Seamus Heaney: as seen from Russia, Hungary, Poland and Mexico

Four translators reflect on their experiences of bringing the poetry of Seamus Heaney to new audiences in their native language

At a celebration of Seamus Heaney to mark the opening of a new building for the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation were, from left, Pura López Colomé, Jerzy Jarniewicz, Marie Heaney, Grigory Kruzhkov and András Imreh. Photographs: Paul Sharp/Sharppix

At a celebration of Seamus Heaney to mark the opening of a new building for the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation were, from left, Pura López Colomé, Jerzy Jarniewicz, Marie Heaney, Grigory Kruzhkov and András Imreh. Photographs: Paul Sharp/Sharppix


Four long-standing translators of Seamus Heaney’s poetry gathered in Dublin yesterday to celebrate Heaney’s poetry in translation to mark the opening of a new home for the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation.

The event featured readings of Heaney’s poetry in Russian, Hungarian, Polish and Mexican Spanish by Heaney’s translators and paid tribute to Heaney’s contribution to literature as a writer and translator, and also acknowledged the poet’s strong support of the development of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation. A partnership between Trinity’s School of Languages Literature and Cultural Studies, Literature Ireland and the Dalkey Archive Press, the centre fosters and promotes literary translation, bringing the best of international literature to Irish readers and the finest of Irish literature to readers around the world.

Sinéad Mac Aodha,  Director, Literature Ireland, commented: "Literature Ireland, the organisation for promoting Irish literature abroad, is a proud and active partner in the Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation. Working closely with publishers and translators from around the world, our aim is to build a profile and a deep appreciation for Irish literature from Beijing to Buenos Aires, Cairo to Chennai. Since our establishment in 1994, we have funded over 2,000 translations of Irish books into over fifty languages. In a world that needs open minds more than ever before, 36 Fenian Street will open a door to the exciting possibilities of literary translation and cultural exchange.”

Here, the four translators reflect on their experiences of translating the poetry of Seamus Heaney and bringing his work to new audiences.

András Imreh: Translating Seamus Heaney into Hungarian
We Hungarians first fell in love with Heaney like a country girl with the boy next door: he was so much like us.

Throughout the ’80s and the early ’90s we had the fixation that we’d gone through such a different history to the rest of the continent, and consequently part of what we tried to tell was so peculiar that it rang no bells elsewhere. Some of our words like “black cut”, “sweeping the attic”, “hellbell” or “putting a deadlock on the lip” were untranslatable without our particular context.

And then an Irish guy got the Nobel. We immediately started devouring his books, and to our greatest surprise we read poems about an unlicensed bull, the ministry of fear, and the wise advice that “whatever you say, say nothing”.

We immediately started translating poems by Heaney, and published the first collection in 1995. By that time I’d been already discovering the complexity of Heaney’s poetic world. It’s not usual, for example, to consider him as a surrealist, but then, how about this:

the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes.

Isn’t it right out of a film by Luis Buñuel?

Fifteen years later we were given the opportunity to publish another Selected Poems in Hungarian. Not only did it contain volumes written after Seeing Things, but we also had the chance to incorporate poems omitted from the previous book. I was lucky to get Irish Literature Exchange’s translation grant, so I could spend a month on the spot while working on the translations. It might be difficult to imagine why it is useful to translate the poems where they were born. Let me tell you some examples.

Although I saw quite a number of photos of bogs, it was nothing to compare with actually being there: to breathe the air, smell the wind and hear bog birds sing. Or when I was stuck with the poem Thatcher. Not being able to imagine either the tools or the procedure, Irish Literature Exchange organised a tour to a roof in Co Kilkenny, where a young thatcher explained everything to me. I tried to do my best, or at least overcome my vertigo.

During this month I also had the chance to have a look around Belfast in a cab. I saw the graffiti, I saw the maze of Catholic and Protestant streets, but I didn’t see the Ministry of Fear.

And then our last undertaking was translating the complete Human Chain.

No other contemporary poet has been translated into Hungarian as widely as Seamus Heaney. So we can say he is lucky, as I guess he was lucky in so many ways. But as the Hungarian proverb goes: A good goalie is always lucky.

And I feel very lucky too, having been able to translate him.

