THE TRANSLATIONS OF SEAMUS HEANEY: Alan Price considers a compilation of Seamus Heaney’s remarkable and extensive work as a translator

The Translations of Seamus Heaney 
edited by Marco Sonzogni 
Faber 2023 
ISBN 978-0-571-34253-2

I have never doubted the legitimacy and purpose of translating poetry. So many new ideas, histories, and differing perspectives have been communicated to me through good translations. I grew up devouring each new Penguin Modern European Poet paperback from the sixties and seventies, as I’m sure Seamus Heaney did too. It was an exciting and educative internationalism, combined with a different aesthetic and moral road, that especially East European poets travelled, compared to British and American poets of the middle to late 20th century.

Seamus Heaney maps out this idea in the chapter “The Impact of Translation” in his 1986 Faber book of essays, The Government of the Tongue. Throughout my reading of The Translations of Seamus Heaney I kept that earlier book by my side. I wanted to see how Heaney had responded to modern, pre-20th century and classical poets and why his poetic sensibility needed to walk along side of great foreign writers and how they mirrored and / or influenced his own work.

Not being a linguist I’ve considered what I’m missing out on in translation compared to the poem in its original language. Of course that’s probably a lot. Yet on reading foreign poetry I’ve always considered two things – the literal sense of a poem and the sensibility of the poem. The first presents the bare subject matter allowing for some words that are untranslatable. The second, and much more difficult task, is to give you the spiritual depth of the verse. Generally poets are better translators of poetry than academics. I feel that meaning or meanings feel safer in the hands of a highly skilled wordsmith.

Seamus Heaney was a very fine poet of high intelligence, sensitivity and a superb control of language. But I’ve always felt that Heaney wrote a single note lyrical poetry that never quite convinced me that he was a great poet. Yeats had the great expansiveness and vision. But Heaney? We make choices about who we like or dislike in the cannon. And with Heaney my admiration comes with a distancing.

But any sense of detachment completely disappears when I read Seamus Heaney’s translations. For here he is great. The chosen poets (101 texts from 14 languages) come across with a magnificent authority that, for me, proves to be more powerful, and perhaps more enduring, than his own verse. Heaney reallocates his Irish, and non Irish, themes, obsessions, humour, tragedy, searching, philosophical doubting, tension and apprehension of culture and history to the poets he’s written new poems for. And Heaney’s empathy with these other very different voices is extraordinary.

Returning to Eastern Europe, Heaney gives us some outstanding versions of poems by two Romanians, Marin Sorescu and Ana Blandiana. In Blandiana’s “Do You Remember the Beach” Heaney conveys a sense of both the ecclesiastical landscape of Ireland and Romania.

The gulls going wild, wheeling
Round and round as the bells
Chimed out behind us somewhere
In churches that had
Fish for their patron saints?

Translating C.P. Cafavy, with his characters and situations from the Ancient Greek world, comes very naturally to Heaney who also feels an affinity with Horace and Virgil. The modernism of Giovanni Pascoli is one disguised in a lyric pastoral vein that is coaxed out. Indeed Pascoli was constantly championed by Heaney as a great Italian poet that we ought to know better. After reading the excited anticipatory opening of perhaps Pascoli’s most famous poem “The Kite” I was hooked.

There’s something new in the sun to-day-but no,
It’s something older, previous; At this distance even
I sense the violets starting to peep through.

As for the Middle Polish poet Jan Kochanowski (1530 – 1584) well his 19 laments, written for the death of his young daughter, prove to be searing poems. Heaney is perfectly in tune with Kochanowski’s outpouring of grief. My own criticism here is not the translation or the subject matter. It’s just that 18 poems devoted to such sorrow prove to be exhausting.

Old, Middle and Modern Irish poems are here. I particularly enjoyed the picaresque adventures of Sweeney in the anonymous 12th century Irish classic, “Sweeney Astray.” One of the reasons why Heaney undertook this translation was topographical. Sweeney lived in what is now Country Antrim and north County Down. And for over 30 years Heaney ‘lived on the verges of that territory, in sight of some of Sweeney’s places and in earshot of others.” It’s a vigorously energetic poem of wandering and wars that charmed me.

It was sheer madness to imagine
any life outside Glen Bolcain –
Gen Bolcain, my pillow and heart’s ease,
my Eden thick with apple trees.

Apart from poetry we have the robustly shaped Greek plays The Cure of Troy and The Burial at Thebes by Sophocles; Heaney’s Dante; his acclaimed version of Beowulf still standing up well. And beside these Rilke, Joseph Brodsky and Ovid (in an 18th century Irish translation by Brian Merriman) are all reinterpreted.

The editor Marco Sonzogni provides an excellent commentary for each translated text that includes a history of Heaney’s published translations and quotes from Heaney. Although Sonzgoni provides, at the bottom of the page for each translated text, a commentary page number, he fails to also give us a first publication date. You can of course find that within in the commentary but it would have been more helpful to have placed a date next to the translation. A minor but relevant quibble.

Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid was published posthumously in 2016. In the poem’s commentary we’re informed that “The very trajectory of Virgil’s life, from father’s son to famous poet” offered Seamus Heaney “a companionable biography with which he could closely indentify.” Latin and reading Virgil was very much part of the schoolboy Heaney. Thus there is an inevitability to Heaney undertaking a translation of Virgil which turned out to be the last work he finished before his own death in 2016. Book VI of the Aeneid has been described as a literary touchstone for Seamus Heaney. And after reading his version this is so apparent. There’s a rugged grandeur and vision as Heaney’s and Virgil’s roads conjoin: a difficult task to bring off in a part of the poem that is often seen as not as attractive as the rest. It’s difficult to extract from Book V1. But I have to give you Heaney’s great ending. No spoiler warning required!

There are two gates of Sleep, one of which, they say,
Is made of horn and offers easy passage
To true visions; the other has a luminous, dense
Ivory sheen, but through it, to the sky above,
The spirits of the dead send up false dreams.
Anchises, still guiding and discoursing,
Escorts his son and the Sibyl on their way
And lets them both out by the ivory gate.
Aeneas hurries to the ships and rejoins his comrades,
Then sails, hugging the shore, to the port of Caietae.
Anchors are cast from the prow; sterns cushion on sand.

Wonderful! As is so much else in this huge book – a testament to Seamus Heaney’s brilliance as a translator of the first rank.

Alan Price©2024