The Impact of Translation

Seamus Heaney
A portrait of Heaney O Connor
Adapted from a photograph by Sean O'Connor / Creative Commons

In this essay I shall argue that the impact of translation upon poets and poetry in English has involved two main lines of reaction which might be characterized as “envy” and “identification.” But I want to begin with a poem by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by the author and Robert Pinsky, which Robert Pinsky read to me some years ago at his home in Berkeley:


Human reason is beautiful and invincible.

No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,

No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.

It establishes the universal ideas in language,

And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice

With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.

It puts what should be above things as they are,

Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.

It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,

Giving us the estate of the world to manage.

It saves austere and transparent phrases

From the filthy discord of tortured words.

It says that everything is new under the sun,

Opens the congealed fist of the past.

Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia

And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.

As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,

The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.

Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.

Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

My first experience of these lines, spoken in the upstairs study of a silent house, empty that afternoon except for ourselves, was altogether thrilling. There is always a slight element of the conspiratorial present when a poem is read aloud between two people, a sense of a private march being stolen, perhaps too a sense of risk being taken that the other party may find the whole performance a little jejune; yet the feeling of collusion in this case was made all the stronger for me because we were enjoying a poem which did certain strange forbidden things, forbidden within an old dispensation to which I was admittedly more subject than my host, who had once studied with Yvor Winters. This poem was, for example, full of abstractions, and to a member of a generation whose poetic ABCs included “A Few Don’ts for Imagists” with its strictures upon the whole generalizing tendency, and MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” with its plump insistence on obliquity and suggestiveness, to such a one these unabashed abstract nouns and conceptually aerated adjectives should have been altogether out of the question. “Glorious,” “beautiful,” “universal,” “banishment,” “despair,” “discord,” “destruction”—usually one would have demurred at the torpor of this vocabulary, its indifference to the expectation of particularity. Usually, too, one’s orthodox assumptions would have been surprised and ruffled by the unembarrassed didacticism of the lines. Nothing was being dramatized; the speaker in the poem seemed to be irrefutably one with the voice of the poet; he seemed, moreover, to know exactly what he wanted to say before he began to say it, and indeed the poem aspired to deliver what we had once long ago been assured it was not any poem’s business to deliver: a message.

Yet it was thrilling. It was exalted. It echoed the high terms of fundamental texts. It proclaimed in argent speech truths we had assumed to be previous to poetry, so richly established outside its formal citadel that they could never be admitted undisguised or untransmuted through the eye of the lyric needle. But still, here they were in a modern poem—big, pulpit-worthy affirmations, boosted all the farther by that one metaphorical line about a unicorn and an echo in the mountains.

I wonder, however, if Robert Pinsky had told me that the lines had been composed by a Jesuit rector from Holy Hill, north of campus, would my response have remained as uncomplicatedly positive? Granted, what gives the poem its ultimate force is the proclamation of trust in values which gave Western civilization a justifying vision of itself until the civilization became so unnerved by its contradictory history of atrocity that it could barely affirm the radiant categories upon which it was founded. Nevertheless, the force of the proclamation does not reside in its content alone. The artfulness of its diction, rhythm, and tone is primarily what secures our attention and assent. It is a feat of rhetoric, and I can imagine a perverse and resourceful critic arguing for the unreliability of the performing voice here. But even so, given that the poem’s rhetoric and content are truly bonded, should it matter at all who composed it?

That very bonding, however, is surely effected in great part by our awareness of the context from which Czeslaw Milosz’s text emerges. The bright shafts of humanism which were projected in the original Polish against a background of dark communal experience might shine less convincingly if they originated instead from a source of professional uplift and correction such as a rectory. It counted for much that this poem was written by somebody who resisted the Nazi occupation of Poland and broke from the ranks of the People’s Republic after the war and paid for the principle and pain of all that with a lifetime of exile and self-scrutiny. The poem, in fact, is a bonus accruing to a life lived in the aftermath of right and hurtful decisions. It was written, like the great majority of Milosz’s poems, against the grain, because while his lyrics were a mode of contemplation rather than a mode of action, they existed nevertheless as works of obstinate and solitary opposition to what a debased idiom was all too ready to call “historical necessity.”

Obviously, then, the “envy” I referred to earlier is based on this kind of admiration by English-speaking poets in the West for those poets, particularly in the Soviet republics and the Warsaw Pact countries, whose poetry not only witnesses the poet’s refusal to lose his or her cultural memory but also testifies thereby to the continuing efficacy of poetry itself as a necessary and redemptive mode of being human.