John Banville and Marie Heaney at the opening of a new building for the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation
John Banville and Marie Heaney at the opening of a new building for the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation

Grigory Kruzhkov: Translating Seamus Heaney into Russian
Seamus Heaney first visited Russia in 1985 when I had the good fortune to meet him. The meeting was unplanned and unexpected. That year Moscow hosted a large international evening of poetry to which poets from all over Europe were invited. The next day the poets were taken off to see the achievements of Soviet industry. Seamus looked at these achievements and then looked some more and finally asked to be taken somewhere where he could simply talk about poetry. I had known nothing about the evening of poetry or about Seamus Heaney’s visit (though I had been translating his work since the end of the 1970s), and suddenly I got a call from the Union of Writers and was told that they were bringing Seamus and his wife over to my place, straight from some pipeline plant.

As it happened I was in the middle of editing the first anthology of Irish poetry in Russia, so to suddenly find myself with Seamus as a guest was a timely treat. We ran through our lists of favourite poets from the monastic tradition to the present day. I recorded Seamus and Marie singing most of the Irish songs and ballads I wanted to include in the collection. In the book he gave me he wrote two lines from Shakespeare’s contemporary Walter Raleigh, who ended his days on the scaffold: “Stab at thee he that will,/ No stab thy soul can kill” from the poem The Lie, in which Raleigh commands his soul to go forth and openly decry the falseness of the world.

It was an unusual inscription, but its meaning was easy to glean. The iron curtain was then only beginning to open, and Seamus wrote that inscription not, as it were, personally for me, but for the world at large. He had long been concerned by the reduced authority of the poetic word in the contemporary world. His search for a way out of this impasse led him to turn in hope to the experience of Eastern Europe, where poetry was a form of resistance to totalitarian ideology and the poet was conceived of as a heroic figure. In his essay The Impact of Translation (1986) he wrote:

“… our sense of the fate and scope of modern Russian poetry has implicitly established a bench at which subsequent work will have to justify itself… Western poets do not assume that a tyrannical situation is mitigated because it produces heroic artists and last-ditch art. They do not in any way envy the hard fate of the artist but rather admire the faith in art itself which becomes manifest in the extreme conditions.” (included in The Government of the Tongue, London: Faber, 1988)

I have always found translating Heaney difficult. His style is unusually concrete, nearly prosaic. This is hard to convey in Russian. In our literary tradition there is more romantic pathos and elemental musicality. It is closer to Yeats. Heaney’s method is meditation with what Joyce called “epiphanies”, and what Wordsworth termed “spots of time”. This is why I found it so challenging to enter his poetic world. I find another branch of poetry – the dramatic, as opposed to the meditative – closer to my sensibility. And then there was the peasant mindset, which is so important to Heaney, but which to my urban ear is exotically unfamiliar. Add in multiple layers of cultural allusions (from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Czeslaw Milosz) and multiple layers of polysemy, and you can begin to imagine the complexity of the translator’s task.

Over the years Heaney’s poetry, without losing its depth, became more transparent, more powerful. But the poet himself had doubts about this. When in 2012 I sent him a volume of my translations, a selection of poems from his 20 collections of poetry, he responded, saying: ‘Your choice of poems is remarkable, and what I find particularly inspiring is that my last few collections are more generously represented that my earlier ones.”

Pura López Colomé: Translating Seamus Heaney into Spanish
Translating Heaney´s work into Spanish has been a privilege for me, still unbelievable after so many years. He has been a beacon in my literary as well as my personal life. But being grateful does not seem enough. Someone like Seamus, who has been accurately defined by Paul Muldoon as bounteous, magnificently generous – I would say in my own language, munífico – deserves much more. Both his poetry and his prose enter through the ear, and sink inside emotions and thoughts: for a poet like myself, whose mother tongue is not English, the desire to hear those words in Spanish was immediate. This is what I’ve been giving free rein to ever since I came across his work, ever since we met.

Almost needless to say, I was dazzled by the blend of music and metaphor from the very beginning of our friendship, when I heard him read in Mexico during the early eighties. He was invited to participate in a legendary international festival of poetry, along with Borges, Tranströmer, Paz, Ginsberg.

