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8 - Translating Beowulf: Edwin Morgan and Seamus Heaney

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 April 2011

Hugh Magennis
Queen's University Belfast
Peter Mackay
Queen's University Belfast
Edna Longley
Queen's University Belfast
Fran Brearton
Queen's University Belfast
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Edwin Morgan started on his translation of Beowulf soon after he got his degree in 1947, his undergraduate studies having been interrupted by the war, and he published it in 1952. He was working in Glasgow at this time in a literary context in which questions of identity and language politics were being hotly debated. In his Beowulf, however, as in most of his other work, Morgan looks out beyond this immediate context, writing for a wider audience and not striving for a self-consciously Scottish inflection in the language of his poetry. As discussed below, in 1953 he produced a translation of a passage from Beowulf into Scots, but in the translation of the complete poem into English (and published in England) he is placing himself in the wider context of poetry in English. Morgan was fully aware then, as later, of issues of English cultural supremacy that weighed heavily on Scottish writers: ‘the Scots have, and have long had, to worry about their relation and attitude to England’, he would write; and in translating Beowulf he knew he was appropriating a great monument from the edifice of English literary history. He was appropriating it, however, on behalf of modern English poetry rather than for a more local constituency, though in doing so he was making a statement to that constituency.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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