native English speaker and noted monolinguist, Bertrand “Bert” McMenamin was known throughout his career for his sometimes-contentious translations of classic English language texts from their original English into English.

In the course of his career, McMenamin tackled dozens of masterworks of the Western canon (and a number of texts at its periphery), cutting them down to a more palatable size and freeing them from certain of their more confusing baggage.

“My name is Ishmael – so call me that,” begins McMenamin’s translation of Moby Dick. He radically reworked and thereby censored the Kama Sutra with a bold, sexless translation of Sir Richard Burton’s 1883 English language version, while his take on The Old Man and the Sea stripped away the accreted barnacles of both old man and sea to expose the essential, timeless story beneath. In McMenamin’s hands, Catch 22 became a slender tragicomedy entitled But Wait, There’s a Catch – the original text benefitting from the removal of several instances of the eponymous rub that were, McMenamin felt, “labouring the point”.

Shortly before his untimely death, McMenamin – then near blind – boldly set out to translate Joyce’s labyrinthine Finnegan’s Wake with typing assistance from a local drunkard. McMenamin quickly abandoned the project, however, finding the original work to be, in his words, “as perfect a text as has yet been commended to the page, and readable beyond imagining.”

McMenamin is survived by the drunkard.