Frae Ither Tongues: Essays on Modern Translations into Scots

Frae Ither Tongues: Essays on Modern Translations into Scots

by Bill Findlay

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ISBN-13: 9781847695567
Publisher: Channel View Publications
Publication date: 03/16/2004
Series: Topics in Translation
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 542 KB

About the Author

Bill Findlay was Research Fellow in the School of Drama and Creative Industries, Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh. He has published widely on the use of Scots in theatre translations and has translated into Scots for the professional stage over a dozen classic and contemporary plays.

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Frae Ither Tongues Essays on Modern Translations into Scots

By Bill Findlay

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2004 Bill Findlay
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84769-556-7


Wale a Leid an Wale a Warld: Shuihu Zhuan into Scots


By Way of Beginning

In a complex linguistic environment, where several choices are open to us, what factors influence our decision to use one tongue rather than another? If we choose to use Scots, we choose to use/abuse the following associations:

• marginality;

• couthiness [agreeability];

• familiarity;

• antiquarianism;

• self-conscious literariness;

• hameliness [intimacy].

And if we choose to write prose in Scots, we must expect our readers to react in varying ways:

• some will expect the text to be comic;

• some will be puzzled by the spellings;

• some will say 'A cannae read this' [I can't read this];

• some will simply not bother;

• some will think of it as 'Old Scots';

• some will be delighted by the appropriateness of the match between text and tongue.

If we choose to translate into Scots, the first question will always be 'Why not English?' – though you wouldn't ask a Dutchman or a Dane, 'Why not German?' At least with translation there is a series of clear answers to 'Why Scots?':

• because this text demands non-metropolitan language;

• because we hear this authorial voice in Scots;

• because another tongue would impede or destroy the flavour of the original;

• because with this text the translator is happier in this tongue.

And this is to ignore for the moment wider issues such as:

• every tongue needs to grow;

• living languages are stretched best by cross-cultural contact;

• translations challenge the scope and accuracy of tongues;

• social/political/cultural factors demand the use of this tongue rather than that;

• the translator ignores/subverts/colludes with social/political/ cultural factors.

Mossflow Tales

I began translating Shuihu Zhuan into Scots, as Men o the Mossflow, in the early 1980s, at a time when I had become convinced of the suitability of Scots as a medium for extended prose narrative (Holton, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1995a). I had for some time been attempting to make an English version of Shuihu Zhuan (Chen, et al., 1981), with little or no success: the language was clumsy, and refused to bend to either my will or the lithe grace of the original. Stymied, I turned, despite an initial scepticism over my aptitude, to Scots. And the first chapter wrote itself, fell off the typewriter onto the page. It later became necessary to try other experiments: was this just a freak, a one-off? Or could other Chinese texts survive the transition into Scots? With practice it became obvious that some texts not only survived, but even seemed to prosper in their new environment. It all depended on the individual voice of the original. So it could work, in at least some contexts.

The next development came when I asked myself, 'What kind of Scots do I want to use here?' This question was to some extent limited by my own background – born into a Border family, brought up in Edinburgh, Falkirk and Selkirk, schooling finished at Gala Academy, university in Edinburgh. So the choice of a Lothian standard Scots with Border tinges, while it may seem to fit the profile of the Makars (Scots poets of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries) – and I couldn't help but be influenced by them – actually grew as much from my own linguistic background as it did from conscious literary imitation.

When it came to spelling, the Makars gave me the lead, too: again, Lothian standard with local tinges. At first I used a pure Scots Style Sheet approach, but as the years have gone on I seem to have settled into a modified and simplified version that reflects a balance I try to hold between my ear, my own idiolect, and a vaguely-defined idea of what the general reader might be comfortable with.

So to translate a seventeenth-century text written in a close approximation of daily speech, which is not entirely colloquial (like Hugh MacDiarmid's 'Synthetic Scots', it's a literary imitation of colloquial language), I tried to make a kind of Scots that could be spoken with ease, and that had enough elasticity to accommodate the shifting registers of the original. Since comic effects in Shuihu Zhuan often build on dialect differences or on jarring shifts of register, these must all come into the translation, so the kind of Scots to be used can't be a simple, aefauld [one-dimensional] creature, but must be as multifaceted and as flexible as our grasp of the tongue allows.

One of the main influences on me has been ballad Scots: with its subtle shifts and turns between broad vernacular and high, almost biblical, language, it provides a marvellous vehicle for lively narrative. Legal language too, with its high and stately tone, its magical invocations of Latin, its evocative and timeless terms of art, is a treasure house – and a very handy one when you're working on a text that hinges on outlawry and bristles with legal terms. Sir Walter Scott's grasp of the language of the law, and the rich ballad-primed Scots of James Hogg's prose works – especially The Three Perils of Man (Hogg, 1972) – were early and profound influences, as was the language of folk song. There's no doubt that there are resources to hand – and I haven't even mentioned the resonant prose of religious dispute or the pawky [astute, witty] precision of old saws and speaks, or even that peculiarly salty register known at polite Border tea-tables as 'mill talk', which owes a great deal to the discourse of the public bar.

