In reviewing Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (NYT, 2/27/2000), James Shapiro argued that "influential American admirers […] badly misread [Heaney] when
insisting that his poetry can be appreciated independent of its
politics." Shapiro noted how Heaney might have had to defend himself from Irish readers wondering why the poet had decided to take on the task of translating an old English poem. In the introduction to the Beowulf translation, Heaney himself explained the evolution of how he grappled with the problem of language and cultural dispossesion.
Sprung from an Irish nationalist background and educated at a Northern Irish Catholic school, I had learned the Irish language and lived within a cultural and ideological frame that regarded it as the language which I should by rights have been speaking but which I had been robbed of. I have also written, for example, about the thrill I experienced when I stumbled upon the word lachtar in my Irish-English dictionary and found that this word, which my aunt had always used when speaking of a flock of chicks, was in fact an Irish language word, and more than that, an Irish word associated in particular with County Derry. Yet here it was, surviving in my aunt’s English speech generations after her forebears and mine had ceased to speak Irish. For a long time, thereforre, the little word was–to borrow a simile from Joyce–like a rapier point of conciousness pricking me with an awareness of language-loss and cultural dispossession, and tempting me into binary thinking about language. I tended to conceive of English and Irish as adversarial tongues, as either/or conditions rather than both/ands, and this was an attitude which for a long time hampered the development of a more confident and creative way of dealing with the whole vexed question–the question, that is, of the relationship between nationality, language, history, and literary tradition in Ireland. (W.W. Norton, 2000, p. xxiv)