English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

11 posts categorized "Literary translation"

24 April 2014

A Long Forgotten Poem by the Admirable Crichton

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.

 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. 

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!

By Deborah Dawkin

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

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


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