‘When a warrior is gone’… Seamus Heaney

‘When a warrior is gone’… Seamus Heaney.

Via Call of the Siren.

Though – as I wrote a couple posts back – Heaney was not my favorite translator of Beowulf, it’s impossible to deny the impact of his translation, and for those who find medieval literature to be not only interesting and entertaining but also somehow important, that impact can only be a good thing.

As I am outside the academy it’s hard to gauge the current state of medieval scholarship in educational institutions, but a more widespread readership of Beowulf means more people are thinking about it, writing about it, making movies and art about it.  We can wrangle about the quality of that art (which is a good deal of the fun!), but to the extent that Beowulf becomes part of our cultural awareness, it becomes part of a living tradition.  I think Seamus Heaney had a good deal to do with that.

Heaney and Beowulf

I remember being an undergraduate just prior to the publication of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in 1999.  I hadn’t read much of Heaney’s poetry, but my lit professors were thrilled at the prospect of the old poem being pushed into modern English by a current poet with some real chops.  Some time after the Norton edition came out, I bought a copy – though to be honest I was more interested in the critical essays included in the volume than the translation itself.

But for all its accolades, Heaney’s Beowulf is not my favorite (that honor goes to Frederick Rebsamen, whose translation, light on punctuation and innovative in syntax, seems to evoke most strongly the rhythm and atmosphere of the original).  I remember reading some passages of Heaney’s version to my wife and having to stop – something didn’t seem right; the poem seemed somehow lighter than I remembered.

Other writers have articulated their own thoughts on Heaney and Beowulf, so I was interested to see an essay via medievalists.net that promised to explore the matter:  What Seamus Heaney Did to Beowulf: An Essay on Translation and the Transmutation of English Identity.

If you’ve read Heaney’s Beowulf, the essay could be worth a read – though the author, Sandra M. Hordis, seems to have an axe to grind.  The “English identity” of the title isn’t defined, and its “transmutation” goes largely unexplained.  Hordis shows that Heaney’s use of Anglo-Irish idiom to translate some Old English words complicates the text, given that the majority of its readers will need to have those Anglo-Irish words themselves defined – but then, this would be fairly clear to anyone reading Heaney’s own Introduction to his translation: Heaney’s professed desire to use Irish terms from his upbringing as “one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism” immediately struck me as out of place, a little nationalist, even.  Hordis’s main critique seems to be that Heaney’s translation intentionally “foreignizes” (her term) itself, which is a fair point, but doesn’t perhaps require the detailed explanation she gives.

Hordis’s essay did lead me to Thomas Shippey’s 1999 criticism of Heaney’s Beowulf: “Beowulf for the Big-Voiced Scullions.”  Shippey takes Heaney to task from the point of view of a scholar of Old English, and he makes his points with force and clarity.  Whereas Hordis sees Heaney complicating the relationship between translator, audience, and source text, Shippey sees Heaney simplifying some of the subtleties to be found in the Old English original.

Both writers make convincing arguments, but neither essay reflects my own reservations about Heaney’s translation, which are admittedly vague, subjective, and aesthetic.  If Heaney’s was the only translation going, I doubt Beowulf would figure so largely in my own reading – and I have to wonder about those many readers for whom Heaney’s is the only doorway.