What translation has done over the last couple of decades is to introduce us not only to new literary traditions but also to link the new literary experience to a modern martyrology, a record of courage and sacrifice which elicits or unstinted admiration. So, subtly, with a kind of hangdog intimation of desertion, poets in English sense the locus of poetic greatness shifting away from their language. This is not to suggest that poets and readers are not still sensible of the achievements of Yeats and Frost and Eliot and Auden as the unlooked-for events in poetry which they were and are—geological occurrences which have altered the contours of the language we look back upon. These remain undeniable forms in our literary memory. Yet gradually, shadowy others, wraiths from beyond, have begun to move in the Elysian background. We have been made conscious, for example, of the passionate driven spirits of Russian poetry in the teens, twenties, and thirties of this century. Whether we can truly know the force and brilliance of their work through translation is not a question I wish to address here. It seems self-evident that what the reader who does not speak Russian experiences as the poem in translation is radically and logically different from what the native speaker experiences, phonetics and feelings being so intimately related in the human makeup. What I am suggesting, rather, is the way in which our sense of the fate and scope of modern Russian poetry has implicitly offered another bench at which subsequent work will have to justify itself. How often, in epigraphs to essays and poems, or as the subject of essays and poems, or as corroborating allusions in essays and poems, do we not nowadays come upon the names of Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova and the Mandelstams and Pasternak? In these cases and in many others—Mayakovsky, Esenin, Blok, Gumilev—the poets have provided a full answer to the exacting question devised by Geoffrey Hill for all those who would be tested for passage into the realm of utter writing:

Must men stand by what they write

As by their camp-beds or their weaponry

or shell-shocked comrades while they sag and cry?

All of these answer yes. All stand by their writing in the sense that writing is their perpetuation, their monument. But they stand by what they write also; they toe the line, not just the verse line but the one where courage is tested, where to stand by what you write is to have to stand your ground and take the consequences. For these poets, the mood of writing is the indicative mood and for that reason they constitute a shadow-challenge to poets who dwell in the conditional, the indeterminate mood which has grown characteristic of so much of the poetry one has been reading in the journals and new books in America for years.

We cannot know, as I have said, what these heroic names mean in the original language. For that, we take the word of the best poetic intelligences of their time and tongue. But then it is not so much their procedure as poets on the page which is influential as the composite image which has been projected of their conduct. That image, congruent with the reality, features a poet tested by dangerous times. What is demanded is not any great public act of confrontation or submission; what is demanded is rather a certain self-censorship, an agreement to forge, in the bad sense, the uncreated conscience of a race, to graft the undetermined, individual tongue of the poet upon the choral tongues of the literature of the state. Their resistance to this pressure, however, is not initially or necessarily political. The poets are more concerned with the authenticity of their creative processes than with the success or failure of state policies—and most people who are aware of the nature of a writer’s martyrdom are aware of this. As a matter of historical fact, Osip Mandelstam was literally unable to swallow the lie of Socialist realist poetry: he simply could not write the praises of a hydroelectric dam, not even to save his life. But there is of course a spin-off, a ripple effect, to such deviant artistic content. It is the refusal by this rearguard minority which exposes to the vanguard majority the abjectness of their collapse, as they flee for security into whatever self-deceptions the party line requires of them. And it is because they effect this exposure that the poets become endangered: people are never grateful for being reminded of their moral cowardice.

Joseph Brodsky has put all this with characteristic force and succinctness. “My personal argument would be,” he said in an interview last year in Dublin, “that the undemocratic society commits not a political crime against its people but an anthropological crime. It reduces the human potential, which is what the poet stands for. He stands for the greater ability of an individual to create mentally or spiritually or whatever—linguistically.” More sardonically, Zbigniew Herbert concludes a poem called “The Power of the State”—in his recent collection Report from the Besieged City—as follows:

