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Carol O’Sullivan (University of Portsmouth, UK)
‘Jazzing’ Literature: Beckett, Moerman and Armstrong

This paper considers the importance to Beckett’s aesthetic of translation of an early translation from the 1934 anthology Negro edited by Nancy Cunard. Previous critical interest paid to Beckett’s translation of the poem ‘Armstrong’ by the Belgian surrealist Ernst Moerman has centred on the evidence for a specifically ‘Irish’ diction (McCormack 1992) or for Beckett’s exercise of authorial licence in translation (Friedman 2000). This paper offers a re-reading of this translation in the light of Beckett’s other poetry translation in this period, initially investigating the extent to which it can be seen as a literal example of the ‘jazzing’ of literature often attributed to Modernist writers. The importance of music to Beckett and in Beckett’s work has been well documented in Bryden’s Samuel Beckett and Music (1998) and Oppenheim’s Samuel Beckett and the Arts (1999) and this analysis shows how sophisticated an application of a notional ‘syntax’ of jazz to a literary text ‘Armstrong’ is. Beckett’s translation operates a fundamental shift in the language of the poem, layering over Moerman’s text a revisiting of the four source tracks (‘Some of these days,’ ‘After you’re gone,’ ‘You’re driving me crazy’ and ‘Confessing’) to create a poem which owes as much to the music as to the source text.

This translation is of even greater interest, however, for what it can tell us about Beckett’s developing aesthetic of translation wherein texts are seen as constantly evolving, becoming more themselves, a movement which in Beckett’s later work will become the characteristic asymptotic approach to nothing. This paper looks to Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida for a reading of translation as a ‘becoming’ of the text which supplies that which the source lacks, in this case a genuine engagement between the musical inspiration for the poem and its language.

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