Translating Gaelic into Scots: cultural and political issues The production of literature within the territory now known as Scotland dates from long before the kingdom took its present shape; but the perception of an entity labelled “Scottish literature” has changed radically over the last hundred years. Of fundamental importance has been the recovery of a sense of national autonomy in the literary field: a realisation that Scottish literature does not consist solely of a number of individuals who stand out, by virtue of using Scots instead of English or by writing about Scottish scenes or people, in the general field of “English” literature. With this has come the growth of a Scottish critical tradition emancipated from the previously unquestioned assumption that Scottish literature must be examined and evaluated with reference to Anglocentric parameters. As an aspect of this, a cosmopolitan dimension to Scottish literature has been re-established, with both creative writers and critics becoming increasingly concerned to emphasise the status of Scotland as a member of the world comity of nations, participating actively in the international cultural scene: the remarkable development of literary translation in modern Scottish literature, and the range, scale and quality of the translations produced, is one illustration of this. I have deliberately used the words recovery and re-established, since in those respects Scotland’s literary culture has recovered from a temporary aberration to resume an earlier and healthier state; but a wholly revolutionary aspect of the developing perception of Scottish literature is that writings in English, in Scots and in Gaelic have now all come to be seen as integral parts of a single national oeuvre.
The emancipation from the stultifying perception of Scottish literature as a branch of English literature was one factor which made this change possible: Scottish literature in English, or in the closely-related Scots, could be seen in such terms at least for as long as critics failed to recognise the disparity between the implications of the word English in its linguistic and its political senses, but literature in Gaelic obviously could not. In effect, the perception was formerly of two wholly unrelated entities, one labelled “Gaelic literature” and defined purely by language; the other labelled “English literature”, defined by language but with erroneous assumptions based on the political implications of the language name; and containing a sub-group, identified in some cases by the fact of being in a distinctive language-form and in others by the place of the authors’ birth, which could be labelled “Scottish literature”; and this perception changed by the promotion, so to speak, of “Scottish literature” from a sub-class to an independent class, defined essentially on political grounds. When this occurred, Gaelic and its literature could be received into the Scottish fold, recognised as an integral part of Scottish culture instead of something apart and unrelated: the separateness entailed by its language was now transcended by a “togetherness” entailed by its geo-political origin. The perceptions of Scots and English were also affected by this change in perspective. The word English came to be used in this context purely as a language name, losing its political overtones: Scottish literature in English is Scottish, just as American literature in English is American. (This, of course, should never have needed to be pointed out: that the English nation has no longer any proprietary rights in the English language has been an obvious fact at least since Webster proclaimed it in the introduction to his Dictionary.) And the perceived status of Scots changed dramatically, from that of a “dialect” to that of a language existing on equal footing with both English and Gaelic: a central endeavour of the Scottish Renaissance movement was to enlarge the expressive power of Scots and expand its range of uses (an endeavour, of course, for which poetic translation was an ideal instrument).1
The radical change which this has entailed is perhaps not easy for outsiders to appreciate.2 The traditional focusing of the concept of “Scottish” literature on the literature of the Lowlands is the result of a sequence of long-term political and cultural developments beyond the scope of the present paper, and as such is necessarily difficult to overcome: particularly for the obvious reason that ignorance of Gaelic outwith the areas where it is or has recently been spoken as a community language is almost universal. The traditional picture of Scotland as divided into a Gaelic-speaking “Highlands” and a Scots-speaking “Lowlands”, separated not only by language but by mutually antagonistic beliefs, values and modes of life, though of course simplistic is firmly rooted in historical fact. Not only is the Gaelic language foreign to Scots- and English-speakers, but the anciently-established literary tradition of the Gaeltacht is far removed from that of the Lowlands (which throughout history has shared to a much greater extent in the mainstream literary culture of Europe): notably, expressions of Scottish patriotism such as are regularly found in the work of Lowland writers are rare in Gaelic literature, where expressions of love and loyalty are rather to the family, the clan or its chief, or the region (perceived topographically), rather than to the politically-defined nation-state.