Before we declare our consent we must carefully examine

the shape of the architecture the rhythm of the drums and pipes

official colors the despicable rituals of funerals

Our eyes and ears refused obedience

the princes of our senses proudly chose exile

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

Yes taste

that commands us to get out to make a wry face draw out a sneer

even if for this the precious capital of the body the head

must fall

What is being implied here, by both Brodsky and Herbert, is what actually happened with such drastic consequences in the lives of many previous poets in the Slavic languages. It was not an ethical command that drove them into resistance but an artistic fidelity. And when poets of the Free World “envy” their Eastern European successors, they do so not in the simple-minded spirit sometimes attributed to them and which is a caricature of their subtler, more shadowy complexes. Western poets do not assume that a tyrannical situation is somehow mitigated by the fact that it produces heroic artists and last-ditch art. Their envy is not at all for the plight of the artist but for the act of faith in art which becomes manifest as the artist copes with the tyrannical conditions. They stand in awe as life rises to the challenge of Yeats’s imagined “Black out; Heaven blazing into the head: / Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.” In the professionalized literary milieu of the West, the poet is susceptible to self-deprecation and skepticism; the poet in the United States, for example, is aware that the machine of recognition-making and book distribution, whether it elevates or ignores him or her, is indifferent to the moral and ethical force of the poetry being distributed. A permissive, centrally heated, grant-aided pluralism of fashions and schools, a highly amplified language of praise which becomes the language of promotion and marketing—all this which produces from among the most gifted a procession of ironists and dandies and reflexive talents also produces a subliminal awareness of the alternative conditions and an over-the-shoulder glance toward them which I have characterized as envy.

Translations of these Eastern Bloc poets have not, admittedly, changed the styles of poetry in Britain or Ireland or Australia or North America. The several versions of Mandelstam or Akhmatova or Pasternak which are now available have not had any noticeable carryover; nor has the recent rise in the fortunes of Greek and Polish poetry entailed any significant change of note in our vernacular. Yet when a talented young British poet bring out a volume called Katerina Brac, written in the voice of an apocryphal Eastern European woman poet of that name, I am all the more persuaded that my contemporaries have been slightly displaced from an old at-homeness in their mother tongue and its hitherto entirely adequate poetic heritage.

Christopher Reid, the author of Katerina Brac, had been classed until its publication as a member of that group of English poets dubbed “Martians” after Craig Raine’s eponymous “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.” Reid was and remains an adept of this school of writing, a mode involving defamiliarization, a sleight-of-image process by which one thing is seen in terms of another thing. Indeed, the mode became so successful and winning that Raine and Reid were in danger of ending up prisoners of their own invention. I believe it is symptomatic that Reid’s escape route from such a patented idiom should be by way of echoing certain poetic noises he could not naturally achieve in his own voice.

I am reminded of Stephen Dedalus’s enigmatic declaration that the shortest way to Tara was via Holyhead, implying that departure from Ireland and in inspection of the country from the outside was the surest way of getting to the core of the Irish experience. I wonder if we might not nowadays affirm, analogously, that the shortest way to Whitby, the monastery where Caedmon sang the first Anglo-Saxon verses, is via Warsaw and Prague. To put it more directly, contemporary English poetry has become aware of the insular and eccentric nature of English experience in all the literal and extended meanings of those adjectives. England’s island status, its off-center European positioning, its history of non-defeat and non-invasion since 1066, these enviable and (as far as the English are concerned normative conditions have ensured a protracted life within the English psyche for the assumption that a possible and desirable congruence exists between domestic and imagined reality. But Christopher Reid’s book represents a moment of doubt; and it represents also the delayed promise, though not the complete fulfillment, of a native British modernism.

This was potentially present in the stylistic intensities and the dislocated geopolitical phantasmagorias of early Auden, and in the visionary if low-wattage poetry of Edwin Muir. Muir’s two postwar volumes, The Labyrinth in 1949 and One Foot in Eden in 1956, are not like anything that was going on just then on the poetic home front. These books existed equidistant from the neoromantic rhetoric of George Barker and Dylan Thomas and from the tight formation-flying of the Empson/Auden division. It so happened that it was the Movement poets, Larkin, Davie, Enright, and others, the inheritors in the Empson/Auden line, who pointed the way for much of what happened over the next twenty years. Yet it could be thought a matter of regret that Edwin Muir—the poet who translated Kakfa in the 1920s and who witnessed the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia after the war, the one poet from the British island with an eschatological if somewhat somnambulist address to the historical moment in postwar Europe—did not succeed better in bringing the insular/vernacular/British imagination into more traumatic contact with a reality of which Katerina Brac is the wistful and literary afterimage. Here, for example, is Muir’s “The Interrogation,” from The Labyrinth:

We could have crossed the road but hesitated,

And then came the patrol;

The leader conscientious and intent.

The men surly, indifferent.

While we stood by and waited

The interrogation began. He says the whole

Must come out now, who, what we are

Where we have come from, with what purpose, whose

Country or camp we fight for or betray.

Question on question.

We have stood and answered through the sounding day

And watched across the road beyond the hedge

The careless lovers in pairs go by,

Hand linked in hand, wandering another star,

So near we could shout to them. We cannot choose

Answer or action here,

Though still the careless lovers saunter by

And the thoughtless field is near.

