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8 posts categorized "Literary translation"

13 April 2016

Seamus Heaney: From “Ex-poet” to Nobel Laureate

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Recently the British Library hosted an event to mark the publication of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, published by Faber. Poets Jo Shapcott, Tom Paulin, Matthew Hollis, and Simon Armitage gave readings from the work, offered insights to Heaney’s influence on their own work, and read much-loved poems from Heaney’s celebrated collections. The translation, which details Aeneas’s descent into the Underworld, is the last collection from the Nobel Laureate, who died in 2013. Here Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections, reflects on two meetings he had with the Laureate at the Library.

SHeaney

Seamus Heaney at the University College Dublin, February 11, 2009, By Sean O'Connor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m lucky enough to have met Seamus Heaney a couple of times, as part of my job here at the British Library. My first encounter was when he had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was giving a lecture for the Library on the poetry of Robert Burns, an important influence on Ulster poets in the nineteenth century and perhaps still to this day.

Those were in the days of the Round Reading Room in the British Museum when I was a junior curator in the Library there. He had a little time before the event so before he took to the lectern, I met him with my then colleague Mary Doran, the Curator of Modern Irish Collections, and we ushered him into an anteroom.

We had recently acquired a very rare item relating to Heaney’s early days of writing and were excited about what his reaction might be. It was the Hilary Term 1961 issue of the magazine Gorgon (Hilary Term is the second term, at the start of the calendar year). He had been an assistant editor of the magazine as a student at Queen’s University, Belfast and this was the last issue he was involved in. Unusually, he supplied his own, extra, editorial.

  Gorgon Heaney

Gorgon, Hilary Term Issue 1961. British Library shelfmark: Cup.410.f.750

It was quite something to be able to show the new Nobel Laureate this early piece of his poetry activism, a slim mimeographed magazine, crammed with poems and articles Heaney had been involved in selecting (the main editor, Pat Roche, makes a point in his editorial that the assistant editors had taken a particularly active role in the process).

Even so, the mere fact of Heaney’s involvement magazine wasn’t why we were so excited: rather, it was because of the dramatic way in which Heaney signed off his editorial. “I am not an ex-editor of Gorgon but something (I have convinced myself) more despicable,” he writes in his last sentence of the editorial, “an ex-poet.”

Heaney editorial

An extract from Seamus Heaney’s editorial in the 1961 issue of Gorgon in which he signs off as an ‘ex-poet’

What would the elder, feted, famed, Nobel prize winning, poet say to that?

He laughed, of course.

I think in that chuckle there was an affection for his younger self and for the earnest activity of all poets, young or otherwise. The high stakes of poetry, its solemnities, its purposefulness, even in humour, is particularly felt. Five years later, Heaney would publish Death of a Naturalist to worldwide acclaim. As well the first edition of Death of A Naturalist, Faber, 1966, the Library has sound recordings of him from this time and later, e.g. from our British Council collection.

Heaney Catalogue

Image from a handbook issued by the British Council: Catalogue of Tape Recordings (November 1974).

 

I suppose all poets are like the “young bloods” he describes in the opening of The Aeneid VI, making quick landfall, “vaulting quickly out” with their urgent poetry, metaphorically in search of flints for fire or simply to stand amazed at new rivers.

Aeneid

The cover of Seamus Heaney's Aeneid Book VI, with kind permission of Faber & Faber

The second time I met Seamus Heaney, sadly the last time, was in late 2003. It was in our new building at St Pancras – Heaney had been viewing the Ted Hughes exhibition I had curated because he was going to give a reading of some of Hughes’ poems for the launch. We met for a cup of coffee with Hughes’s widow, Carol. We were talking about Hughes of course, who had been an early inspiration and then a great friend to Heaney.

Then, to my surprise, Heaney began to talk about Robert Henryson, the fifteenth century Scots Makar, the name given to a Scottish poet of national standing. He said he had started to translate, or retell, Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid. This would clearly be one of Heaney’s present-in-the-past projects which followed on from his acclaimed version of Beowulf, in which contemporary battles, and contemporary hubris, seem pre-echoed. As with Edwin Morgan’s translation of Beowulf, which Morgan had described as his ‘Second World War poem’, there is a feeling in Heaney’s translations that in such epic translations the present is being addressed by the past.

