Monday, September 2, 2013

Seamus Heaney, Translator

Beowulf, page 1

Since the sad news came last Friday that Seamus Heaney had died, the papers have been paying due tribute to him as a great Irish poet (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1995). But in none of the obits that I've read is there a mention of him as a great translator. Perhaps that's because people don't recognise one of his greatest works as a translation.  But it is.

Heaney's language of expression was English, not the Gaelic language Irish (aka Erse). That puts him in the lineage of great Irish writers who've left their mark on English literature: Swift, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats, et al. Where would we be without them? So he was Irish in the geographical and ethnographic senses. I was a little surprised to learn that he was born and brought up in Northern Ireland (aka Ulster), "a humble Bellaghy man", since he lived in Dublin and I tend to associate Irish culture with that city and with the south. But then to Irish nationalists it's all one Ireland.

His great achievement as a translator is his Modern English version of Beowulf.  Beowulf, in case you're not familiar with it, is a poetic saga set in Scandinavia, and it's one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature. Beowulf is an epic hero who defeats the monster Grendel in combat. The poem was composed by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet some time between the 8th and early 11th centuries, and it's written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English. And it's in that language name Old English that lies the misunderstanding about translation.

The Germanic language Old English (aka Anglo-Saxon) was the principal ancestor of Modern English. Indeed when I was at school, our compendium of English literature began with a page from Beowulf. But then came "1066 and all that", i.e., the Norman invasion from France, and English changed radically. So much so that we struggled with our page of Beowulf at school and it was unintelligible to us without the help of a glossary and a literal translation provided by our teacher. Look at the image that heads this post and see if you can make it out. Old English and Modern English are so different that they should be considered as two languages. If people want to consider them as a single language, then we are still left with what the theorists call an intralingual translation, i.e., a translation within the same language.

Anyway, technicalities aside, not until Heaney and the publication of his 1999 rendition did I forget the schoolbook exercise and thrill to Beowulf, as did many others. D. M. Thomas wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail, "Looking back, I wish I had been able to read a translation like Heaney's. It has persuaded me that the poem is indeed a masterpiece."

Here's a sample. Notice how cleverly he preserves and exploits one of the outstanding features of Anglo-Saxon poetry: the internal alliteration between each half-line (e.g., Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank) and does so without straining the vocabulary. This in itself is an achievement.  It's a device that gives an urgent spring to the rhythm.
Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank
sand churned in the surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessel's hold, then heaved out,
away with will in the wood-wreathed ship.
Over the waves, with the wind behind her
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird...

  • Beowulf. Wikipedia. Click here. This is a full article that among other things traces the earlier Modern English translations since 1805 as well as the lucky survival of the single extant source manuscript.
  • Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney, 1999. There are several editions on offer, including a bilingual one. The Look Inside! feature of the Amazon website here can give you a free taste of it.

First page of the Nowell Codex, the only surviving manuscript. Source: Wikipedia.

Since writing the above, I've seen some obits that do mention Heaney's translations, and not only the universally admired Beowulf. The Boston Globe of August 31, for example, mentions The Cure at Troy, a play based on Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus.

And a final Heaney connection with translation. His last words, sent in a text message to his wife, were noli timere (Be not afraid). It may be a quote from St. Jerome’s fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible, The Vulgate, the standard translation of the Catholic Church, at Matthew 14:27. Robert Peake writes in The Huffington Post,
Perhaps he also earned the right to embrace a greater truth about living in the final moments of his life, and deliver to us one final message that rings true within our own better nature. Whatever you might believe, Seamus Heaney was a poet to the end. Let us take from his example a little courage, and a little Latin.

No comments:

Post a Comment