Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

The Summer of Cyrano

Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

The Summer of Cyrano

Article excerpt

Edwin Morgan's engagement with the Scots language is a curious one. The most obvious paradox is that his most extensive forays in the realm of the 'mother tongue' are in his translations and adaptations, rather than in his original poetry or drama. (1) The most substantial of his Scots language translations are the two late dramas, Cyrano de Bergerac (1992) and Phaedra (2000), which followed the much earlier reworking of Mayakovsky's verse, Wi the Haill Voice, published in 1972, but composed largely in the 1950s. (2) More modest excursions in Scots can be found in other adaptations, such as a rendering of a speech by Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth (Act I, scene 5), republished in the Collected Translations (1996), and a few lines of Beowulf. These lines were published as 'The Auld Man's Coronach' in the Glasgow Herald in 1953; a half-century later, they were disinterred and reprinted by Chris Jones in his monograph, Strange Likeness. (3) Translation of canonical poetry and drama into Scots was, of course, one of the major projects of those in the post-war Lallans movement who followed the example of Hugh MacDiarmid, and, at a cursory glance, Morgan's practice seems to fall in line with that of the Scots language makars of his own generation and the one that immediately preceded it. For example, his Mayakovsky translation can be set in the context of a lively 20th century tradition that begins with MacDiarmid's renderings of Aleksandr Blok's lyric poetry in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) and includes Sydney Goodsir Smith's Scots translation of the same poet's more fragmentary reflections on the Bolshevik revolution, The Twelve (1957). (4) In drama, Morgan's translations follow the distinguished lineage of Robert Kemp's celebrated versions of Moliere's farces and Douglas Young's adaptations of Greek comedies. The very title of Morgan's Mayakovsky translations, Wi the Haill Voice, seems to proclaim that only through Scots will Morgan express himself fully. Such a sentiment echoes MacDiarmid's stated desire to see:

   [...] a synthetic Scots gathering together and reintegrating all
   the disjecta membra of the Doric and endeavouring to realise its
   latent potentialities along lines in harmony at once with
   distinctive Scots psychology and contemporary cultural functions
   and requirements. (5)

And yet there are clearly problems with this reading of Morgan as a late Lallans makar, despite the fact that Robin Hamilton describes his Mayakovsky and Shakespeare adaptations as being in 'Lallans Scots.' (6) As already noted, Morgan's original verse- and indeed most of his translations--are in English, which makes Scots for him a marked choice, rather than one that 'reintegrates' the elements of a fragmented national psyche, and realises their 'latent possibilities'. Commenting on his own practice, Morgan distances himself--though not in principle--from the easy association between nationalist politics and the use of Scots that characterises much of the post-MacDiarmid 'renaissance':

   I tend to use Scots where it would be naturally used in a poem, in
   speech. I'm very much aware that this leaves the whole position in
   the air--whether one should use Scots as a deliberate political
   act--this is clearly a possibility. (7)

And though the Scots that bursts forth in Cyrano de Bergerac and Phaedra is in fact far from that which would be 'naturally used in speech', it is also some way from the kind of Scots employed by those earlier 20th century translators and dramatists who--like Douglas Young--wore their nationalist credentials on their sleeves. As Bill Findlay observes, in a detailed discussion of the nature of Morgan's dramatic medium, whereas Lallans translators of drama, like Robert Kemp and Victor Carin, tended to draw upon conservative, rural language varieties as the basis of their stage Scots, Morgan turned to Glaswegian speech, synthesizing elements of this stigmatised medium in ways reminiscent of the strategies of the Lallans poets and dramatists, with results that root the literary dialect in the city rather than the country. …

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