Register has got a lot to do with the success or failure of translations into Scots. As in any translation, get the register wrong – and in particular, the subtle modulations of register that make so much poetry work – and the whole piece limps. That's especially true of Shuihu Zhuan, which relies for many of its effects – mocking wit, savage irony, gentle humour, sly backdoor allusion – on very subtle shifts of emphasis and of register.

While translating Shuihu Zhuan whole and entire, I have worked on translating other Chinese texts into Scots. I have to confess here that I have worked only on those texts that made sense to me: with some texts (poems, especially), I just didn't get it, just couldn't see the joke, or could make no sense of some allusion, some catchphrase perhaps, on which a whole passage might turn. Translators all do this to a greater or lesser extent, of course. Our imaginations work better with some writers than with others, just as our conversations with some humans are better than those with others. Hence the measure of truth in the old saw that Chinese poetry was invented by Arthur Waley: he was a great translator, but he translated only the poems that sound like Arthur Waley's. He could do nothing else, and I don't claim to be any better or any wiser or any more adaptable than him. We must work with the voices that echo within us, whose timbre we can reproduce with confidence. Register is one of the keys here, and this raises a problem that is specific to Scots. When we translate into Scots we are using a defective language; that is to say, 'defective' as Latin verbs are in missing some part or parts. Scots lost its high register prose somewhere between the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and the Union of Parliaments in 1707. High register verse lingered on, and the high prose register was picked up by English, but the vernacular revival led by Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson, and Robert Burns in the eighteenth century didn't bring prose back to life. When Sir Walter Scott began to use Scots for dialogue, despite some wonderful passages, he didn't encourage high-register prose writing, and Scots has still not regained the registers it lost. So the kind of text that sits easily in Scots is not so much one that reflects the ornate elegance of a vanished court, as one that speaks with the funky and irrepressible voice of the bad soldier, the dissenter or the marketplace storyteller .

A digression: a problem I found with trying to use English for Mossflow was that I couldn't get the language to bend enough for me to apply it to what is essentially a medieval novel. Walter Scott did devise a sub-Shakespearian patois for historical fiction, but Zounds, lads!, it's been done to death by his imitators. All this pishery and tushery couldn't do the job (and I would have been embarrassed to have been caught trying).

Scots, on the other hand, precisely because it is defective, allows us to be more adventurous: since there are few rules and precedents, not only do we have more freedom to invent, we often have no choice but to invent – words, structures, registers – because if we do not, we will have a poorer, thinner tongue to work with. For a translator, particularly for a translator working with a book whose original language is new-made, inventive, playful and varied, that would be an impossible restriction. Our tongue is our toolkit, and where it is defective, we must make it new.

It's also true that I can hear one kind of text in Scots and another in English. Though I have made Scots versions of some of Yang Lian's poetry (Yang, 1999), as a youngish internationally-inclined modernist poet with surrealist leanings, he speaks to me more often in English (Yang, 1994, 1995), whereas the down-to-earth subversiveness of an outlaw novel brings out the Border reiver in my blood, and I can't help hearing Scots behind the Chinese when I read Shuihu Zhuan nowadays. With Yang Lian, however, it seems to me that the essential hameliness [familiarity and intimacy] of the Scots paradoxically enhances the strangeness at the heart of his poetry, just as the ordinariness of his poetic diction in Chinese contrasts with the oddness of his vision. What Scots seems to bring out is an earthi-ness, an immediacy and a strength which, together with the spikier rhythms of the Scots, can transmit Yang's voice more powerfully than English versions have so far been able to. This is how he looks in Scots:


blue's aye heicher yet
hes walit the sea same as yir weariness
same as a bodie's glower gars the sea

get twice as dreich
gaun back same as aye
ti the wrocht stane lug whaur the drumbeats is smoorit
peerie coral corps a yowdendrift
gairie spreckles on deid fish
same as the lift at bields yir ilka want

gaun back ti the meiths same as the enless gaun back
ti the scaurs storm heids aa about ye
yir pipes weirdit ti skirl on efter yir daith tunes o corruption i the
howe o the flesh
whan blue's been kent at the last the mishantert
sea millions o caunles blinters an devauls.

(Yang, 1999: 164)


blue is always higher just as your weariness
has chosen the sea just as a man's gaze compels the sea

to be twice as desolate
going back as ever
to that carved stone ear where drumbeats are destroyed
where tiny coral corpses fall in a snowstorm
gaudy speckles on dead fish
like the sky that holds all your lust
go back to the limit like limitlessness
going back to the cliffs stormheads all around
your pipes doomed to go on playing after tunes of corruption
your death
deep in the flesh
as blue is recognised at last the wounded
sea a million candles stands dazzlingly still.]