It was in the 1920s and ’30s, a period in which the Scottish cultural scene was a ferment not only of literary production but of impassioned and committed discussion of Scotland’s cultural and political status (with discussion of its languages holding a central place), that efforts at bridging the gulf between Scots and Gaelic culture took effect at the leading-edge of literary developments.3 The pivotal figure in this entire movement was the poet and polemicist Christopher Grieve (“Hugh MacDiarmid”); and on the specific issue of Gaelic and its place ― past, present and hoped for ― in Scottish life he expressed himself with his characteristic mixture of fiery eloquence, blistering contempt for opponents, and a cavalier refusal, rather than mere inability, to distinguish between convictions and facts. (The articles which he published in the Scottish Educational Journal between 1925 and 1927, and the correspondence which they prompted, brilliantly illuminate the fervour, as well as the high learning and literacy, which characterised Scotland’s educated class in the period.4) Having argued in numerous publications that a re-discovery of Gaelic and its literature was vital for the restoration of Scotland’s spiritual health, he gave practical support to his case by bringing into his anthology The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry5 a selection of translations from Gaelic poetry, few in number but representing a range of styles and periods and including two of the greatest poems in the language, Birlinn Chlann-Raghnaill [Clanranald’s Galley] by Alasdair Mac Mhaighistir Alasdair and Mòladh Bheinn Dorain [Praise of Ben Dorain (a mountain)] by Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir. These translations vary in style: for a battle-song by Iain Lom he uses cadenced prose, though the original is in rhymed and metrical verse; for the evangelical poetry of Dugald Buchanan he follows the metrical and rhyme scheme of the original, producing poems very similar in form and style to some traditional hymns; for Birlinn Chlann-Raghnaill, replications of the varying metres and prose passages of the original. These are in slightly archaic English with a few Scottish topographical terms (brae, glen, cairn) and in the case of the Mac Mhaighistir Alasdair poem some rare and esoteric words to reproduce something (but only a little) of the intricate sound patterning of the Gaelic,6 and are of high poetic quality: by contrast, and surprisingly, his attempt at a Scots translation of Donald Sinclair’s Slighe nan Seann Seun (“The Path of the Old Spells”) is frankly deplorable.7 Nonetheless, MacDiarmid’s anthology went at least some way to bringing the existence of Gaelic literature to the attention of Lowland readers, and to demonstrating its quality.
A much greater contribution to the cause of bringing Scots and Gaelic together was made by George Campbell Hay, a poet of equal fluency in all three of Scotland’s indigenous languages. Hay was born in Elderslie, near Paisley, but his family moved to Kintyre when he was four. His calf-ground, therefore, was an area where Gaelic in his boyhood was still the community language, though even then in a losing battle with the Scots which was about to supersede it. Though Scots was strictly his first language, he was bilingual from an early age, and was keenly aware of the meeting in his own person of Highland and Lowland cultures. And as his essays and letters show, the interaction and mutual influencing of the Scots and the Gaelic parts of Scotland, not only on the historical level but as manifest in Scottish habits of speech and thought, was a matter of profound and abiding interest to him.8 His poetry combines the detailed historical awareness which characterises Gaelic literature with a passionate commitment to the need for Scotland — Scotland as a whole — to unite in an effort to counter its present downtrodden state and recover the confidence in its anciently-developed identity.9 In his poetry, the Gaelic, Scots and English languages interact in fascinating ways: often he writes poems in Gaelic and Scots which are identical in themes and imagery but sufficiently distinct in actual words that neither can be seen as a translation of the other; and his Scots poetry acquires a highly individual quality from his deliberate incorporation of Gaelic metrical and segmental patterns.10 Somewhat later, William Neill, like Hay a poet with full fluency in Gaelic, Scots and English, followed Hay in writing Gaelic and Scots versions of the same poems, and also making translations into modern Gaelic and Scots from poems in Middle Irish.11
Another key figure was the poet, scholar and political activist Douglas Young, who not only persuaded his friend and co-idealist Sorley MacLean to publish his first collection of poems Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile,12 himself finding a publisher and an illustrator and supervising (from prison, incidentally) the process of publication, but included Scots translations of several of MacLean’s poems, and two of Hay’s, in his first volume of poetry Auntran Blads.13 Young, that is, has the credit of first bringing MacLean’s collection, now recognised as the greatest achievement in twentieth-century Gaelic literature, to the attention of the Gaelic reading public; and also of making it known, albeit in a new guise, in the Lowlands.
