Translation is famously difficult. Or rather, its difficulty is famous and means a great deal of the talk on translation occurs in the negative, in what translations—and translators—can’t do; their hesitant authority, their deference to the source material or, more often, their pillaging of it. Robert Lowell in his Imitations of 1961 includes poems in several languages he didn’t read, and the collection was received by classicist Dudley Fitts as “fun; but schoolboys should read it in a salt mine.” Most poets don’t make translations, and those who do prefer them in the background, a project to return to when the poems dry up. Randall Jarrell’s partial translation of Faust began in his despair at not writing enough poems: “A wicked fairy has turned me into a prose writer,” he wrote his wife before disappearing into Goethe. Seamus Heaney seemed somehow immune to this problem. Translating wasn’t a compromise or a distraction, a detour or a pastime; his life was for and of poetry, and there’s lots of it. And yet in addition to his own work, which numbered twelve collections in forty-four years, he did translate, and often, with five hundred pages in his Translations, plus two hundred more of commentary by its editor, Marco Sonzogni.
Heaney affected a self-consciously public persona; he didn’t despise preaching—not all the time—or hymns or paeans. Which means people read him. Joe Biden still repeats his favorite passage from Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, the poet’s riff on Philoctetes where “hope and history rhyme.” But things shift when Philoctetes, mellowed by the likelihood of violence, opts to join the Greek siege of Troy:
I’m like a fossil that’s being carried away, I’m nothing but cave stones and damp walls and an old mush of dead leaves. The sound of waves in draughty passages. A cliff that’s wet with spray on a winter’s morning. I feel like the sixth sense of the world.
It’s a strange, numinous gesture, in line with the play’s Auden epigraph: “For in my arms I hold / The Flower of the Ages, / And the first love of the world.” The iambic lift of “the sound of waves in drafty passages” provides a buoyancy which scans as workmanlike, not workaday—crafty, not crafted—never the “grotesque, stilted, archaic language that no one ever spoke and that no one but translators ever wrote” that Randall Jarrell warned against. Instead, Heaney makes the poem hum, and almost sing, across two millennia of cultural and linguistic drift.