Tuesday, 4 August 2015

William Morris as Translator

Ah, the joys of charity bookshops – those sweet moments of serendipity that Amazon, with everything you’ve ever wanted just an effortless click or two away, can never match! So it was that, after handing over 50p in the Salvation Army charity shop in Carnforth the other day, I came home with a slightly battered but eminently readable paperback copy of George Steiner’s Poem into Poem: World Poetry in Modern Verse Translation (1970).

The first delightful discovery on opening my new acquisition was that p.49 gives us ‘The Sleep of Palinurus’, a twenty-three line snippet from Morris’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (Book V, lines 847-71), in which Palinurus falls asleep at the helm of Aeneas’s ship and then falls overboard. That prompted the chastening thought that, despite thinking myself reasonably well read in Morris, I’ve never actually tackled his Virgil translation. Whether it can match John Dryden’s renowned 1697 version of The Aeneid in heroic couplets, which I have read and of which I’m very fond, I don’t know; but I must certainly make a point of finding time for it in the near future.

Second delightful discovery: pp.190-1 of Steiner’s anthology gives us another ‘The Sleep of Palinurus’, this time by Cecil Day Lewis, translating the same stretch from Virgil’s Book V, so we have the pleasure of comparing a twentieth-century rendering with Morris’s nineteenth-century version. And this prompts a wider thought. We could certainly do with a full-length study of Morris’s practice as translator, across all the languages that he worked with: ancient Greek, Latin, Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon and Old French. That’s a truly daunting task if you feel you have to master those five languages to do it. But Steiner’s Morris/Day Lewis comparison suggests it could be done otherwise: not ‘vertically’ by delving down into the original language, but ‘horizontally’ by looking at a range of other English versions so as to distil, by comparison and contrast, the unique qualities of Morris’s text. We’ve had local, specialist studies of some of Morris’s translations, but the opportunity still remains for a bold, overall study of the lot of them – someone should certainly go for it.


Kotick said...

Well, I’ve taken your advice, Tony: I’ve dutifully chased up the Steiner book and compared and contrasted the Morris and Day Lewis Virgil passages. And I have to report back, alas, that I much preferred the Day Lewis version. It comes across as a workmanlike, focused, direct, forceful telling of the Palinurus episode, while the Morris, in contrast, strikes me as ornate and over-elaborate, encumbered with so many mechanical, faux-medieval Victorian poeticisms: forsooth (twice), trow (twice), lo, eyen, therewithal, yore agone, o’er, and so on. Nor do I much care for its jaunty rhythm and rhymes (the original does not rhyme, of course). For a representative one-line contrast, set Day Lewis’s statement about the ship: “Nothing to fear, for Neptune had guaranteed a safe passage” against Morris’s “Untroubled ‘neath the plighted word of Father Neptune’s mouth”. "Mouth" is stuck in, unnecessarily, just for the sake of the rhyme scheme; and since only four lines later Morris uses the phrase “the Father” to refer to Aeneas himself, you might say that there was a linguistic carelessness here that can even be narratively confusing. So I think that, on the basis of this useful little exercise, I will probably not be chasing up the full Morris translation!

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for putting so much effort and analysis in! I can certainly see where you’re coming from with this kind of judgement, and I feel something of this sort myself. But I suppose we have also to try to feel our way back into Morris’s underlying purposes in adopting the kind of poeticised language he did, and see if we can’t muster some sympathy for the project. I think J.W. Mackail’s pages on the Virgil translation in his biography are helpful in that respect (vol 1, 321-3). He concedes that ‘it cannot be said that Morris brought to this task any adequate equipment’, but also emphasises that Morris’s achievement here is that ‘he vindicated the claim of the romantic school to a joint-ownership with the classicists in the poem which is not only the crowning achievement of classical Latin, but the fountain-head of Romanticism in European literature’. So for Mackail Morris successfully conveys in Virgil ‘his sweetness, his romantic melancholy, and something at least of his haunting and delicate music’ – qualities which are, in his view, genuinely there but which other translators have missed. Whether we could have had those romantic strengths without the faded and formulaic romantic diction you object to, I don’t know. It would be nice to think we could, but perhaps, at that historical moment, we just couldn’t.

Owlfarmer said...

It's been years since I've thought about the Steiner anthology, which was a staple of the translation studies crowd at UT Dallas when I was a graduate student. I remember having a copy I used to read examples of how translation works when I later taught a humanities course, but it's since disappeared. So now I'll have to keep my eyes open in used bookshops. Thanks to the Morris Online edition, though, I've now got easy access to his various translations, and recommended his versions of Icelandic sagas to fellow students in a MOOC I recently took from Coursera ("Sagas and Space"). I still love his Odyssey best, though, and use it as a pony when I'm slogging through in my all too infrequent efforts to keep up my Greek. I think Morris might be forgiven for a bit of carelessness here and there, given the length of the texts he translated, and the several languages from which he worked. His Victorian audience was different from C. Day Lewis's, too--and one really should keep the context in mind when judging the translator's success.

Tony Pinkney said...

Dear Owlfarmer, thanks for this. It's good to hear a bit more about the impact of the Steiner anthology. I've always admired his stunning erudition and the sheer energy of his style, but hadn't come across that particular book of his before. And thanks too for the plug for the Morris version of Homer's Odyssey. My old copy of Richard Lattimore's translation, which I first read when my wife and I were Greek island-hopping decades ago, is now falling to pieces, so perhaps it's time to give Morris a go on this.