A Holding Field: Seamus Heaney and Translation

From early in his career, Seamus Heaney recognised the importance of translation might play in extending the reach of his literary project. His work in this field reflected a deep respect for poets and playwrights from near and distant cultures, and a grasp of the value that they might hold in illuminating affinities and differences between their worlds, their histories and ours.

As with his own compositions, he started out close to home, tackling initially the great twelfth-century Ulster epic Buile Suibhne at a period in the early 1970s when the violence in Northern Ireland was at its most intense. Although its finished version appeared years later as Sweeney Astray (1983), the hours devoted to it were not wasted, since they clarified his thoughts on the ‘contradictory awarenesses’ that affected him deeply as an artist, his obligation to find ways to address the terrible actuality afflicting people in the North and his duty to follow where instinct and imagination led. Although until recently critics tended to view it as peripheral to the main event, translation – in conjunction with his own lyric-making – served as a valuablemeans to bring these conflicting pressures together ‘into one drama, one holding field’.

Incorporating poems, commentaries, recorded interviews, music and film, this presentation sets out to explore the diversity of Heaney’s translations, and delves first into his work from Irish tradition. Subsequently, it considers his versions of classical and medieval authors (Sophocles, Virgil, the Beowulf poet and Dante), the impact of Polish writers (Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska), and late forays into French and Italian (Eugene Guillevic and Giovanni Pascoli).

A Holding Field is jointly presented by Michael Parker (Oxford University/ Oxford Brookes University), Stephen Regan (Durham University) and Esther Armstrong (University of the Arts, London). On their last appearance at the National Library of Ireland in December 2014, they presented Noli Timere: Reflections on the Life and Work of Seamus Heaney to a sell-out audience.  The event will include filmed contributions from Declan Kiberd, Heather O’Donoghue and Rachel Falconer.


Painting above by Nicola Nemec:  ‘Silent Landscape, Armoy’