Springtime is in the air and so is poetry in translation

Twenty-five years ago I did my first interview with the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain (1930-2008). Her bestselling initial memoir “Are You Somebody?” was just out in paperback and she stopped by WYSO in Yellow Springs to appear as a guest on my radio program. I loved that book, but I did have one small bone to pick with her that day.

My dad’s parents were Lithuanians. Nuala had made some disparaging remarks about Lithuanians; she claimed that as a people they had not accomplished much except for some bad things. I asked her about her comments. Then she explained how she had then felt obligated to change her mind about Lithuanians.

She recounted a story about how she had been at a Dublin pub expressing some negative views about Lithuanians. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was also in the pub, he immediately wagered her 20 pence that her opinion was wrong. She accepted the bet.

Heaney launched into a recitation of modern poetry written by Lithuanian poets. It was jaw droppingly brilliant stuff recited from memory by one the greatest poets of the 20th century. Nuala promptly paid off her lost wager. Heaney knew those poems intimately because he had translated them.

Heaney’s poetic brilliance had won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. While he was renowned for the poems he wrote, he was also an incredibly versatile translator and interpreter of the work of others. He was particularly interested in works that were written in Old, Middle, and Modern Irish.

His translations of poems originally written in Irish, Latin, Old English, Ancient and Modern Greek, Middle and Modern French, Medieval and Modern Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Dutch, Russian, German, Scottish Gaelic, and Czech have been collected together at last and issued in a gorgeous new volume as “The Translations of Seamus Heaney” edited by Marco Sonzogni.

Heaney was particularly fond of the 19th century Italian decadent poet Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912). He translated many of Pascoli’s poems. Here’s one favorite of mine:

The Fallen Oak

Where once its shadow spread, the oak tree lies in state.

Its battle with the hurricane is lost.

People say, now I see the size of it.

Here and there inside its fallen crest

The small spring nests hang on in tattered bits.

People say, now I see the good of it.

Everyone’s happy, everyone’s chopping at it,

Everyone goes home with his bundle of sticks.

Next thing, a cry on the air...A blackcap flits

Searching for something she won’t find: her nest.

This collection contains numerous poetic treasures like that one. Happy Spring from the Book Nook.

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com.

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