This is not the ornate and elegant poetic diction of, say, eighth-century Tang poetry, whose effortless ease and grace are not easily rendered into European tongues. (The linguistic need to clumsily insist on explicit markers for tense, gender, number, etc., is a dead weight that cramps the sinewy allusiveness and simplicity of classical Chinese verse to such an extent that there are few poets who survive the exchange with anything like their native grace.) This is strong, muscular poetry, with a pronounced Beijing accent and a profound sense of place; perhaps these are some of the qualities shared by Scots, and perhaps this may explain why these versions work. But in the end, it's all down to your ear, and your grasp of your ain [own] tongue, as well as your grasp of the other language.

What is Men o the Mossflow?

In the early twelfth century the Song dynasty had a succession of calamities, and the north was lost to the Jin Tartars. The Court and the Son of Heaven himself were forced to flee south leaving the homeland in the hands of foreigners, national humiliation, gross loss of face: all round, a pretty bad business from the Chinese point of view. The causes were of course believed to have been corruption at court, the emperor (infallible, by convention) getting bad advice from self-serving mandarins, peculation diverting funds for frontier defence, and so on. In these last years before the loss of the north, when corruption held sway and government was failing the people, there were expressions of popular dissent. Starving peasants rioted, high-ranking officers deserted, individuals made heroic attempts to change the course of history and stem the tide of dynastic decline. And stories were told about some of them. Twice the official Song History briefly mentions one Song Jiang, who with his 36 companions, roamed around terrifying the northern provinces before being defeated and captured. In the century following the loss of the north, stories began circulating in the countryside and among the professional storytellers of the marketplaces and teahouses. These stories told of the exploits not just of Song Jiang, but of other figures too – some historical, some entirely fictional – and whole cycles of stories grew up around them. We know that street theatres as well as the theatres patronised by the gentry were putting on plays based on these outlaw heroes in the same period, and we even have surviving lists of paintings of these heroes as they appear in dramas of the time.

Thus story-cycles were circulating, immensely popular plays were being performed, and at some point in the fourteenth or fifteenth century a novel appeared under the title Shuihu Zhuan, which I have rendered as Men o the Mossflow. (It is also known in English under the title The Water Margin.) It has been attributed to Shi Naian, a shadowy figure who may never even have existed, and to Luo Guanzhong, a slightly more substantial figure who seems to have been associated with the early publication of other novels. The textual history is convoluted and uncertain, but whoever the author was, and whoever Shi Naian might have been, this is a splendid piece of work.

Shuihu Zhuan is the first masterpiece to be written in the vernacular language, and its putative author is the first master of the vernacular. The language is racy and vivid, with a fresh made feeling like the smell of new paint. Over all the registers it uses there is a feeling of mastery and control. Now, it may be the case that, as some scholars still think, Luo Guanzhong simply edited the text from the performance of some great storyteller (perhaps this is where Shi Naian comes in – as the marketplace storyteller whose performance enthralled Luo). Or it may be that Shi Naian, as another theory holds, was a storyteller who took the guild's promptbooks and from them wrote the novel. We'll probably never know. But whoever was responsible, he (or they) made one of the world's great books.

But before we come to why and how it's a great book, there's one other name to be mentioned: Jin Shengtan. He was born around 1608 and was executed in 1661.6 In all the long and book-haunted history of China, perhaps there was no greater literary mind than Jin's. An unorthodox, thrawn [stubborn] kind of character, he was celebrated for his erudition and the astonishing breadth of his learning, despite the fact that he passed only the lowest of the exams for the mandarinate. In his day the Yangtse delta was, as it had been for centuries, the intellectual and creative heartland of all China, and his hometown of Suzhou was celebrated as a city of great culture and elegance. But, because of a breakdown in the bureaucratic system, few appointments were being made, the civil service was in steep decline, and as a consequence there were large numbers of men who had spent their lives in prolonged and abstruse study, preparing for the entrance examination that would make mandarins of them (see Huang, c1981). And they had no jobs.


Excerpted from Frae Ither Tongues Essays on Modern Translations into Scots by Bill Findlay. Copyright © 2004 Bill Findlay. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Editor's Introduction Bill Findlay,
Part 1: Translators on Translating,
1 Wale a Leid an Wale a Warld: Shuihu Zhuan into Scots Brian Holton,
2 Translating Homer's Odyssey William Neill,
3 Dario Fo's Mistero Buffo into Scots Stuart Hood,
4 Translating Register in Michel Tremblay's Québécois Drama Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay,
Part 2: Studies of Translations,
5 Robert Kemp's Translations of Molière Noël Peacock,
6 Triumphant Tartuffification: Liz Lochhead's Translation of Molière's Tartuffe Randall Stevenson,
7 Edwin Morgan's Cyrano de Bergerac David Kinloch,
8 Mayakovsky and Morgan Stephen Mulrine,
9 Robert Garioch's Translations of George Buchanan's Latin Tragedies Graham Tulloch,
10 Robert Garioch and Giuseppe Belli Christopher Whyte,
11 The Puddocks and The Burdies 'by Aristophanes and Douglas Young' J. Derrick McClure,
12 Translation and Transplantation: Sir Alexander Gray's Danish Ballads Peter Graves and Bjarne Thorup Thomsen,

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