Englishes and Scotses

When I got my invitation to the translation workshop at Adishakti, an old desire surfaced in my brain. Last time I’d been in Kolkata, I’d met the poet Joy Goswami while being interviewed for Bangla magazine. At that time, I don’t think he’d been translated into English at all, and I remember thinking I’d like to do that. 

So it was a particular pleasure to meet Sampurna, who of course has translated a lot of Joy G. But I must confess to a teensy (totie wee) disappointment when I realised that the four Indian poets wrote principally in English, and so hardly required my input in that area. 

But then we were talking to each other about our various complex & sometimes difficult relationships with the idea of a single English, always to be associated with southern England and always to sound RP. If, as we mostly felt, there was not one but many Englishes – all mutually comprehensible to a degree – then why couldn’t I translate between two such Englishes? Or, to be precise, between a couple of Indian Englishes and Scots. 

Now Scots, as many linguists, nationalists and passionate pedants know, is a kind of sister language to English (though many other passionate pedants would argue it was not so separate), but the basic formula holds: that which has a culturally-specific source or subject in one English could find a related source or subject in another. 

The real question is, why, other than as a creative possibility, would one want to do this? Written Scots, especially Scots with any pretention to step beyond the demotic, has a tiny audience. Not even Scottish people are taught to read this in any concerted way, so why would anyone else?

Of course numbers of readers is not the same thing as literary value, and Scots has several distinct beauties to offer the open (-minded, -eared) reader. The predominance of strong Anglo-Saxon and Germanic roots gives it an earthy, often monosyllabic power and pungent demotic punch. Its proximity to the folk poetry of the Border Ballad grants it a direct, affecting lyricism. Its extensive literary heritage of hundreds of years gives it a formal resource of stanzas and rhetorical modes (for instance the flyting) well-suited to its particular range of sensibilities, poised as we often find it between the reductive, the witty, the passionate and the austere.

But really the reason we should read Scots is no different from the reason we should read any other variety of English: to school our ear in that variety, and to allow that in itself to develop our aesthetic and political awareness of the pleasures and problems of variousness. There should be a democracy of Englishes, in effect there remains a hegemony, a distinct pecking order characterised by anxieties and ignorances.

And so, in that spirit, I began to produce versions of my fellow poets’ work in Scots… In the process, I may have been led by their very different voices and approaches into the invention of a couple of types of Scots, but from Englishes to Scotses is, perhaps, not so much of a leap as from English to Scots.


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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