 

Cresseid

“Fair Cresseid” © Hughie O’Donoghue, painting reproduced as a tipped-in plate, from Seamus Heaney’s Testament of Cresseid, Enitharmon Editions, 2004, used with kind permission of the publisher and artist

Testament of Cresseid is a sorrowful story about the fate of the once beautiful, vivacious Cresseid, separated from her lover Troilus. For lamenting her life intemperately she is punished by the gods with disfigurements akin to leprosy (though if anything sounds intemperate to me, those punishments do!). Years after they have parted, Troilus recognises her but does not reveal his identity, instead giving a large amount of money to the leper colony. Cresseid, realising who her patron was, dies in grief.

Henryson is in a sense writing a sequel to Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, and is also part of a great Troilus literary chain, since Shakespeare, in one of his more bitter plays, would later dramatise the story in Troilus and Cressida.

Leper house gate

“Leper house (gate”), © Hughie O’Donoghue, painting reproduced as a tipped-in plate, from Seamus Heaney’s Testament of Cresseid, Enitharmon Editions, 2004, used with kind permission of the publisher and artist

Heaney’s Beowulf had only recently been published when we met that second time. Famously, the British Library holds the original Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and in fact, now, the manuscript of Heaney’s translation, too. Manuscripts were the link for the Henryson poem, too: Heaney had seen a Henryson manuscript at the Library and this had inspired him, after long admiring the poet, to render Henryson from Middle Scots into modern English.

Heaney’s Testament would later appear in a beautiful artist’s book with images by Hughie O’Donoghue, published by Enitharmon (British Library shelfmark: LD.31.b.557), as well as in a more commercial publication five years later.

Cresseid 2

 “Cresseid” © Hughie O’Donoghue, painting reproduced as a tipped-in plate, from Seamus Heaney’s Testament of Cresseid, Enitharmon Editions, 2004, used with kind permission of the publisher and artist

As we talked, Heaney emphasised how the Makar’s distinctly moral vision appealed to him: there is a teacher-like morality in Henryson he especially admired. As he talked I thought I detected, what, a hesitation? Knowing me as a Scottish poet, was he testing me, about Scottish reaction to ‘versioning’ this apparently sacrosanct text?

No, the moment passed, and I am still not sure if anything happened at all. In retrospect, I doubt he was worried. Henryson, Beowulf, Virgil, are each surely a gift to the world, in the original or in its re-transmission, and there would surely have been little reason for qualm.

Where is your garden

“Where is your garden?”, © Hughie O’Donoghue, painting reproduced as a tipped-in plate, from Seamus Heaney’s Testament of Cresseid, Enitharmon Editions, 2004, used with kind permission of the publisher and artist

Seamus Heaney highlights in the British Library include

  • Gorgon, Hilary Term 1961. Queen’s University literary magazine for which Heaney was an assistant editor.
  • Eleven poems (Belfast: Festival Publications, [1965]), X.909/37714. Heaney’s first collection, followed in 1966 by Death of a Naturalist (Faber).
  • Many sound recordings from 1966 onwards, including some made by our own curators.
  • Beowulf, typewritten drafts of Heaney’s translation with MS annotations; 1995. Add MS 78917
  • 'Forecast', a typewritten poem (inspired by the Shipping Forecast) with autograph annotations, extensively re-worked and edited. Presented by the author; 3 April 1998, Add MS 74089
  • Correspondence between Ted Hughes and Heaney, 1991-1998 (Add MS 88918/35/12)
  • Testament of Cresseid, with images by Hughie O’Donoghue, Enitharmon Editions, 2004, LD.31.b.557.

29 February 2016

Bringing a Liverpool Heart to Moliére

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by Deborah Dawkin, currently working on a collaborative AHRC PHD project with UCL and the British Library focussing on the archive of Ibsen translator Michael Meyer.

Last week the British Library had the pleasure of hosting the 2016 Sebald Lecture, given this year by Roger McGough. His subject was the translating and adaptation of Molière’s plays, including Tartuffe (2008), The Hypochondriac (2009) and The Misathrope (2013) for the English Touring Theatre. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given McGough’s renowned skills in performance and public speaking this was anything but a dry lecture: we were treated to a vibrant and entertaining as well as thought provoking insight into the process of translating seventeenth century French comedy for the contemporary British theatre – one which highlighted the difference between the requirements of theatre translation and literary translation – the difference of creating a text which “preserves history” and one that breathes new life into a play while at the same time respecting the original writer’s message and intentions.

  Seabald

Roger McGough (right) who gave this year's Sebald Lecture together with Duncan Large, Academic Director of the BCLT who chaired the event.

