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  • Sweeney Astray: The Other in Oneself
  • Denell Downum (bio)

In The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney discusses several senses in which the concept of “redress” is essential to his understanding of poetry. One definition, which the Oxford English Dictionary identifies as obsolete, seems especially attractive to him: “To set (a person or a thing) upright again; to raise again to an erect position. Also fig. to set up again, restore, re-establish” (qtd. in Heaney 15). Heaney’s own reputation as a redresser of the poetry of the past, in this sense of restoring and setting up again, was confirmed in the publication of his enormously successful translation of Beowulf (1999). His version of the epic poem has been a critical as well as a popular success, despite the lonely voices of some Old English scholars who have objected to liberties taken in the translation and especially to Heaney’s use of distinctive words from his native Ulster dialect.1 Many of the positive critical assessments focus on Heaney’s successful restoration of this Anglo-Saxon poem, in a manner that suggests it has been returned to itself as well as to a modern audience. “Heaney gives the poem back its earthy and unearthly reality,” writes Bruce Murphy (212), whereas the Anglo-Saxon scholar Michael Alexander notes that in Heaney’s translation, “a generous poet has brought back our own, in his own words,” with the result that “Beowulf, an elegy for heroism and a critique of feud and fratricide, is once again alive and well” (76). [End Page 75]

The publication in 1983 of Sweeney Astray, which Heaney calls a “version,” rather than a translation, of the late twelfth-century text Buile Shuibhne, represents an earlier act of literary redress. Buile Shuibhne recounts the tale of a seventh-century king from Northern Ireland who goes mad on the field of battle, flees into the woods, and exchanges his kingship for the solace of poetry. Given that this is an Irish rather than an Anglo-Saxon text and that its hero ultimately chooses poetry rather than war, this project would seemingly have been a more natural fit for the Irish poet’s sympathies and talents than his translation of Beowulf. Nevertheless, Sweeney Astray is an odd bird in the Heaney oeuvre, a book often ignored or lightly glossed in overviews of his work and available only by special order from his publishers. In an early review, Denis Donoghue writes, “Buile Shuibhne is a difficult poem. It is my impression that Heaney found it, line by line, hard to deal with.” Donoghue goes on to demonstrate that Sweeney Astray vacillates uncomfortably between the eloquent and the prosaic (28). By most measures of success, Heaney did not succeed in his attempt to restore and reestablish Buile Shuibhne as he did with Beowulf, and the ancient Irish tale has not entered the mainstream of world literature in which the Anglo-Saxon epic is firmly entrenched.

While Sweeney Astray may, in comparison with Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, be accounted a failure, it is an instructive one. The difficulties Donoghue alludes to and with which Heaney appears to have struggled illustrate challenges inherent in any act of translation. Perhaps the most basic choice confronting the translator, as Lawrence Venuti argues in The Translator’s Invisibility, is whether to pursue a “domesticating” or a “foreignizing” strategy (20). The former approach endeavors to produce a fluent and accessible text in the target language (in this case, English), whereas the latter aims to preserve and even emphasize the alien nature of a source text composed in a very different language, culture, and time. The affinity that Heaney clearly feels toward his main character, as a fellow exiled Ulster poet, naturally tends toward a domesticated version that assimilates Sweeney’s story to Heaney’s own twentieth-century voice and concerns. The notion of redress, however, suggests the opposite approach, as it implies the restoration of the original on its own terms. The tension between these two fundamentally different approaches to [End Page 76] translation is evident throughout Sweeney Astray and may account for the unevenness and sense of struggle that Donoghue detects.

Bound up in the broad question...


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pp. 75-93
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