Heaney, Translator

It’s sometimes easy to forget how concrete poetry can be. “But best of all was the warm thick slobber / Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water / In the shade of the banks,” wrote Seamus Heaney, who died today, in his poem “Death of a Naturalist.” The title is a good summary of what happened. Heaney’s poetry has a weighty quality to it that makes the things he describes seem intimately familiar and down-to-earth, part of the landscape instead of things built upon it.

You can see Heaney’s love of the land, in particular his own Ireland, throughout his poetry. But, to see it in full form, you should turn to his English translation of the Irish epic classic Buile Suibhne (which he translates as Sweeney Astray), the story of a medieval Irish king who is transformed into a bird and flies across the countryside. The poem has numerous moments that describe the environment, and it’s a fantastic fit for Heaney’s poetic style. He makes a dozen stanzas in the middle of the poem that describe different Irish trees compelling:

The aspen pales

and whispers, hesitates:

a thousand frightened scuts

race in its leaves.

In addition to this, Heaney also wrote one of the more notable translations of the classic Old English poem Beowulf, one of the most critical documents in the history of English literature, and one that showcases homeliness: the warriors drinking mead in their great hall, worrying over and warring against the invasions of the distinctly alien monster Grendel (here’s a good article about it.) They’re two remarkable works that are as much as part of Heaney’s oeuvre, and Ireland’s, as his own poetry.

Reflecting on Heaney’s translations should serve as a reminder of the literary qualities necessary to the act of translation itself. In an age where most people’s primary interactions with translation are the useful, but lacking, machine translations engineered by entities like Google and BabelFish, it’s not immediately apparent just how much creative work has to go into the very best ones; the poet Charles Baudelaire spent over fifteen years translating Edgar Allan Poe into French. Different languages have different idioms, rhythmic patterns, and sounds, and those variations present challenges for the more straightforward, literal word-for-word translations aimed at academic audiences.

But even further than that, notable writers doing translation can incorporate elements of foreign cultures, both past and distant, into a present place’s sense of self and literary culture. Not only can doing translation help shape an author’s personal style and the broader interpretation of her work–––I’m thinking of American writer Lydia Davis’ translations of French authors Marcel Proust’s and Gustave Flaubert’s Swann’s Way and Madame Bovary, respectively, among others–––but also, it can also pull more obscure works from the shadows. It allows them to be living literature, texts that everyday readers can pick up and enjoy, and not only objects of study, which paradoxically makes the process of studying them seem less foreign.

While it’s certainly not the case that one must always be hyper-vigilant about the poetic considerations of translation, it is a very good thing when writers that people know, love, and trust to be “good” do this sort of work. It positively affects the development of national literature, broadens the field of interesting writing present at a given moment, can create excitement in a way that other translations might not, and shows how translation is an art in and of itself, and not merely a means to access something hidden.


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