The Sebald lecture is an important date on the British Library calendar for all those interested in international literature and translation. Sponsored by the British Centre for Literary Translation. The Sebald Lecture is given annually on an aspect of literature in translation. The event is named after the acclaimed German writer WG Sebald (1944-2001), whose novels and essays include The Emigrants, The Rings of SaturnAusterlitz and On the Natural History of Destruction. Despite writing almost exclusively in German he lived in the UK, lecturing in German at University of East Anglia where he founded the British Centre for Literary Translation in 1989.

In true story teller’s style McGough began at the beginning, and took us back in time to his first lessons in French at the Irish Catholic Brothers school for boys in Liverpool, where the tyrannical Brother O'Shea used the fear of the strap (specially sewn and crafted by the local nuns) to get his students to learn their verbs and vocabulary. Despite this unpromising start McGough went on to study French as well as Geography at the University of Hull. If the audience were expecting then to hear how McGough had developed an undying passion for French literature and language, they were disappointed. Instead we were regaled with a story in which McGough’s accent was so bad (having missed the French Exchange programme due to a family bereavement) that he was discretely removed from the aural exam. Slightly disingenuously - as he worked as a French teacher in the sixties - McGough left us with the impression that his French language skills were sketchy at best. But perhaps McGough wanted emphasise the point that these are not literal or academic translations, but adaptations designed to bring the spirit of Moliére to a contemporary audience: Molière with a "Liverpool heartbeat".

McGough was first approached in 2008 by Gemma Bodinetz to create a translation/adaptation of Tartuffe for her production with the English Touring Theatre. He was initially uncertain about undertaking the task, but promised to give it some thought. Taking several translations of Tartuffe with him on a Saga cruise (as an entertainer he hastened to tell us, not a guest) he read them on the journey to the Bay of Biscay. This allowed McGough to enter the play without the struggle of reading complex 17th century French verse, and to allow the characters and plot to inhabit him; to set his imagination free. By the time he had returned to the shores of the UK, McGough had started to write his version. Now McGough, concerned that he should be true to Molière’s intentions, turned to Molière’s original text, to check his own version against it, thus taking the script to a new level.

Anyone who has read McGough’s translations of Moliere, or had the pleasure of attending a performance, will be struck by their dexterity and their sharp, playful wit, and their cleverness in offering us a contemporary text, with contemporary references, yet never quite losing the link back to 17th century France.

This event was supported by Arts Council England and Writers’ Centre Norwich.

Past Sebald Lectures can be heard in full on the British Centre for Literary Translation website.

16 October 2015

International Translation Day 2015 at the British Library

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By Deborah Dawkin, who is a translator and currently working on a collaborative AHRC PhD project with UCL and the British Library focussing on the archive of Ibsen translator Michael Meyer.

On the 4th October the British Library hosted International Translation Day 2015. Marking St Jerome’s day, the Patron Saint of Translators, ITD is a day when translators, authors, publishers, booksellers, critics come together to share ideas, take stock of some of the challenges in the industry, and importantly celebrate its successes. In her opening speech Rose Fenton, Director of Free Word, aptly described this symposium, now in its sixth year, as the “gathering of the translation clan”.

Translatorclan

The “translation clan” gather over morning coffee in the British Library conference centre.

 

If translators do indeed belong to some sort of “clan”, then we, the general public, are nonetheless touched by their work in countless invisible ways: not only in the form of literary translation, but in the international news reports splashed across our television screens and front pages, the ingredients lists or instructions on foreign products, and the subtitles for the latest TV Scandinavian crime series. Translation and translators, it seems, quietly intersect with our reality every day. It was this intersection, and with it the exciting potential of engagement between translators and the public ­– through more interactive publishing, readers’ groups, blogs and literary festivals, as well as outreach work in schools and communities - which emerged as a recurring theme of this year’s International Translation Day.

 

The empowerment of readers in a fast-changing media landscape was the subject of the opening panel. Entitled “The Rise of the Reader” the discussion was chaired by Alex Clark and panellists included Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, Anna Jean Hughes, Founder and Editorial Director of The Pigeonhole; and Will Rycroft Community Manager at Vintage. We no longer inhabit a world in which publishers are alone in choosing which books to publish, and in which newspaper critics have the last say on quality. As Rycroft pointed out the fact that people are using a single app on which to play, talk and read – even reading on their phones – opens up possibilities for engaging new readers. Hughes described how The Pigeonhole publishes books in serial form online, including authors and readers in conversation, and hopes translators too might join that conversation. Hughes’s ultimate aim is to “enhance books through conversation across the globe” and suggested that we might experiment with the crowd sourcing of literary translations to speed up the process of bringing translated literature to the public.