We are on the very edge,

Endurance almost done,

And still the interrogation is going on.

There is something different here, in spite of some quite specific Auden echoes. “The Interrogation” anticipates by a couple of decades the note which would be heard when A. Alvarez began to edit his influential Penguin Modern European Poets series in the late sixties, a note as knowledgeable as it was powerless to survive with any sort of optimism in the light of what it knew.

So Muir’s poem is “European”—but in a way very different from the way that Robert Lowell’s Imitations is “European.” Those translations, which appeared a dozen years later, are still confident in their cultural and historical self-possession. Lowell’s versions are offered as bridges to link up with an undemolished past. The breach made by the war years did not succeed in dissociating Lowell and his contemporaries living under the roof of English from the enterprise of the great modernists. Pound and Eliot and Joyce may have regarded themselves as demolitionists of sorts but from a later perspective they turned out to be conservationists, keeping open lines to the classical inheritance of European literature. In getting ready for the end of a world, they extended its life expectancy indefinitely.

If, therefore, Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Keith Douglas, Louis MacNeice, Louis Simpson, Dylan Thomas, and Eliot himself all testified at different moments and in different registers in their poetry to the horror and fury of the war, they did so with an unbroken historical nerve. The war may have made as great a gap in their sense of human nature as bombs made in the cities, but the poetic tradition inside which these poets worked cushioned the blast. It was as if a kind of cultural air-raid shelter were prepared by Eliot’s reinforcement of the very idea of tradition itself. I hope I will not be considered a boor or an ingrate if I adduce the famous passage in “Little Gidding” as an illustration of how effective the beauties of the poetic heritage could be in keeping at bay the actual savagery of the wartime experience. There, Hitler’s Luftwaffe could be sent packing as a dark dose beneath the horizon of its homing, and the All Clear after the air raid could summon matutinal airs which drifted once from the dew of a high eastern hill towards the battlements of Elsinore.

“Little Gidding,” however, is exactly the kind of poetry which was due to come into disrepute in many quarters, especially in America, during the sixties and the seventies. Head poetry. Academic. Rational-male-imperialist. Will-infected. It would be superfluous even if it were possible here to retrace the story of the Buddhist backlash, the deep-image underground, the whole amalgam of impulses and alternatives from Beat to speed which became operative in deliberate opposition to the perceived academicism of the “establishment” poets. But it is in this area that my notion of “identification” comes into play. If we think, for example, of Gary Snyder’s poetic enterprise, we think too of his access to Oriental and American Indian poetry. If we think of W. S. Merwin, we think also immediately of a corroborating body of translations done by the poet himself. If we think of James Wright and Robert Bly, we cannot fail to think of their own styles growing continuous with their various translations of Vallejo and Neruda and Tranströmer and Trakl. And I daresay that if I knew enough about the genesis of early Ashbery, I might be citing certain lesser-known French surrealists (except that by some odd convention, French poetry hardly seems to count as translated poetry at all).

All the same, it is sufficient to invoke these names to alert ourselves to the very different relationship which obtains between them and their foreign-language familiars and that between Lowell and his originals. Lowell’s foreign poets are reminders of what is there to be lived up to; their function is admonitory and conservative. Bly’s poets are models of how to do it right; their function is subversive and instructional. “What is so amazing in this century has been the blindness of Americans,” Bly declared in an interview in the San Francisco Book Review in the early seventies. “There is this incredible poetry in Spain, in South America, in Russia. Williams did not see it. Pound did not see it… . Pound almost never mentioned Rilke, for example. Why not? Because he’s too inward.”

Bly would go on to do his own versions of Rilke and Neruda and Tranströmer and others with whom he could identify because their creative procedures represented a challenge to the dominant and, as he saw it, undesirable poetic practices ratified by Departments of English. His purpose was to discomfit the formalists, and he threw his foreign-language exemplars like shock troops into the assault. Here he is, with a wonderfully enjoyable riff about Neruda:

His imagination sees the hidden connections between conscious and unconscious substances with such assurance that he hardly bothers with metaphors—he links them by tying their hidden tails. He is a new kind of creature moving about under the surface of everything… . Compared to him, most American poets resemble blind men moving gingerly along the ground from tree to tree, from house to house, feeling each thing for a long time and then calling out “House!” when we already know it is a house.

Neruda has confidence in what is hidden. The Establishment respects only what the light has fallen on, but Neruda likes the unlit just as well. He writes of small typists without scorn, and of the souls of huge, sleeping snakes.

