Sorley MacLean


There was a profile in Saturday's Guardian about the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean (or Somhairle MacGill-Eain, to give him his proper Gaelic name) by Seamus Heaney. Somhairle is one of my favourite poets, though as I only know a few words of Gaelic, I have to read his translations into English. Seamus Heaney has just produced a new translation of his poem, "Hallaig", which you can read here. Though the profile is very interesting, and I like Heaney's own poetry a lot, I must say that I am rather disappointed by his translation.

Somhairle's own translations are very spare and literal, and have a wonderful sense of otherness. To me, Heaney's version is too flowery and verbose. Somehow it also seems to lose some of the Gaelic way of thinking about belonging. Take the following lines from Somhairle's version:

In Screapadal of my people, where Norman and Big Hector were, their daughters and their sons are a wood growing up beside the stream.

and compare with the same stanza translated by Seamus:

In Screapadal, where my people Hail from, the seed and breed Of Hector Mor and Norman By the banks of the stream are a wood.

If you ask a Gaelic speaker from the Islands where they come from, they will routinely say (in English), "I belong to Harris". This is a literal translation of the Gaelic phrase, but captures very well a feeling that the Gaels have of being part of the land — almost owned by it. So, for me, Somhairle's phrase, "Screapadal of my people" captures this much better than "where my people/Hail from".

If you want to hear Somhairle reading Hallaig, you can hear him on a track on Martyn Bennett's album, "Bothy Culture", called "Hallaig", obviously.