 

One of the seminars I found of particular interest explored the growing interest in Translators in Residence. Translators in Residence schemes are comparatively new, but proving an extremely worthwhile initiative in engaging the public in translation. We heard from several translators who were involved in workshops in schools. Sam Holmes explained how sometimes the most productive work a translator in residence can do, is that which runs counter to what students might usually encounter in the classroom. Instead of focussing on the rigid expectations of an exam syllabus, children are encouraged to see their own potential as translators and to work creatively with language. Projects run by Lucy Greaves, during her residence at the Free Word Centre included a Translation and Creative Writing workshop in a refugee centre. Her workshops culminated in the event 'Signs', a showcase of the work of pupils from Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children as part of Islington Word Festival. Translator in Residence schemes are not only a wonderful way in which to generate interest in translated literature and foreign language learning but can be empowering for the communities which they reach out to.

 

There were countless other subjects that inspired animated discussion during the day. The eight seminars on offer covered a wide range of issues. Subjects included the running of translation workshops in libraries, bookshops and schools offering the public an insight into the art of translation; how book sellers and publishers might involve translators in the promotion of books at literary festivals and events; self-publishing by foreign authors and translators in collaboration; the new opportunities and challenges for the translation industry created by developments in the digitised games, video and AV; and the strategies used by translators to give cultural and historical background where needed, without overloading the text.

 

An interesting and amusing experiment opened a seminar entitled “Translation-Speak: Literary difference or bad English?” The audience and panellists were given anonymous passages from various published novels and asked to guess which had been written in English originally and which were translations. It proved an almost impossible exercise, with most passages splitting the vote. What was revealed was that there were often stylistic oddities in those texts originally written in English, that might have been regarded as awkward and therefore faults in a translation, and that the translated texts often read very (perhaps too) smoothly. This led to a discussion about whether translators and their editors are daring enough in their use of language, or often confined to producing texts that are an attractive and “easy read”, even where the original might be more stylistically demanding.

 

Translationspeak panel

The panel for the “Translation Speak” seminar: Chair Nicky Harman (translator), and panellists Meike Ziervogel (publisher, Peierene Press),  Shaun Whiteside (translator) and Laura Barber (Editorial Director, Granta).

 

The final panel of the day “From Page to Stage” included readings by actors from Sasha Dugdale’s translations of Belarusian playwright Pavel Pryazhko’s work.  In the discussion Dugdale and Chris Campbell, Literary Manager at the Royal Court, explored the journey made by a play as it passes through the hands of the translator, writer, dramaturg, director and finally the actors themselves.

 

The day was rounded off with the Found in Translation Award Ceremony, which was awarded this year to Ursula Philips for her translation of the novel Choucas by the Polish author Zofia Nalkowska.

 

International Translation Day 2015 is organised by Free Word, English PEN, and the British Library in partnership with The British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT), The Emerging Translators Network (ETN), Literature Across Frontiers (LAF), The Translators Association (TA), Wales Literature Exchange (WLE), Words Without Borders and the Writers Centre Norwich. ITD is supported by Bloomberg, The Booker Prize Foundation, the European Commission, the Arts Council England, Foundation Jan Michalski and ALCS.

 

25 September 2015

Celebrating Translation at the British Library

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On Friday 2nd October, the British Library will open its doors once more to the translation community to celebrate International Translation Day. Translators, authors, students, publishers, booksellers, librarians, bloggers and reviewers, all with an interest in translation, will gather to debate significant issues and developments within the sector, as well as to celebrate its successes. This annual event, presented by Free Word, English PEN and the British Library in association with the British Centre for Literary Translation, Literature Across Frontiers, the Translators' Association, Wales Literature Exchange and Words With-out Borders has become one of the highlights of the British Library’s calendar. 

Translated literature may only represent between three and four per cent of books published each year in the UK, but most literature lovers will find that their bookshelves (real or virtual) hold a far greater proportion of translated works than such a statistic implies. The personal library of any serious book-worm is very likely to include international classics such as Homer, Tolstoy, Proust, Ibsen, Nietzsche and de Beauvoir, as well as examples of more contemporary authors such as Saramago, Kundera, Knausgård and Murakami…and perhaps some Scandinavian crime, for lighter, though somewhat dark, reading. Without this international literature our world would certainly be a great deal narrower, and our literature a great deal poorer.

