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.