MacDiarmid, Hay and Young wrote with the specific intention of uniting Scots and Gaelic in the service of a common Scottish literary Renaissance, which itself was envisaged as an integral stage in a movement to restore full political as well as cultural autonomy to Scotland. The aims of this new movement cannot, surely, be seen as other than praiseworthy: it was, in summary, an attempt to overcome the centuries-old barriers of ignorance and hostility between the two cultures by inviting, not only scholars and literati, but the general reading public in each of the two to make the acquaintance of the enormous literary wealth of the other; and thereby to promote the emergence of a Scotland in which a revitalised multilingual national culture would be both a contribution to and an aspect of the recovery of independence. Like all great ideals, it did not progress without vicissitudes and setbacks, and is far from having been fully realised yet: the pathetic complaints that regularly appear in the correspondence pages of newspapers every time some action in support of Gaelic is taken or proposed by the Scottish government14 demonstrate this all too clearly. But the breakthrough made by MacDiarmid, Hay and Young was followed up at least to some extent. In a 1991 conference paper15 I summarised the range of translations between Scots and Gaelic then in existence: in one direction, besides a not insubstantial number of translations of classic Scots poems, mostly by Burns, made prior to the Renaissance, and the impressive achievement of translating Burns’s entire corpus into Gaelic poems keeping the original metrical and rhyme schemes by Roderick MacDonald, only a very limited number of individual poems had then been translated: two of Hugh MacDiarmid’s by Derick Thomson and one by Iain Crichton Smith, and three poems of William Soutar and one of Geddes Thomson by John MacDonald; and in the other an equally limited range, the principal examples being a set of seven poems from Derick Thomson’s collection An Dealbh Briste [The Broken Picture] by Alexander Scott and three from Rob Donn, almost the only non-contemporary Gaelic poet to appear in Scots translation, by Donald Campbell.
Since then, more has been achieved; though the planned and concerted effort by poets and translators to continue the work of bridging the gulf between Scots and Gaelic which I called for then has assuredly not materialised: a notable collaborative effort to follow the MacLean-Young and Thomson-Scott translations has been a volume of Gaelic poems by Roderick MacDonald translated into North-East Scots by Joyce P. Collie or general literary Scots by myself,16 another the publication of an audio recording in the Scotsoun series17 of a substantial selection of Gaelic poems with Scots translations and vice versa; two awaiting publication are the Scots translations by Niall O’Gallacher of the Gaelic poetry of Christopher Whyte and by myself of Aonghas Phàdraig Caimbeul. I will take the liberty of talking as a practising translator for the remainder of this paper.
The process of translating poetry in one language into poetry in another language cannot be reduced to a simple code of practice: every source poem must be approached, and every target poem assessed, on its own terms. A basic principle which I follow in my own translation work, however, is that the merit of a poetic translation does not inhere simply in its closeness in literal meaning to its original, nor in some imaginary compromise between the conflicting claims of literal accuracy and stylistic acceptability; as if there were a necessary proportional relationship between those two (what I call the ‘either true or fair’ fallacy). It inheres in the extent to which the translator has successfully exploited the resources of his own language to produce a poem comparable in technical skill, expressive power, and referential content to what the original poet achieved using his. If the source and the target languages differ enormously in segmental and prosodic phonology, grammar and semantics, as is true of Scots and Gaelic, a poetic translation will of necessity be unlike its original: on the principle just stated, the more successful it is as a translation the more unlike it will be. On the equally important and much less tangible level of cultural differences which the languages embody, the issue is even more elusive and less susceptible to general principles. My own practice as a translator is simply to choose for my sources poets whose personae make them good company for the Scottish poetic pantheon: two of my examples are Frédéric Mistral with his profound love of his homeland and the traditional lives of its people, and Cecco Angiolieri with his cocksure satirical wit.18 In the case of modern and contemporary Gaelic poetry, the cultural barriers to appreciation of their work by a Lowland (and indeed an international) audience are much less than with Gaelic poetry of earlier periods: the desired rapprochement between the two sides of Scottish culture has in fact been greatly facilitated by a factor central to the Renaissance which both literatures experienced in the years following the Great War, namely the common perception of the threat to the two languages, and their associated literary traditions, by the vast social changes in process.
