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BOOKS / Words of war

TRAWLING TRADITION: Translations 1954-1994 by Desmond O'Grady, Hippopotamus Press £25
"WHAT happens at the corner,'' observes Desmond O'Grady of early Celtic literature, "is as important as what happens at the centre.'' The same applies to Trawling Tradition, his collected translations, which begins with Archilochus and Greece in the seventh century BC and ends with Nazim Hikmet in Turkey on 1 June 1963, taking in not only O'Grady's native Irish but classical Chinese, medieval Arabic, Renaissance Armenian and modern Latvian on the way. O'Grady himself is as well-travelled, meeting Beckett in Paris and Pound in Italy. Apart from publishing 14 collections of his own poetry, he has studied Celtic at Harvard, translated Cavafy in Greece and Alexandria, the Mu'allaqaat in Iran.

"My purpose,'' he says of the early Welsh epic "The Gododdin", "was to make a classic masterpiece available to readers of poetry who may not have heard of it but might enjoy it.'' For centuries "The Gododdin", a lament by the bard Aneirin for the Britishnoblemen slain by the Angles at Catraeth (Catterick in Yorkshire) in or around 600AD, has been famous not for its 84 rhyming stanzas but for a single reference to Arthur, possibly the earliest in world literature, which has banished Aneirin's vivid epicto the margins of scholarly debate.

O'Grady's "Gododdin" blows away the dust. He drops the original's strict form and transposes lines at will, scything through the text with all the ruthlessness of a Saxon warrior. By removing all proper names from the poem, O'Grady frees Aneirin's verse from the constraints of its historical context, restoring its immediacy, its poignancy and its passion, to capture the terrible carnage not just of Catraeth but any battle in any time, an elegy for every warrior: "Last seen astride/ a horror of corpses/ cut down as reapers cut gorse".

O'Grady's translations from modern poetry work more personal transformations. His version of "Berlin Metro" by the Lithuanian Thomas Venslova summons not just the shared resonances of recent European history but intimate images of "saint Sam Beckett'' orthe fog "general all over the west'', an echo of Joyce's moving final paragraphs in "The Dead". O'Grady's presence unashamedly stalks such translations: "I am recognisable in and responsible for them all,'' he admits. "The Poet and the Dog", his re-working of the medieval Irish "The Scholar and the Cat" celebrates O'Grady's own golden retriever "wrapped round my feet'' and growling "in sleep about his dreams/ while I am plotting literary schemes''.

Elsewhere this presence is more complex. "A grey heron in the Bandon river/ waits for me entering Kinsale'', begins "The Irish Coast" by Croatian dissident Zlatko Tomicic, who collaborated on the translation during a visit to O'Grady's Irish home. Here translator and translated merge, united not just by geography but by the shared sense of a love of one's homeland and the thrill of escape.

O'Grady's version of Ingeborg Bachmann's "Exile" explores further paradoxes. Part of a post-war generation who tried to rescue the German language from its Nazi past, Bachmann is "encased in its oven/ boxing me like a coffin''. The act of translation here is also an act of liberation, freeing poet and poem from the burden of their own language. For O'Grady, this is the humanising power of his calling. "It has sharpened my awareness,'' he says, "refined my sensibility - enriched me.'' His translations make the familiar unfamiliar, the unknown known, sending the reader back to much-loved texts, or to scour bookshops and libraries for new ones. They tell the tale - in 22 languages and more than 26 centuries - of a fallen world, the world of an "Irish European''; of cities ruined and rebuilt, of exile and return, of fear, hope, joy, and the creeping paralysis of intolerance and suppression. If translation is a crutch for those who cannot read the original, Trawling Tradition can make us all walk again.