Academic journal article Scottish Language

Sorley MacLean and Douglas Young: Poetry and Translations

Academic journal article Scottish Language

Sorley MacLean and Douglas Young: Poetry and Translations

Article excerpt

When studying the relationship between Scots and Gaelic language in the Scottish Renaissance period and beyond, perhaps the most obvious and significant intersection of poets and the one with the most obvious symbolic impact would be the metaphorical meeting place of Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean; two poets from two different worlds but coming from one country, both exhibiting excitement in the other's work at a time when these poets were rewriting the rule book in their respective languages and literatures. However, the intersection between another Scots poet and translator, Douglas Young, and Sorley MacLean, is a creative relationship which is perhaps less symbolically potent but richer in the practical issues of language, translation and what that means for the legacy of the Scottish Literary Renaissance.

MacLean and Young's friendship flourished in the 1940s and there is evidence of their creative and intellectual meeting of minds in poetry collections as well as documented evidence in the form of their correspondence. This is an area of study which deserves more thorough examination, but two important articles have paved the way for some of the themes explored in this article. Michel Byrne's 'Tails o the Comet? MacLean, Hay, Young and MacDiarmid's Renaissance' (2002) explores the socio-political and culture context of this group and the importance of the interconnecting relationships between these poets rather than simply discussing each poet as a separate entity. Derrick McClure's essay 'Douglas Young and Sorley MacLean' addresses in detail the language of Douglas Young's Scots translations of MacLean's poetry (1988).

This article seeks to continue the research of the relationship between MacLean and Young; the poet and the translator. It will explore what this means in terms of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, and Gaelic and Scots, and also venture slightly into the politics of translation and minority language literature in general.

The question of language, how it is employed in literature, and translation, permeates much of the correspondence between MacLean and Young. There are very few of their letters in which language is not mentioned and it is worth noting this, though it may seem an obvious or even insignificant point, because it proves that these men, in their capacity as poets, translators and writers, were not working within a vacuum; in other words, the love of language was an overt force in all of their work. Douglas Young is best-known in Gaelic circles as being the man who, at one stage almost single-handedly, encouraged and assisted in the publication of Sorley MacLean's Dain do Eimhir (1943). This was no easy task because, for a significant portion of the time, MacLean was in active service in the army during the Second World War and so much of the editing process had to be done at a distance through correspondence. This means that any queries about the Gaelic language or vocabulary that MacLean was using is discussed in the MacLean-Young correspondence. It is worth noting here that these discussions are so detailed that they even take in MacLean's choice of how he wants his own name translated on publication. On 20 April 1943 MacLean wrote to Young:

[...] since 'Sam' is not much of a name in itself and a mistake in etymology as well, you had better use 'Somhairle', which I am called by all Gaelic speakers who know me rather than 'Sorley', which is only a 'pronounceable' form and would be considered a sort of swank. (NLS, Acc 6419, box 38b)

He had written about this in an earlier letter too (30 March 1943):

Also name; I think you better all use Sam or Somhairle (preferably latter) as Sorley would raise just a few eyebrows I don't want to raise. I had better decide for once. Let it be Somhairle. (NLS, Acc 6419, box 38b)

This is a rare example of MacLean discussing the issue of his name but it shows, on a micro level, the importance of language in the formation of MacLean's own image as far back as the early 1940s (clearly, the Sorley name in pronounceable form was what he eventually used in English, so his opinion must have changed or been changed for him). …

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