The attraction of modern Gaelic poetry for a non-Gaelic Scottish reader is enormous. The mighty quintet of Sorley MacLean, George Campbell Hay, Derick Thomson, Iain Crichton Smith and Donald MacAulay who galvanised the language and its poetry in the morning tide of the Renaissance have had worthy successors too numerous to list, though I will give my opinion that two of the finest poets writing in any language in Scotland today are Aonghas MacNeacail and Meg Bateman. Modern Gaelic poetry combines traditional themes and values, and the characteristic highly-focused visual imagery and intimate association with landscape, with an aboundingly lively, experimental and imaginative use of the language; and a full integration in the international poetic scene with a strong sense of political and cultural nationalism. As a translator, I endeavour to respond to this by exploiting the full range of vocabulary, and of style and register, of post-Renaissance Scots. The practice of using words found in earlier literature or in reference works but not now in current use, and words from the dialects of different parts of Scotland, is no longer controversial (or should not be): its usefulness has been adequately demonstrated by the magnificent corpus of twentieth-century Scots poetry; and my translations are offered as additions, I hope not unworthy ones, to that corpus. In the first example I have used a poetic register, with words of marked emotive and phonaesthetic power and (in some cases) specific literary associations, for a meditative lyric by Donald MacAulay; in the second, a contemporary Aberdeen urban basilect for an ironic squib by Rody Gorman. In responding to the prosodic patterns of the originals, my general practice is simply to translate free verse by free verse, though as far as possible with a recognisable rhythm or with the use of recurring prosodic patterns; and metrical verse, given that Gaelic poetry, though the language is stress-timed, has different prosodic rules from Scots or English, by verse with a consistent and regular pattern (iambic, dactylic or whatever). In my third example (from Derick Thomson) the rhythm of the translation, as of the original, scarcely consists of anything more organised than the basic stress-timing of the language: at least in the first part, with its conversational and somewhat sarcastic tone; in the fourth (from Myles Campbell) I have endeavoured to underline the earthy, punchy rhetoric of the original with a recurring dactylic thump; in the fifth (from Aonghas MacNeacail) I have followed the original in its strictly-organised repetitive rhythmic patterns. Rhyme, if present in the original, I incorporate: even though I allow myself at least some freedom, letting assonance or consonance serve instead of full rhyme, this sometimes unavoidably affects my choice of vocabulary, a frequent result being the choice of a more recondite Scots word than I would otherwise have selected. The last two examples illustrate unemphasised rhymes in a song-like lyric by Myles Campbell and deliberately obtrusive ones in a hard-hitting verse to a fellow-poet and radical by Sorley MacLean.
The field of translation between Scots and Gaelic is a happy hunting ground for test cases of the technical, poetic, political, cultural and ethical issues in literary translation. The longer it continues to be so, the more confidence we may have in the health of the Scottish cultural scene.
AIR TRAIGH BHOSTAIDH (Donald MacAulay)
(English translation by the author)
Air Traigh Bhostaidh On Bosta Shore
Air mo làimh chlì On my left hand
tha tobhta; a ruin
air mo làimh dheis muir a’ gluasad. on my right the sea in motion.
Tha ’ghainmheach bhàn a’ sineadh The pale sand stretches
fo mo leth-thaobh ’s mi air m’ uilinn under my side, as I rest on one elbow,
gu a crìch, thall till it ends, over
aig cluas na geodhaidh; at the edge of the inlet
’s tha ’ghrian geal oirre and the sun shines white on it
a’ cur lasair an aghaidh nan gràinean ― firing the face of each grain
aodainn a thàinig air uachdair faces that surfaced
latha soilleir on a bright day
eadar dhà shluaisneadh between two surges
’s a dh’fhiosraich boillsgeadh a dh’eachdraidh a’ bhaile. and caught a glimpse of the place’s history.
Air mo chùlaibh tha leas; Behind me an enclosure;
fo thuim ghlasa, suainte under its fallow mounds, wrapped
ás a’ ghrein up, out of the sun
tha na daoine ’nan eachdraidh. the people lie — in their history.
Ann an aodann a leacan, ’na seasamh In the face of the flagstones, standing
am fianais na tobhta in the sight of the ruin
’s na mara and of the sea
tha saoghal ’sa bhial fodha ― a world is reflected, face down —
eachdraidh a’ dol am fuar-mheas. history being cold-shouldered.
ON BOSTA SHORE (Scots translation JDMcC)
At my caurie haun
at my richt the jowin sea.
The white saun streeks awa
ablow my bouk, an me on my elbuck liggin,
tae the hyne-awa straun
at the heid o the pow;
an the sun, sae bricht on the saun,
sets ilka mirlie tae skinklin —
faces that raise abuin
ae day whan the sun wes skyrie
atween ae swaw an the neist
an kent a glisk o the history o the toun.
Ahint my back, a howff;
ablow the hirstie lairs, happit
awa frae the sun
liggs the fowk in their history.
In the face o the graffstanes, staunin
in the sicht o larach
there a warld gane heels ower heid ―
history cuissen awa.
2. BEALACH NAN GAIDHEAL, OBAR DHEATHAIN (Rody Gorman)
Bealach nan Gaidheal, (English translation)
Obar Dheathain Gaelic Lane, Aberdeen
Choisich mi air Bealach nan Gaidheal I was walking in Gaelic Lane
’s tu fhèin air m’ uileann with you arm in arm
Feasgar Là na Sàbaid on a Sunday evening
Is thug sinn sùil And we looked up
Air na druidean os ar cionn at the starlings above us
’S iad a’ cruinneachadh air stuagh gathering on the gables
Gu h-àrd high up,
Agus an là a’ ciaradh. daylight fading.
Sgaoil aon dhe na bugairean cac orm! One of the buggers shat on me!