This is great stuff altogether, and it only becomes less enjoyable when you think of a whole body of standard-issue workshop surrealism which rambles permissively in the wake of such pugnacious advocacy. Why do I grow niggardly faced with such beguiling and opulent invention? It has to do, I am sure, with such extraliterary considerations, with a half-suppressed resentment that such poetic identification has issued in a kind of unwarranted annexation, whereby South American poetry’s location with the literary sphere is equivalent to its place in political spheres of influence. Sullenness, if not resentment, that a poetry like Vallejo’s, born from an experience of exposure and deprivation, from a sensibility both stoical and penitential, and from a language at once vestigially Catholic and persistently elemental, that such a poetry should translate and precipitate into uplift and felicity in a world of plenty; that what was once obliquely political should be the ratifying authority for work which asks us only to applaud its beguiling negotiations wit the private unconscious; that what was once wrung valiantly from history should become available at such greatly reduced emotional prices.

In the introduction to their fine anthology of contemporary poetry in translation, Another Republic, Mark Strand and Charles Simic make a distinction between two broad categories or poet who appear in the book: the mythological and the historical. They write:

The origins of the mythological vision can be seen in surrealism, which, by concerning itself with the unconscious, found a metaphor for uncovering and using archetypal imagery. It restored to the familiar world its strangeness and gave back to the poet his role of myth maker. Thus, for the mythological poet the miraculous is close at hand, easily encountered if he pays attention, as he must, since attention is his most important faculty… .

For the poets whose vision is dominated by historical consciousness … in history nothing changes except the names… . For poets like Milosz and Herbert there is no way to forget that despite our utopian ideologies we live in a world of wars, famine, and faithlessness. Such poets bear tragic witness to the social and political events of their time, and their work is characterized by two modes of self-expression: the lyric, which attempts to ennoble the suffering of those who are victimized or estranged; and the comic, which recognizes the absurdity of individual destinies in the presence of the great abstractions of history.

This is well said, but it does come from an introduction and therefore it deliberately presents a rather trim summary of the topic. But it is a useful summary which persuades me to trim also, and to say that the example of the mythological type of poet has been well taken in much recent American practice. Taken, perhaps, to a point where mythological and surrealist procedures, which were originally a method for breaking through into life, have become a ring of literary defense against life. What the great modernists did in a redemptive way when they discovered forms which would allow us to contemplate the unforeseen nature of our consciousness is being done nowadays in a debilitating way by richly gifted contemporaries, insofar as the forms which they offer us allow us to contemplate only what is foreseen and already approved as intrinsically poetic. There has been an overidentification with the “mythological” school; therefore one of the functions of poetry at the present time in America should be to take cognizance again of poetry’s covenant with the historical.

In “Little Gidding,” which we considered previously, Eliot’s persona wanders through the newsreel familiarity of a blitz, an aquiline revenant, an earnest of desirable Shakespearean sympathy between natural and moral worlds, of a Dantesque order of good and evil; he also constitutes imaginary proof that an ordained and suprahistorical reality persists, and it is of course one of the poetry’s triumphs to make such a faith provisionally tenable. But it is Muir’s persona, in the poem which I quoted, who seems to be more truly our representative, stunned and ineffective at the center of a menacing pageant, what Eliot called the vast panorama of violence and futility which is contemporary history. If Muir’s poetry is far less authoritative and ungainsayable than Eliot’s, there is nevertheless audible in it a note which sounds both elegiac for and posthumous to the European civilization which produced it. We who live and have our being in English know that this note is proper to the world we have come to inhabit, to the extent that our own recent history of consumerist freedom and eerie nuclear security seems less authentic to us than the tragically tested lives of those who live beyond the pale of all this fiddle. Which is why the note sounded by translated poetry from the world beyond is so credible, desolating, and resuscitative.

I would propose, then, that there was a road not taken in poetry in English in this century, a road traveled once by the young Auden and the middle-aged Muir. Further, because we have not lived the tragic scenario which such imaginations presented to us as the life appropriate to our times, our capacity to make a complete act of faith in our vernacular poetic possessions has been undermined. Consequently, we are all the more susceptible to translations which arrive like messages from those holding their own much, much farther down that road not taken by us—because, happily, it was a road not open to us.

Finally, to put it another way, which was Muir’s way: when we read translations of the so-called historical poets of Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe and Greece, “We are on the very edge… . And still the interrogation is going on.”

from The Yale Review, Vol. 76, no. 1, Autumn 1986

Seamus Heaney was an Irish poet, playwright, and translator who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.
Originally published:
July 15, 2024


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