 

Deborah's picture

It is easy to forget when discussing the latest work by Murakami that the words on the page are in fact those of his translator/s and as such represent an act of interpretation. We have no way of knowing the challenges that the original text has presented the translator with, or how much is lost (or perhaps even gained) in translation. Even more hidden from our eye is the collaborative pro-cess that goes into the making of a translated text: the discussions that took place between the translator and the editor, or original author, over issues of style or ‘meaning’. Neither can we guess at the various levels of negotiation that bring a work of foreign literature to our shelves:  the impassioned letters from a translator to a publishing house persuading them to publish the latest literary gem they have discovered; the fierce negotiations over foreign rights at the international Book Fairs; the wrangling over author’s and translator’s fees; the concerns of publishing houses about the marketability of a work. In a sense, then, it is not just the translator and his/her process which remain largely invisible to the public, but all the other professionals who collaborate to bring translated fiction to our shelves.

It is this ‘hidden life’ of a translation – the whys and wherefores of translators’ choices and the complex process of translated literature reaching our shelves – which is often revealed in the archives of translators. Within its contemporary literary manuscripts collections, the British Library holds the extensive archives of poet Michael Hamburger (1924-2007) and playwright Michael Meyer (1921-2000). Both authors in their own right, Hamburger and Meyer are best known for their translations. Hamburger was responsible for bringing some of the most important German language writers, particularly poets, to our shelves, including Paul Celan, Gottfried Benn, Friederich Hölderlin and W. G. Sebald. Meyer translated the works of the great Scandinavian dramatists, Ibsen and Strindberg, for the British theatre, radio and television of the 1950s and 1960s, bring-ing a freshness to the texts which helped to ensure their status in the twentieth century’s dramatic repertoire. These two archives, containing draft manuscripts of their translations alongside correspondence with editors, literary agents, publishers and other prominent literary figures shed light on the ‘hidden life’ of a translation.

Other equally interesting translation-related material is to be found in the recently acquired archives of contemporary poets Ted Hughes and Peter Dale, both prolific translators. Hughes believed passionately in the importance of translation, and the archive includes letters and papers relating to the journal Modern Poetry in Translation which he and the publisher Daniel Weissbort founded in 1965 with the express aim of bringing contemporary foreign poetry to the Anglophone reader. Hughes’s own translation work included the poetry of Ovid, and plays by Euripides, Racine and Wedekind. The archive includes correspondence about his translations of Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding as well as drafts of his translation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Peter Dale’s translations from the French include the poetry of François Villon and Paul Valéry and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The Library’s archives collections do not only represent translations into English. A collection of correspondence between Harold Pinter and his Japanese translator Tetsuo Kishi not only throws light on the relationship between author and translator but also on the cultural transformation that Pinter’s plays undergo in translation, giving us pause for thought about the Pinter we know and love, and what it is it about his work that transferred so effectively to Japanese theatre.

Older translation-related treasures are to be found in the British Library vaults too. The archive of the nineteenth century drama critic, translator and author William Archer, who brought many of Ibsen’s plays to the British theatre for the first time in the late 1800s, includes papers related to performances of the time, and discussions with George Bernard Shaw about Ibsen’s work. The literary manuscripts of William Morris contain drafts of his translations of the Icelandic Edda and Beowolf, along with correspondence and notes. The archive of William Henry Fox Talbot, known chiefly as a pioneer in photography, but also an Assyriologist and one of the first decipherers of the inscriptions of Nineveh, includes a collection of notebooks with his draft translations.

And from even further back in time there are many Early Modern British and European manuscripts of translated works; not just into English but from English into Latin, Greek, Italian, Dutch, Swedish and Arabic (to name but a few). Some even earlier examples of translation are to found in our Arabic and Islamic Heritage collections - among them a thirteenth century manuscript of Ptolemaeus’ Almagest, an influential astronomical text thought to have been translated from the Greek into Arabic by al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf ibn Matar in about 900 AD. The manuscript was owned by the mathematician Tusi, and is annotated with his comments and improvements on Ptolemaeus’ system, as well as remarks where he finds fault with the translation (visit the Qatar Digital Library at http://www.qdl.qa/en  to find out more). Such documents offer important historical clues into the impact of translation in the history of the international ex-change of ideas on philosophy, medicine, surgery, theology, as well as politics, trade and diplomacy, from as early as the thirteenth century.

The fact that translation and international literature is an intrinsic part of our national heritage, both past and present, is not only represented throughout the British Library’s collection, but is celebrated in our calendar of events through-out the year. This June, for example, UCL held the ARTIS 2015 Conference: Multidimensional Methodologies: collaboration and networking in translation re-search. The conference included a panel discussion about the relationship be-tween Archives, Museums and the study of Literary Translation, followed by a “show and tell” session led by curators at the Library to showcase some of our collections.

