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Praising the literary and human genius that was Seamus Heaney

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By Paddy Twigg,

New Zealand representative, The Ulster-New Zealand Trust at the Ballance House

Seamus. “We don’t need to mention his surname, because we all know who it is,” said Peter Ryan, the Irish Republic’s Ambassador to New Zealand, speaking at the launch of the new book Raids and Settlements: Seamus Heaney as Translator.

It marked the first time that an extensive academic study of Seamus’s translation work has been published, following the appearance of a multitude of books, academic papers, symposia and articles on his other writings.

Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and a towering figure in world literature of the 20th and early 21st centuries, Seamus was a long-time friend of one of this new book’s editors, Marco Sonzogni.

Originally from Italy, Marco lived and studied for many years in Ireland before moving to New Zealand where he now teaches literary translation at Victoria University of Wellington.

He and his co-editor have gathered together 15 essays, each one featuring a different language from which Seamus Heaney has translated poetry.

Fourteen of the 17 contributors either currently live in New Zealand (or have studied there in the past), while the other three live now or previously studied in Ireland.

This marvellous collection of essays is not only a living example of Heaney’s international reach, but also expresses in its own way the strong bonds between Ulster – and the rest of Ireland – and New Zealand.

As time passes, the number of generations that separate today’s New Zealanders from their forebears increases. Emigration from the Emerald Isle to the different green of New Zealand’s bushy mountains has slowed over recent decades, though still there are young Irish people who come here for an experience or a life that resembles more the Ireland of Heaney’s youth than the Ireland of today.

My own great-grandfather, Henderson James Twigg, who came to New Zealand in 1861 as a 21-year-old accountant in search of adventure, was the son of the curate of St Swithin’s church, Magherafelt, just down the road from Seamus’s boyhood home at Bellaghy.

Family ties inevitably weaken, but poetry and other literature speak across generations, across the world and across cultures. As Seamus Heaney’s work shows, even language does not have to be a barrier.

Seamus fell in love with Latin as a schoolboy, and while his identity was rooted in the Ulster countryside, his love of language extended beyond his native dialect and his schooldays.

As A B Clements says in her essay on Heaney and the Irish language, “Irish is never far from Heaney’s consciousness”, but “the English language spoken in his native Ulster is his medium”. He uses “words and phrases that sound natural when pronounced with an Ulster accent”.

Ulster Scots, a language he heard in his childhood, was a bridge to “that part of the other isle” where he also felt at home.

Seamus’s reach went into the past to Old Irish (a language quite different from modern Irish), Old English (his translation of Beowulf is canonical) and Middle English.

He also went further back to the classics and translated from both Latin and Ancient Greek. Seamus’s translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, published as Burial at Thebes, is one of a series of Irish translations of the play which invite playgoers to compare the conflicts in ancient Thebes with the Troubles in Ireland.

European poetry from many different countries and traditions inspired Heaney to create his own version.

He would “place the voice of the self within the ambit of the voice of the other” in order to set up intercultural dialogue and he valued “the daring and precision of the lyric gift over literal translations”.

Where his familiarity with the language was insufficient to translate poetry directly, he would take a literal translation of it in English, and from that he would craft poetry with his own signature.

Raids and Settlements commences with a discussion of Seamus’s translation of the Czech Diary of One Who Vanished as the libretto for an opera by Leoš Janácek, accepting the risky challenge of making his verse ‘singable’.

His version of a Dutch poem is grafted on to a larger poem that Seamus wrote as a tribute to Dutch potter Sonja Landweer, who, following WW2, “translated herself” from the Netherlands to Ireland.

Seamus’s approach to translating poetry moved “confidently between fidelity and distance” as is beautifully demonstrated in the discussion of his translations of two different French poems.

German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Romanian and Russian are the other modern European languages that hold poetry that Seamus brought to his English-language readers.

The discussions in Raids and Settlements of these accomplishments relate the poets and poetry from these other cultures to Seamus’s thought and writing and to his life generally. They show how this poetry, chosen by Seamus for many different reasons, resonates not just with himself and his countrymen, but also with our own lives and culture wherever we may be.

Raids and Settlements is a collection of perceptive articles that illustrate the literary and human genius that was Seamus Heaney.

The writers, each coming from their unique position, are all experts in their own right, and together have created a comprehensive view of Seamus’s talents as a translator.

The common thread in the arguments of each one of them is that Seamus took poetry from another culture and translated it into poetry that was his own. This is something few can achieve because it requires a genius not just for truly reading the poetry of another language and culture but also for creating poetry.

As these essays reveal, Seamus, grounded in his home turf of Ulster, could take a plant from another field, bring it home and make it flourish in his own soil.

n Raids and Settlements: Seamus Heaney as Translator

Marco Sonzogni and Marcella Zanetti (eds.)

Wellington: The Cuba Press, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-98-859509-2

n Copies available through the publisher: thecubapress.nz. Price $30.

n Ballance House museum, event facility and NZ library at 118a Lisburn Road, Glenavy, BT29 4NY​, County Antrim, is open to the public each Sunday and public holiday until September, from 2pm-5pm.

n To book your visit or bring a group any day of the week browse www.theballancehouse.com

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