(Scots translation JDMcC)
GAELIC LANE, AIBERDEEN.
Here wes me an you cleekit,
donnerin doun Gaelic Lane,
thon Sunday’s nicht,
an we luikit up
at the stuckies up abeen’s
forgetherin on the gales
awa up heich —
jist aboot gloamin it wes —
Een o the wee buggers cackt on ma heid!
3. OLA (Derick Thomson) (English translation by the author)
Nuair a bha mi beag When I was a boy
bhiodh bodach a’ tighinn a bhùth mo sheanar an old man used to come to my grandfather’s shop
1 This highly compressed summary should not mask the fact that the claim of Scots to “language” instead of “dialect” status is still a matter of heated debate, though officially it has been settled by the recognition of Scots by the European Bureau of Lesser-Used Languages.
2 One of the ground-breaking features of a landmark work in the history of Scottish literary studies, The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig (Edinburgh and London 1958), was its inclusion of a chapter on the Gaelic tradition, in which he remarks in a footnote: “It seems incredible that nothing has yet been done to compare the Gaelic, Scots and English branches of Scotland’s national literature” (p.185 n.1).
3 For discussion of such earlier ventures as those of Henry Whyte and T. D. MacDhomhnuill, see the present writer’s “Gaelic translations of Burns”, in Studies in Scottish Literature XXXIII-XXXIV, 2004, 263-280.
4 The articles and correspondence were published in a collected edition by the Scottish Educational Journal in 1976.
5 First published 1940 and frequently reprinted.
6 The power and beauty of MacDiarmid’s English translation are undeniable; but the judgement of Douglas Young in a critical essay is that compared to the Gaelic original it is like a stained-glass window seen from the outside. (“A Note on Scottish Gaelic Poetry”, in Scottish Poetry: a Critical Survey, ed. James Kinsley, London (Cassell) 1955, p.284.)
7 For discussion see my “Literary Translation between Scots and Gaelic”, in Studies in Scots and Gaelic, eds. A. Fenton and D.A. MacDonald, Edinburgh (Canongate Academic) 1994, 106-122. MacDiarmid, unlike Young, was not fluent in Gaelic, though he had a reading knowledge of it: his method in preparing translations from it and other languages of which his knowledge was either imperfect or non-existent was to have an English translation made for him and study it while listening to a native speaker reading the original. His collaborator for those Gaelic translations was Sorley MacLean.
8 See the introduction to Collected Poems and Songs of George Campbell Hay, ed. Michel Byrne, Edinburgh University Press 2000 (paperback 2003).
9 This is discussed in detail in Christopher Whyte’s “George Campbell Hay: Nationalism with a Difference”, in D.S. Thomson (ed.), Gaelic and Scots in Harmony, Glasgow University 1988, 116-135, reproduced at http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/SESLL/STELLA/starn/lang/GAELIC/difrence.htm.
10 See my “George Campbell Hay as a Scots Renaissance poet”, forthcoming.
11 Old Irish (c.725-950 A.D.) and Middle Irish (950-1300 A.D.) are periods which pre-date the emergence of a distinctively Scottish form of Gaelic
12 “Songs to Eimhir and Other Songs”. Eimhir is the name of a heroic woman in Gaelic tradition, applied in MacLean’s sequence by implication to his own love-figure. Published by William MacLellan, Glasgow, 1943: the standard edition is now Dàin do Eimhir: Poems to Eimhir by Sorley MacLean, ed. Christopher Whyte, Glasgow (Association for Scottish Literary Studies) 2002.
13 Also published by William MacLellan in 1943. For discussion of Young’s translations see the present writer’s “Douglas Young and Sorley MacLean” in Thomson (ed.) op.cit., 136-148, also at http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/SESLL/STELLA/starn/lang/GAELIC/maclean.htm
14 It has so far, in the eight years of its existence, taken no action whatsoever in support of Scots: a devastating exposure of the cultural illiteracy of Scotland’s political class.
15 “Literary Translation between Scots and Gaelic”, op.cit.
16 Trilingual Poetry ― Bàrdachd Thrì-Chànanach ― Sangs in Three Tongues, R. MacDonald, J.P. Collie and J.D. McClure, Insch (Burns-Gaelic Trust) 1995.
17 See http://www.lallans.co.uk/.
18 For discussion see my “Thoughts on translating Mistral’s Mireille” in I. Mason and C. Pagnoulle, eds., Cross Words, Liège: University of Liège 1995, 145-157, and “Chairlie Angiolieri: a Sonneteer Scotticised”, in Linguistica e Filologia 20, Università degli Studi di Bergamo 2005, 179-199.