For the general public with an interest in international and translated literature, there are a variety of events to be found on the British Library’s calendar, not only including the forthcoming International Translation Day, but The PEN Pinter Prize held this year on October 6th, European Literature Night held each spring, and a plethora of events throughout the year which offer audiences an opportunity to hear international and British authors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, as well as translators, discuss their work.

Deborah Dawkin is currently working on a collaborative AHRC PhD project with UCL and the British Library focussing on the archive of Ibsen translator Michael Meyer.

 

05 August 2015

Lee Harwood: Sailing Westward

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                                                                         Lee small 2010   Lee Harwood (1939-2015)

Chris Beckett writes:

        There is a haunting valedictory quality to Lee Harwood’s recent collection, The Orchid Boat (Enitharmon Press, 2014). And yet the poems, many of which recapitulate with a light (and last) touch themes and motifs familiar from Harwood’s considerable body of work, are far from sombre:

I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.

Sadly, the sense of journey’s end – or journey’s beginning – that characterises The Orchid Boat is now made all the more poignant by the news that Lee Harwood passed away last month, on Sunday 26 July.

So where’s the boat?
A sampan or a lugger?
or an elegant steam launch?
Is there room for me and that crew of sages? 

‘Sailing Westwards’, the poem that concludes The Orchid Boat, moves seamlessly in typical Harwood manner between landscapes imagined and landscapes remembered, from the mountains of China to the hills and mountains of Snowdonia that Harwood climbed with untiring enthusiasm and a perpetual sense of wonder. We have seen the ‘elegant steam launch’ in Harwood’s poems before; and the lifelong delight that he took in the orchids of the Sussex Downs finds new resonance in ‘Departures’, the poem that opens The Orchid Boat: ‘Without thinking / I step aboard the orchid boat, / the feel of silk / carrying me beyond all mirrors’.

       Lee Harwood established his reputation as a distinctive new voice in English poetry with The White Room, published by Fulcrum Press in 1968. Landscapes (1969) and The Sinking Colony (1970) quickly followed, and in 1971 his work appeared in Penguin Modern Poets 19, along with selections from Tom Raworth and the American poet John Ashbery. In 1975, Trigram Press published Harwood’s translations of the poems of Tristan Tzara, a seminal influence whose work Harwood discovered in the early 1960s. Thereafter, Harwood was published exclusively by the small presses, a state of affairs that reflected the divided and divisive territory of English poetry during the 1980s. In 2004, Shearsman Books published Harwood’s Collected Poems to considerable acclaim, prompting an upsurge of retrospective interest in his work. The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, a collection of essays on his work, was published in 2007, and this was quickly followed by a series of illuminating interviews conducted by Kelvin Corcoran, Not the Full Story (2008). Recently, Harwood’s poems found an appreciative home in the London Review of Books, and his work was championed in sensitive reviews by August Kleinzahler and Mark Ford.

       It is a great pleasure to report that the extensive papers of Lee Harwood, which were acquired from the poet by the British Library in 2012, will be made available later this year. The preparation of the catalogue, which has benefited from the poet’s close involvement, is now in its final stages. It is a matter of great regret that Harwood did not live to see the release of his papers, although he took great satisfaction in seeing his papers join the national collection. The archive is a rich record of the life of a singular poet who belonged to no particular school, finding sympathetic friends across poetry’s territorial divisions, both at home and in America. Journals, diaries, notebooks, and much poetry in draft, are supplemented by a considerable number of letters received: there are 77 files of letters and 146 correspondents, from Ashbery (John) to Wylie (Andrew). A sense of the variety of Harwood’s correspondents, and the number of letters in the collection, can be quickly given by some examples: Paul Evans (122 letters), Harry Guest (354), August Kleinzahler (48), Douglas Oliver (48), F. T. Prince (22), Tom Raworth (58), and Anne Stevenson (in excess of 400). Harwood greatly valued the close reading of his work by other poets, and one of the instructive rewards of the letters is to read their detailed responses to his work.

24 April 2014

A Long Forgotten Poem by the Admirable Crichton

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James Crichton, known by the appellation the Admirable Crichton, was the epitome of the cultured Renaissance man.  Perhaps for many, the name the Admirable Crichton is more familiar from the 1902 play by J M Barrie ‘The Admirable Crichton’ or its subsequent film and television adaptations. However, these have little connection with the historical figure apart from portraying a highly talented individual. 

