By Mollie Teeter
Seamus Heaney is considered one of the greatest poets of our time, and has been celebrated for his translation of the epic poem “Beowulf ” from Old English to modern English. In a conversation with The Student Voice, the 71-year-old Irish poet discusses his influences and feelings toward the world of literature.
Q: What would you say has been the greatest influence in your work, both in your poetry and your translations that you have done?
A: Reading poetry early on was important to me to get me started on poetry. The life I have led is also very important, a life where books weren’t in any way central in the farming community, and then to move from that to a condition where books were central. I think the important thing for me is negotiating between lives, between the literate and, well, not the illiterate, but between the farm and the library, if you like. Between being interviewed and being… unnoticed.
Q: What motivated you to do this updated translation of Beowulf?
A: I read Anglo-Saxon as an undergraduate, as a student, and I read lumps of Beowulf as a student at Queens University in my teens and early twenties. I read Anglo-Saxon poetry but I didn’t really love Beowulf when I was a student, to tell you the truth. I did feel the poetry of other Anglo-Saxon works, like “The Wanderer” or “The Seafarer”…but I still retained a pleasure in the actual fabric of Anglo- Saxon writing, the alliteration, the heft of the lines and so on. So when I was invited to translate Beowulf in the late 1980s, it took me a long time to accept. I did one hundred lines and sent it in for the editor to see it, but then they asked me to do another hundred and I had no urge to do it because it’s very difficult… and nobody was really gasping for a new version of Beowulf anyway. But eventually…the editor wrote me and said look, I can see that you’re in no great hurry to do this, could you just give me the names of two other people that you think could do it. And I knew of two other people who could do it, but I was damned if I was going to let them have the job. So I said I’ll do it. And of course, as I got into it, I loved doing it. I loved the language, I had a feel for the language, and as I worked at it I began to love the poem more and more, especially when Beowulf becomes an old man and has to fight the dragon. I liked that.
Q: Do you think that translation is in a way a personal interpretation of the story? Do you feel like you added anything to the story with your translation?
A: I didn’t add anything to the story, to the actual fabric of the tale, but I allowed it to be heard a certain way. My notion of the poem was that it should be oral ready, that it should be made for speaking aloud, so that’s how I wrote it, writing and engaging it line by line. I was trying it, I suppose, on the ear silently. The biggest reward for me in the end was to read it for BBC radio on a program called “A Book at Bedtime,” because that, to me, was how it was meant to be. So if anything, I feel I might have contributed to it’s this audibility, this listenability, this direct, straightforward narrative — a kind of plainspoken, go ahead, let’s hear what happened.
Q: Why do you think translations are important?
A: The word means “carry over,” and that is what reading fundamentally has to do is carry things over from one imagination to another. If you take your own language, the Anglophone language, reading is carrying over there. So it’s opening yourself to the world, and I just know that from my own experience in reading that without translation, I would be much poorer in my sense of myself in the world. Polish poetry means a lot to me, Russian poetry, Dante in Italian, old Irish, the epics, all these things that give you your longitude and latitude in consciousness, they are part of the way we as a species locate ourselves, in culture and consciousness. Reading is central to that location and enrichment.
Q: Why do you think literature is central in someone’s education?
A: Since the decay of religious belief and the decay of teaching authority in religious centers and indeed in other centers, in the Western world anyway, literature, literary fiction, and poetry is where our sense of moral and ethical exploration occurs. It’s where serious philosophical questions, serious moral and ethical questions, things that would have been brought up in Sunday school and Bible class, from the pulpits, the sort of right and wrong and black and white essentials taught in these settings has evaporated. And because of that, the centrality and seriousness of literature has become more important.
Q: What would you consider your greatest accomplishment?