An Dà Shaoghal – A zine of Gàidhlig translations of seven Edwin Morgan poems of love, desire, and sex by Robbie MacLeòid. Robbie has shared the acanned zine, a selection of audio recorded readings and a text that expands on his process of translation for The Second Life grants below. If you would like a physical copy of the zine please email email@example.com.
When you grow up speaking Gaelic in Scotland, the most common question you hear from your monoglot English-speaking peers is: ‘Why?’
Not learning Gaelic was ‘one of the great regrets’ of Edwin Morgan’s life (‘Edwin Morgan: A very modest magus’, The Scotsman (2008)). I remember when I found that out, I was thrilled; Edwin Morgan valued Gaelic! Edwin Morgan was super smart, and a great writer, and he valued Gaelic. That moment was one part of the slow, slow process of building an awareness of the value of the language, after years of folk (peers, adults, politicians, the media) insisting it was anything but valuable.
I remember, though, my brother pointing out his frustration at learning of Morgan’s regret: imagine, he said, the Gaelic poems Morgan would have written.
These are not the Gaelic poems Morgan would have written, jealous as I am of the hypothetical universe in which they exist. But this collection of seven translations of Morgan’s poems, as far as I am aware, currently form the largest collection of Morgan translations into Gaelic. The poems range in date from 1968 to 2007, covering forty years of the poet’s work.
These are translations of poems of love, desire, and sex; I am always keen to make another queer voice available in Gaelic. Morgan as we all know was openly gay from 1990 onwards, i.e. longer than I have been alive. For as long as I’ve been aware of Morgan, the idea that an openly gay writer could reach the heights of Makar has not been an unusual one.
Originally for ‘The Second Life’, I pitched the translations of Morgan’s work and was not sure about how I would share them. In conversation with the Trust the idea of making a zine came up, and it immediately appealed to me given the historic and enduring importance of zines in queer culture. I had hoped to print the zine using risograph printing, but lockdown made everything more difficult, from accessing resources to learn about risograph printing to actually getting the zine printed. As such, the end product was not riso printed. The idea that it was going to be riso printed affected the design however, hence why only two colours (mostly) are used in the zine, blue and pink, along with the white of the page.
The journey from one language to another inevitably impacts rhythm, rhyme, even the connotations of words, but for what ‘loss’ occurs in translations there are also gains. Gaelic as a language generally rhymes more often than English, which can instantly change how a poem sounds. Gaelic is also semantically-rich; words can have multiple meanings. Take, for example, the word ‘crann’: the online Gaelic dictionary Am Faclair Beag lists 8 meanings for the noun ‘crann’, and 5 meanings for the verb ‘crann’. When words have multiple meanings, being playful with connotations can be easier than in English; you can encourage multiple readings of the same line, stanza, even poem.
Some characterise translation generally as a conversation between two pieces, the original and the new. Friedrich von Schlegel described translation as ‘a duel to the death in which the one who translates or the one who is translated inevitably perishes.’ The process of translating into Gaelic, in Scotland, is in particular worth discussing. When you translate a poem like ‘Strawberries’ into Gaelic, you do so when most Gaelic speakers are situated in Scotland and can read in English. As such another party enters the conversation (or duel!): audience expectation. If most of the readers of your translation of ‘Strawberries’ have already read the poem in English, are you penned in by their expectations? Or does it give you license to try things that might surprise them? (Both!)
While the zine contains a breadth of poems in terms of date, I also wanted to represent a breadth of poetry and poetic forms. Use of many and varied forms is a characteristic of Morgan’s work, after all. Form and translation can pose challenges though. Take ‘The Moment of Death’, one of Morgan’s concrete poems (it’s in the Collected Poems, p. 555). I will summarise the poem here, but if you have access to it it’s probably better to read it and experience it yourself; summarising a concrete poem feels a bit like explaining a joke.
‘The Moment of Death’ is a concrete poem in which the word ‘unite’ is repeated multiple times. After numerous repetitions, ‘unite’ slowly occasionally becomes ‘untie’, and the letters start to drift apart. Overall, the form of the poem resembles a shape not unlike a lightning strike, though that is open to interpretation. How do you translate that?
I can only answer how I translated it. I mostly aimed to recreate the overall shape, the secondary word spreading out as the poem reaches the bottom of the page. In terms of the words used, for ‘unite’ in Gaelic you might use ‘aoin’ or ‘aontaich’, but I couldn’t see a way in which this would lead to a secondary word achieving the same effect as Morgan’s ‘untie’.
I opted then for more of a cultural translation. Even if you don’t speak Gaelic, you may be aware of the Gaelic saying ‘Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal, ach mairidh gaol is ceòl’, frequently translated as ‘The world will end but love and music will endure.’ It can also be translated, however, as ‘Life will end, but love and music will endure.’ What brings the poem together as a translation for me is the title, ‘The Moment of Death’. I interpret Morgan’s poem as just that, the moment that which is united becomes untied. For the Gaelic version, I opted for ‘Deireadh Saoghail’, which most would translate as ‘End of a World/Life’, to evoke that aforementioned well-kent Gaelic saying. Instead of ‘unite/untie’, I went for ‘gaol is/sgaoil’, the former meaning ‘love and’, and the latter ‘spread out; disband; untie’ and various other meanings. So ‘love and’ becomes ‘disband’ over time, and ‘love and’ in particular also evokes that Gaelic saying.
So the poem as a whole, if it works as I want it to, gives a different take on the moment of death, but one that is recognisable. That which holds things together, love and love and love and love, slowly spreads out, becomes unentangled. It might seem a bit dour, but the translation also evokes that key message: life will end, but love will endure. A fitting message, I think, for this zine.
In translating these poems, I have a few hopes. One is to address one of Morgan’s regrets, and to re-assert that which I took from his regret: that Gaelic is valuable, and worth fighting for. Another is to add another queer voice to the Gaelic corpus, particularly in discussing love, desire, and sex, to add to our understanding of expressing (queer) emotion in Gaelic. Also valuable, also worth fighting for.
And ultimately, I hope folk enjoy the translations. I hope Gaelic speakers enjoy getting to read Morgan in their own language. I hope it continues the interest in Morgan’s work, and makes other writers consider approaching Morgan’s work for translation.
And if folk do not enjoy my translations, that’s okay! I sincerely hope it inspires them to write their own translations, consider the poems themselves, and give new and unique approaches to them. This is one of the first steps towards making Morgan’s work accessible in Gaelic, and, hopefully we’ll see many more steps taken on that journey in the time to come.
Robbie MacLeòid, 2021.