Douglas Young

Douglas Young (1913 - 1973) : was born in Fife and spent much of his childhood in India. He studied a great deal, attending Edinburgh, St Andrews and finally New College, Oxford, before embarking on an academic career. A strong Scottish Nationalist, he famously went to prison in 1941 for his beliefs, refusing to be conscripted into the “English” army during the Second World War.

Young was more of a scholar than a poet: he spent the vast part of his working life in universities, and poetry necessarily came second, although he is remembered for his collection, Auntran Blads (1943), and his Selected Poems reveal a writer of extraordinary power.

But it was with his translations that Young made his most significant mark. His work built on the ground laid by MacDiarmid, Neil Gunn and others in the first half of the 20th century and strengthened the credibility of Scotland’s claim to a major, world class literature. Young translated from Scots into ancient Greek and Latin, and from these languages into Scots. His translation work includes, for example, the poetry of Catullus, and Aristophanes’s plays The Birds, and The Frogs (translated respectively as The Burdies, 1956, and The Puddocks, 1958). Young’s career is also very much connected with that of Sorley MacLean with whom he shared a passion for radical politics as well as poetry, and he did much to bring MacLean’s Gaelic poetry to a wider audience.

This was vitally important work as it located the Scots and Gaelic languages in a living European literary tradition. Until the Scottish literary renaissance, many people believed that Scots literature was just a stagnant backwater of English literature, that the Scots language was nothing more than a strange accent and a few quaint ‘Scotticisms’. And as for Gaelic – it is debatable whether the language would have survived the 20th century without Sorley MacLean’s poetry and Young’s translation work.

Douglas Young was one of the many writers and scholars who fought to put Scottish literature back on the map. By translating into Scots, Young was engaging in a political act, not just a creative one: he was keeping alive the Scots language as a vibrant and flexible modern language, able to interpret the great classical literature of the past, making it new and relevant to 20th century audiences.

Translation is an important and useful art: it allows the exchange of ideas across language and culture: it puts us in touch with the rest of the world. In many ways, the work of the translator is as important as the writer of the original material. The translator becomes a co-creator of the work by re-imagining the text into a new language where the rules are all different – clear, bright prose in the original can become muddy and lumpy in the hands of a poor translator. Works of the past are continually being re-translated and updated to reflect the changes in our language and in our society, a tradition that goes back in Scotland to the 16th century and the original Makars: Gavin Douglas, for example, translated Latin poet Virgil’s The Aeneid, one of the key texts of classical literature, into Scots as Eneados.

The tradition continues with Scots translations of major classical, medieval, and more recent European works by writers such as Edwin Morgan (Cyrano de Bergerac, 1992, from Rostand’s legendary 18th century play; and Phaedra, 2000, from Racine’s 1677 French classical tragedy) and Liz Lochhead (Miseryguts, 2002, from Molière’s 1666 masterpiece Le Misanthrope).

These works keep the Scots language alive, and they introduce important literature to Scottish audiences. A dialogue is maintained between writers of the past and writers of the present, between Scotland’s cultures and the cultures of Europe and the rest of the world, and it takes place in a distinctly Scottish voice. Without the work of Douglas Young and the other writers of the Scottish literary renaissance, the dialogue might not be taking place at all.

Further Reading

A Ballad for Douglas Young
News article about a recently discovered poem in praise of Young by Sidney Goodsir Smith.
click here

The Puddocks
some information about Young’s translation of the Aristophanes play, The Frogs.
click here

Sorley MacLean’s Poetry
An academic site which compares Young’s Scots translations with the Gaelic originals.
click here