So who was James Crichton?  He was born in 1560 in Dumfriesshire.  His father was a lawyer and land owner in the service of Mary Queen of Scots. On his mother’s side he could claim royal descent from the House of Stewart.  As a child he displayed a prodigious intelligence.  He was educated at St Salvator’s College, St Andrews gaining a BA in 1573 and an MA in 1575.  Two years later, in 1577 at the age of just seventeen, he left Scotland for the continent and continued his education in France at the Collège de Navarre and, according to some sources, subsequently spent two years in the French army.

  James_Crichton
 The Admirable Crichton. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1579 he travelled to Genoa and then a year later to Venice where he was reputed to have wooed crowds with his skills in oratory.  In Venice he also made the acquaintance of the influential printer Aldus Manutius who became a great friend and promoter of Crichton’s abilities.  By this time Crichton was said to be a skilled horseman, swordsman, accomplished dancer, man of letters, debater, and to be fluent in ten languages.  For many he was regarded as the perfect gentleman with elegant social graces and enviable good looks.  From Venice he travelled to Mantua where he entered the service of the Duke of Mantua and seems to have been well established within the court by 1582.  However, his popularity was not universal; in particular he seems to have aroused the jealousy of the Duke’s son and heir Vincenzo Gonzaga.  This resentment came to a head one summer’s evening in July when an angry altercation took place in the streets of Mantua which resulted in the Prince mortally wounding Crichton.  He was buried the following day in the small graveyard of the church of San Simone in Mantua. 

Shutters
Photogravure © Norman McBeath 

It was Crichton’s first impressions of his arrival in Venice, combined with the compelling majesty of the city, that inspired his most accomplished poem ‘Venice’.  The British Library is delighted to announce it has acquired the first English verse translation of Crichton’s Latin poem.  The book is a new collaboration between the poet and academic Robert Crawford and the photographer and printmaker Norman McBeath.  The source of the text is taken from the two volume anthology of Scottish-Latin poetry Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (1637), a copy of which is held at the Library at shelfmark 1213.a.7.  Robert Crawford’s impressive translation will hopefully generate wider interest in this sadly neglected poem.  The poem is accompanied by eight evocative photogravures by Norman McBeath which perfectly capture the enigma and splendour of that fascinating city. 

Venice is published by the Edinburgh based Easel Press in an edition of twenty copies and will be available to consult in the Library’s reading rooms shortly.

20 March 2014

Happy Birthday Ibsen!

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By Deborah Dawkin

Henrik_Ibsen_by_Gustav_Borgen_NFB-19778
Henrik Ibsen by Gustav Borgen

Today is Henrik Ibsen's birthday. Born in a little town in Norway in 1828, he was to become one of the most influential playwrights of modern European theatre. Ibsen lived to see his works translated into many European languages for performance, but he could surely have never conceived that by the 21st century he would have been translated into 78 languages, and that his works would be played as far afield as in India, Korea and China. But all great authors need great translators if they are to pass into the canon of other cultures.

At the beginning of last year the British Library acquired the archive of one of the most important translators of Ibsen into the English language: Michael Meyer, who is credited with establishing Ibsen as a playwright for a 20th century British audience. When Meyer started his work in the late 1950s Ibsen had largely become ‘worthy’ literature to be studied by academics. The only reliable translations available were those of William Archer, whose language was archaic and largely unperformable. A playwright and author himself, Meyer’s translations of Ibsen became, as George Steiner said, ‘a major factor in our sense of post-war drama’, and offered a freshness that Kenneth Tynan described as ‘crisp and cobweb-free, purged of verbal Victoriana.’

  Michael Meyer archive in the stacks

Part of the Michael Meyer Archive in the form in which it arrived at the British Library

For audiences and readers a translator is often invisible; indeed Meyer himself felt that a translator had to ‘resist leaving his thumbprint’ and that his work should, as Gogol once said, be like a new windowpane. What this archive reveals to us is the craftsman who created this windowpane. Here we see, through successive drafts, how Meyer created the dynamic play-scripts which gave Ibsen a new relevance. We see how he moves from a rough translation that conveys literal meaning, to a theatrically charged text in which each character has its own voice, and in which the subtext surfaces with a clarity not found in academic translations.

Ultimately Meyer’s involvement with and influence on the British theatre went far beyond the translation of Ibsen’s plays. Braham Murray goes as far as to call him ‘one of the leading lights’ at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. He was also a much-loved teacher at the Central School of Speech and Drama, inspiring a love and understanding of Ibsen in the next generation of actors.

