Seamus Heaney – Translator

A Feature in honour of Seamus Heaney


Seamus Heaney, who studied Irish at school, published versions of several early Irish works. His last collection, Human Chain, has translations of poems attributed to Colum Cille. One gem gives a view of his home county which reminds us with a serious playfulness of qualities easily forgotten beside the accounts of violence

and discord.

Derry I cherish ever.

It is calm, it is clear.

Crowds of white angels on their rounds

At every corner.

Earlier, Heaney rose to the formidable challenge of making a fresh English translation of ‘Pangur Ban’, already so well rendered by Robin Flower.

Pangur Bán and I at work,

Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:

His whole instinct is to hunt,

Mine to free the meaning pent.

.      .    .     .

So it goes. To each his own.

No vying. No vexation.

Taking pleasure, taking pains,

Kindred spirits, veterans.

Sweeney Astray, a version of Buile Suibhne, is Heaney’s biggest work based on an Irish original. This is more than a making over of words into a different language. Here and in related poems about the king turned into a bird when cursed by St Ronan, Heaney imaginatively identifies with the hero, his afflictions and freedoms. Heaney’s descriptions evoke many places in Ireland where Sweeney goes during his years of madness. Some of these are shown in the illustrated edition of this translation.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of the whole of Beowulf from Anglo-Saxon appeared in 1999.  He had studied the poem as a student at Queen’s College, but only later was he ready to render it as a poem. One of his surprises was recognising words like ‘thole’ that had fallen out of common English usage but were part of life in his childhood. When I have read passages out loud on several occasions, the passages felt very immediate, but giving no sense that the poem’s remote setting was falsely modernised. The threat of sudden and violent death from those operating outside the expectations of civilised life is a resonant one for so many other places in our world, not least in Ireland.

Spurned and joyless, he journeyed on ahead

and arrived at the bawn.  The iron-braced door

turned on its hinge when his hands touched it.

Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open

the mouth of the building, maddening for blood,

pacing the length of the patterned floor

with his loathsome tread, while a baleful light,

flame more than light, flared from his eyes.

During the imagined encounters of Station Island, Heaney’s confessor gives him an unusual penance, to translate a poem by St John of the Cross. The result is a striking rendition that echoes the rhyme structure of the original Spanish.

That eternal fountain, hidden away,

I know its fountain and its secrecy

Although it is the night.

Field Work includes Heaney’s translation of the Ugolino passage from Dante’s Inferno. In Stepping Stones, a collection of interviews with Dennis O’Driscoll, Heaney feels that, influenced by Robert Lowell ‘s practice, he took more liberties than he would in later translations. He also comments that he gave up an attempt to translate more of Dante: ‘You need to be making a music that doesn’t just match the original but verifies something in yourself as well.’ (426)…. Elsewhere, he uses the notion of ‘finding the tune’.

An interesting case of ‘finding the tune’ is his use of different structures for the speakers in Death at Thebes, his version of Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone, for example, is given a metrical form used by the lamenting Eibhlín Dubh in Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, while Creon gets more rigid iambic pentameters. Heaney discusses this experiment in the notes to the U.S. edition of the play. Earlier, Heaney was commissioned to produce a stage version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, produced as The Cure at Troy, an opportunity for him to explore the tensions that exist between political requirements and personal integrity.

Another form of political impulse lies behind Heaney’s translations from Eastern European poets, especially Polish writers, whose experiences and insights he wants to bring to the English-speaking world. He also collaborated with the Polish poet, Stanislaw Baranczak in producing a bilingual modern version of the classic Polish work, Kochanowski’s Laments.  Then there are versions of poems by his friend Joseph Brodsky and other Russian poets.

In discussing his translations from Robert Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables, Heaney comments on the enjoyment of language in which he heard the “‘hidden Scotland’ at the back of my own ear”, a reference to the language around him in his Ulster boyhood. (Introduction, xiii). Though called a translation, this is more a modern rendering of an early form of English. Heaney enjoyed and recreated Henryson’s blend of sardonic humour and solemnity, features that appear throughout his own works.

Latin, along with Irish, was an important part of Heaney’s schooling and he shows increasingly his affection for Virgil. Although this did not result in a major translation, The Aeneid is a presence in his last collections especially, most intriguingly in ‘Route 110’, with its counterpointing of the shades in Virgil’s underworld and the more recent dead of his own time and place.

This final volume includes a sequence inspired by a French poet, ‘A Herbal after Guillevic’s ‘Herbier de Bretagne’, reflections on plants that grow in graveyards. Sadly, his own last journey to a graveyard came too soon afterwards.

Where can it be found again,

An elsewhere world, beyond

Maps and atlases,

Where all is woven into

And of itself, like a nest

Of crosshatched grass blades?



Since retiring as Lecturer in English at LaTrobe University, Chris Watson has followed interests in Irish language, literature and history. His article on Australasian churches dedicated to St. Carthage has just been published