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Review: Women and Days, by Gabriel Ferrater

W S Milne, Agenda, Vol. 40, No. 4, Autumn/Winter 2004

Seamus Heaney writes in his perceptive Introduction to Arthur Terry's brilliant translation of Gabriel Ferrater's Women and Days (Les Dories I Els Dies) that his work has a reticence that does not renege on the truth. As a Catalan poet living during the Civil War, Ferrater's experiences, recorded in his verse, were of obvious significance to certain Northern Irish poets writing in the late sixties:

They were carrying anti-tank mines,
Heavy and useless, like historic symbols,
Covered in blankets thick with the timeless smell
Of herbs and mule sweat. Also machine guns
And Stens made in England.
In twos and threes, at straggling intervals,
Minute and diligent as lice on a fallen tree,
The Maquis were crossing the Pyrenees...

(from 'A Small War')

Arthur Terry in his Preface says he felt an affinity with the writer he was translating, and with Ferrater's belief in taking a poem step by step as a description of the moral life of an ordinary man, the translator constantly reshaping the author's experiences in our minds. Terry brought Ferrater's intonations and structures to the meetings of The Group in Belfast in the sixties, and there he succeeded in conveying 'something of the density of life' his poetry embraces. Philip Hobsbaum, Michael Longley, James Simmons, Derek Mahon and Seamus l-Ieaney all learned something from this. Ferrater himself suggested that he had learned from Hardy, Frost and Auden, and it is certainly enlightening to see the reverse process of translation at work, other languages impinging on the Catalan poet's 'insistent stress on words'. Ferrater, as Seamus Heaney keenly observes, 'keeps his gaze steady and his faith in the staying power of art unyielding even when flesh and blood have to quail and fall'. The book stands as a memorial not only to Ferrater but to Arthur Terry also, who unfortunately died whilst his translation was at proof stage.