CHAPTER SEVEN Edwin Morgan andEuropean Modernism
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116 CHAPTER SEVEN Edwin Morgan and European Modernism Ernest Schonfield Morgan’s Collected Translations (1996) is one of his most substantial achievements. This chapter looks at the trajectory of his translations from, and use of, poets of European modernism, in various forms, in a range of political contexts and languages, and in the continuing dialogue, or open conversation, of Morgan’s poetic practice. Amongst the dozens of poets Morgan has translated, five stand out – Eugenio Montale, Sándor Weöres, Vladimir Mayakovsky, August von Platen and Attila József – because Morgan has dedicated a separate volume to each one. This chapter will show that by engaging with modern European poetry, and with these five poets in particular, Morgan was able to develop his voice in a number of important ways. What did Edwin Morgan get from European modernism? It provided him with a set of models which shaped his poetic practice, and a sense of interconnected traditions which shaped his own identity. The blurb on his Collected Translations makes these points very clearly: ‘his own work nourishes itself from the poetry of other lands and ages’; his work as a translator ‘is also part of the mechanism that Morgan, as a Scot, employs to define his place as a European’. Morgan anticipates this in an essay of 1977 on Gavin Douglas and William Drummond as translators , where he invokes ‘the subtleties of the communion of European writers, a vast web of ideals and traditions shading off in each country into finer and finer distinctions and measures of vernacular or personal variation’; and he adds: ‘Drummond relished these European blueprints.’ 1 Peter McCarey suggests that the same could apply to Morgan himself when he states that Lorca’s ‘Asesinato’ could be seen as a ‘blueprint’ for Morgan’s poem ‘The Barrow’.2 So, European modernism gave Morgan a set of ‘blueprints’ and a sense of ‘communion’, of belonging to ‘a vast web of ideals and traditions’. 117 Through translating, Morgan found a number of poets with whom he could identify. His requirements for a worthwhile translation are ‘a devotedness towards the task in hand, and a certain empathy between the translator and his chosen poet […] it is only when he can project himself confidently and happily into the mind of the target poet that his work gains the lift and fluency we all want to see’.3 Morgan has ‘always enjoyed the use of many different voices and personas’.4 For Morgan, translation involves a process of imaginary identification and projection, but one which is rooted in empathy and genuine affinity. Marco Fazzini once asked Morgan: ‘what moves the genuine translator is not a mimetic urge, but an elective affinity […] Do you believe in what Goethe called “elective affinity”?’ Morgan responded: ‘Yes […] I think it is an important idea!’ 5 The reference is to Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities (1809), which explores relationships in terms of chemical reactions between couples who find themselves irresistibly drawn together. These statements indicate that translation for Morgan is far from being an intellectual exercise; instead it is an emotionally charged process. In the evocative essay ‘The Translation of Poetry’ (1976), Morgan suggests that translation is ‘like strangers moved to embrace across a fence’.6 It can be transformative, too: ‘A good translation, like a good original poem, has the effect of slightly altering the language it is written in […] as regards the available potential of that language’.7 Not only does the translation transform the target language by ‘shaking its shibboleths’, it also transforms the translator too: ‘When he moves, he is no longer himself’.8 Therefore, Morgan uses translation for practical purposes: to test the expressive limits of English and Scots, and also to modulate his own identity by assuming different poetic personae. Morgan’s scrapbooks from the 1930s and 1940s contain many excerpts from French Renaissance poetry (Maurice Scève, Saluste du Bartas); French classical drama (Racine’s Phèdre) and French modernism (Jean Ajalbert, Albert Samain, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Victor Kinon, Germain Nouveau, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valéry, Jules Supervielle). He also begins to include numerous extracts from Russian poetry. His first translations were from Verlaine, in 1937; his last published translations in 2007 were from Paul Valéry and Tristan Tzara.9 Despite Morgan’s enduring interest in French modernism, in his translations of the 1950s, his focus is not French at all, but Italian and particularly Russian poetry. Morgan’s turn to Eastern European and Russian poetry puts him in...


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