The Translations of Seamus Heaney is a landmark volume, a striking testament to the particular and generous genius of Seamus Heaney. From what is believed to be his first complete translation, To a Wine Jar, after the Latin of Horace (submitted to Philip Hobsbaum’s Belfast Group poetry workshop in 1965) to Aeneid Book VI, posthumously published by Faber and Faber in 2016, the span is breathtaking.
Numerous lyrics in Spanish, Romanian, Dutch, Russian, German, Scottish Gaelic, Czech, Classical and Modern Greek, Modern and Middle French, and Medieval and Modern Italian precede his full-length ground-breaking interpretations of classics such as Beowulf, The Cure at Troy and Sweeney Astray, itself part of another substantial body of translation from Old, Middle and Modern Irish.
The crucial part played by translation in the formation and development of his extraordinary talent is under the spotlight as readers are further gifted with Marco Sonzogni’s meticulously detailed notes, aptly introduced as reflections of Heaney’s “work as reader and translator, as critic and author – as student and teacher in a school of poetry that never closes”. Open The Translations of Seamus Heaney on any page and you’ll find it hard to leave that school.
Heaney described his translation of Aeneid Book VI as “neither a ‘version’ nor a crib… more like classics homework, the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher… Father Michael McGlinchey”. The seed had been planted early. Later other pressures came into play, “that sixth-form homunculus must contend with a different supervisor, a writer of verse who has things other than literal accuracy on his mind… the need for a diction decorous enough for Virgil but not so antique… all the fleeting, fitful anxieties that afflict the literary translator”.
Heaney’s respect for the original work went hand-in-hand with a formidable, energetic, creative impulse. Sonzogni speaks of how Heaney was “drawn to Lowell’s ‘trick of heightening the sense by adding voltage to the diction and planting new metaphors into the circuit’ and ‘unabashed readiness to subdue the otherness of the original to his own autobiographical neediness’ ”. And it worked both ways, as Heaney put his Northern Irish stamp on the translations, they became part of his North; Route 110 from Human Chain reimagined the 110 bus route from Belfast to Derry as part of the journey from Aeneid IV, “Smithfield Market Saturdays. The pet shop/Fetid with droppings… silent now as birdless Lake Avernus”.
It is a reader’s delight to follow the conversations between his poems and translations and there is always something new to discover. Charles Baudelaire’s The Digging Skeleton is arguably a politicised version, describing the work of Irish navvies, yet there is an echo of the doggedness of his poem Digging in its ending, “We earn our deaths; our one repose/When the bleeding instep finds its spade.” Writing can be hard and deathly too. The Digging Skeleton was published in North alongside his ekphrastic bog poems – another form of translation, reimagining Jutland Iron Age homicides through the lens of the Troubles. And murdered bodies have continued to emerge from Northern soil ever since.
Heaney has said that he translated Dante’s ‘Inferno, xxxii and xxxiii’ in Field Work (1979) to be read in the context of the “dirty protests” in the Maze prison. Ugolino is locked in a tower and starved to death with his four children, “Then when I saw/the image of my face in their four faces/I bit on my two hands in desperation.” And Ugolino’s dilemma is a potent reminder that it was the suffering parents of the hunger strikers who ended the strikes in 1981. And indeed, Heaney’s translation of Treny, Jan Kochanowski’s elegies for his young daughter, co-authored with Stanisław Barańczak, show his affinity and skill in expressing private familial loss.
Heaney’s description of an even earlier insight (from his introduction to Beowulf) reflects the irrepressible spirit of this master translator
Beowulf is a striking example of what Heaney called his “translator boldness”, but he was not always sure if Anglo-Saxon was part of his “voice-right… to persuade myself that I was born into its language and that its language was born into me took a while…” He found his “tuning fork” from a “familiar local voice”, releasing a fresh and exciting masterpiece while also remaining true to the spirit of the original, “The iron-braced door/turned on its hinge when his hands touched it.”
Heaney’s description of an even earlier insight (from his introduction to Beowulf) reflects the irrepressible spirit of this master translator. That “Celtic/Saxon antithesis momentarily collapsed” when he discovered that the British river Usk is to some extent the River Uisce… a kind of linguistic river of rivers issuing from a pristine Celto-British Land of Cockaigne, a riverrun of Finnegans Wakespeak pouring out of the cleft rock of some prepolitical, prelapsarian, ur-philological Big Rock Candy Mountain – and all of this had a wonderfully sweetening effect upon me…
The good news is that he has left us all that sweetness in this weighty chunk of the Big Rock Candy Mountain – a Christmas gift for readers everywhere.