Secretly I began to translate some of his poems, trying to see if I could enter in resonance through the Latin channels and cadences my language offered, always keeping in mind that music was, no less, the untranslatable part. Some paradox I was confronting! That of making the already said sayable again; that of making his poems reborn as if having been originally written in another code, one whose pronunciation goes outward instead of inward, like the so guttural English. No wonder he warned me the very first time we spoke: “Don’t forget, I was born to be translated into Dutch!”

Nevertheless, I didn’t give up. I couldn’t.

I consider myself fortunate for having been allowed to dwell inside the world of this amazing poet

I was then working for the literary supplement of one of the leading Mexican newspapers of the time. Station Island had just come out, and I decided to translate some of the poems, introduced by a prose piece about the author, his place of origin, the wonderful world just then revealed to me. Through a friend I got his address. I wrote him a shy letter, not really expecting an answer. To my surprise he did write extensively, saying that the man who had organised that festival had been sending him the different issues where my versions were appearing. He actually praised them (!), and encouraged me to go on. After receiving Isla de las Estaciones, he started sending me other books (not all of them). I took this as a sign of what he thought would suit my possibilities. Seeing Things, The Spirit Level followed.

During his second visit to Mexico, he asked me if I had ever thought of translating the Glanmore Sonnets. I said I felt intimidated by the form itself, being so very different in Spanish and English. “Do you remember that last part of the Nobel Lecture? It will motivate you,” was his clear-cut response. Here’s that paragraph: “The form of the poem […]is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it…”

So I decided to obey my Captain. I collected and translated all his sonnets (each in a double version) included in different volumes, and the book was published when he turned 70. Human Chain was my last adventure. I consider myself fortunate for having been allowed to dwell inside the world of this amazing poet, regardless of my own flaws or finds, a human link in this chain.

Jerzy Jarniewicz: Translating Seamus Heaney into Polish
Seamus Heaney is possibly the most popular foreign-language poet in Poland, with six poetry collections and two volumes of essays translated into Polish, to which we should add numerous translations of his poems published in journals and anthologies, as well as a number of limited-edition books.

Christopher Reid, the British poet, whose work Heaney highly valued, and who is now editing a volume of Heaney’s letters, observed once a paradox whereby “a poet must become the creation of his or her translator”. And Heaney has found many translators in Poland. I have counted more than a dozen of them, many of whom, apart from being distinguished translators, are also outstanding poets in their own right.

The result is that we, in Poland, have not one Heaney, but a number of Heaneys. There is Heaney of exquisite form and Heaney of colloquial diction, the Apollonian Heaney and the Dionysian Heaney. Heaney the classical poet, the literary patrician, the lover of the Mediterranean, heir to Sophocles, Virgil and Dante. And Heaney the Northern “barbarian”, the follower of the romantic tradition, the poet of the dialects and provinces, discovering his world in Buile Suibne and in Beowulf. Of course, Heaney himself was many poets in one author, but Polish translators by foregrounding particular features of his work, which they considered most significant, have succeeded in miraculously multiplying the Irish poet, while making him speak Polish.

Heaney is now an important presence in the recent history of Polish literature

It is not a matter of chance that so many Polish translators and poets felt challenged by Heaney’s poetry and undertook the task of rendering his work into Polish. The ties between Heaney and Polish literature, a form of true cultural kinship and mutual inspiration, were unique in our history. For a very long time, Heaney had cherished special interest in Polish poetry, and especially that of Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz.

Some of his poems are in fact conversations with Polish poets. The Haw Lantern owes something to the parabolic tradition of Herbert, and a number of superb poems from Station Island, including Away from it All and The Master, were in fact inspired by meeting, and then befriending, Milosz. On the other hand, a number of Polish poets, much younger than Heaney, found his poetry inspiring in the way he managed to address public and historical issues without surrendering his sovereignty as an individual. No wonder that Heaney has now more books in Poland than all other Irish poets taken together.

But Heaney’s links with Polish poetry are much richer. Heaney was one of these modern poets, who understood well the importance of translation, managing to blur the distinction between his translations and his original poems. One of his greatest works in this field, sadly not as popular as it deserves, is his translation of Laments, the 16th century elegiac sequence by the Polish poet, Jan Kochanowski, which Heaney did in co-operation with Stanislaw Baranczak.

Heaney, the great Irish poet, is now also an important presence in the recent history of Polish literature. We may say we were lucky to have had him with us.

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