The Meyer Archive does more than just shed light on his processes and concerns as a translator of Ibsen, since it holds correspondence and notes that go back as far as his student days in Oxford before the war. Meyer was a man of letters: an editor, author, journalist and lecturer in his own right before Ibsen and the theatre finally won him. Correspondence includes letters from important poets and authors of the day including Graham Greene and George Orwell, and the list of theatrical correspondents reads like a role call of directors and actors of the second half of the 20th century. Finally the archives also contain the drafts of Meyer’s translations of Strindberg’s plays, and his research notes and drafts for his impressive biographies of both Ibsen and Strindberg.

It may seem that I have forgotten the main subject of today’s blog: Ibsen’s birthday. But what greater homage can be offered to an author than to keep his work alive, and to make it accessible to a wider audience by translating it well. It is because of the work of translators like Meyer, who persist in breathing fresh life into Ibsen’s work, that so many people across the world will be remembering that on 20 March 1828 a theatrical phenomenon was born. Happy birthday Ibsen!

Deborah Dawkin is presently working on a collaborative PhD project about Michael Meyer at the British Library. She is herself a translator.

11 January 2013

New Year, New Acquisition

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This week we took delivery of our most recent acquisition, the archive of Michael Meyer, best known for his translations of Ibsen and Strindberg. The archive contains drafts and annotated proofs of Meyer’s translations of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish authors. His work as novelist, playwright, adaptor, biographer, editor and reviewer (in a literary capacity as well as for The Good Food Guide) is also well represented in the collection which includes annotated books from his Library as well as archival papers. It’s a timely addition to the national collection following on from the Literary Translators conference held at the Library in 2011, which brought the creativity of translators into greater focus.

Before Meyer’s translations, English-speaking theatre audiences knew Ibsen primarily through the efforts of William Archer, whose lengthy versions in rhyming verse had given Ibsen a reputation for being old-fashioned and tedious. That changed when Meyer met the Finnish director Caspar Wrede who asked him to translate Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea and John Gabriel Borkman for television, followed by Brand for his 59 Theatre Company. Today Meyer is credited with establishing Ibsen as a modern master in the eyes of Anglophone audiences, thanks to his understanding of the nuances of the Norwegian language and his sensitivity to Ibsen’s sub-text.

Whilst it’s easy now to take Meyer’s pre-eminence for granted, his initial attempts at translation from Norwegian were something of a struggle. He accepted his first Ibsen commission for a radio adaptation of Little Eyolf on the basis that Norwegian sounds much like the Swedish language (which he had learnt while lecturing at Uppsala University after the war). Unfortunately for Meyer the two languages look quite different written down and he had to engage a Norwegian friend to help him – an experience which set him firmly against the use of crib translations ever afterwards.

With the help of Caspar Wrede who coached him through The Lady From the Sea and John Gabriel Borkman, and Michael Elliott, who directed the 1959 production of Brand, Meyer quickly learnt his craft as translator and dramatist. Some of the most interesting letters in the archive on the subject of translation are Michael Elliott’s letters to Meyer commenting on his act-by-act drafts of Brand. Ironically enough they show that restoring Ibsen’s reputation involved rather a lot of irreverence; Elliott repeatedly urged a ruthless approach to the original. Pictured is a spread from Meyer's copy of Brand, in which all but 12 lines were cut.

Cuts to Brand

Michael Meyer is important not only for his legacy as a translator but for his position in the literary and theatrical circles of postwar London - and Stockholm too. His special correspondence file reads like a Who’s Who of writers, actors and directors, but the star items are undoubtedly a collection of 90-odd letters from Graham Greene, the majority of which are unpublished. Meyer and Greene had become good friends together in the mid 1950s – embarking on a round-the-world trip together in 1959-1960. It was Meyer who introduced Greene to the Swedish actress Anita Björk, with whom Greene had a significant affair and many of the letters from Greene make mention of Anita.

Other highlights include letters from George Orwell from the time he was writing 1984 and a variety of material concerning the poet Sidney Keyes who was Meyer’s friend at Oxford and sadly died in World War II at the age of twenty-one. Meyer posthumously edited a collection of his verse and hung onto his his friend’s books and a poetry notebook, which now form part of the archive here. His correspondence reveals a good deal of appreciation for Keyes’s work among his acquaintance, not least from Ted Hughes who carried a copy of Keyes’s poems with him whilst on National Service. 

 It’s not surprising that Michael Meyer’s Archive contains so many gems about other literary greats. His memoir Not Prince Hamlet tells more of the lives of his friends than it does about Meyer himself – he liked to stay in the background as he admits in the book and translating suited him for that reason. Whilst that may be a common feeling among translators we hope the acquisition of the Meyer Archive will open the way for greater appreciation of literary translation in its own right.

 Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Modern Literary and Theatrical Manuscripts