Meena into Scots

This poem by Meena was probably the one I wanted to ‘translate’ the most, the one which took longest, and the one which is most problematic. Problematic because the impulse and the root of Meena’s work is so strong that any attempt to transplant it across cultures comes with all sorts of difficulties attached.

Essentially, I’ve tried to reconfigure the poem into a familiar matrix for me of the overlooked other Englishes of the UK, particularly the Celtic fringes. So my list of loan-words matches Meena’s Tamil words in that it’s Scots and Gaelic terms.

The prejudices her poem addresses have been translated into nationalist and other bigotries, the persistent ideology of some English people that England is Britain, an idea which just goes fuzzy round the difficult edges of the islands, but never needs updating.

(This is of course a viewpoint reflected in other cultures, where it’s simple to conflate ‘England’ with ‘Britain’ because outside the UK it’s really not that big a deal. But within…)

Mulligatawny dreams

anaconda. candy. cash. catamaran.
cheroot. coolie. corundum. curry.
ginger. mango. mulligatawny.
patchouli. poppadom. rice.
tatty. teak. vetiver.

i dream of an english
full of the words of my language.
an english in small letters
an english that shall tire a white man’s tongue
an english where small children practice with smooth round
pebbles in their mouth to spell the right zha
an english where a pregnant woman is simply stomach-child-lady
an english where the magic of black eyes and brown bodies
replaces the glamour of eyes in dishwater blue shades
and the airbrush romance of pink white cherry blossom skins
an english where love means only the strange frenzy
between a man and his beloved, not between him and his car
an english without the privacy of its many rooms
an english with suffixes for respect
an english with more than thirty six words to call the sea
an english that doesn’t belittle brown or black men and women
an english of tasting with five fingers
an english of talking love with eyes alone

and i dream of an english
where men
of that spiky, crunchy tongue
buy flower-garlands of jasmine
to take home to their coy wives
for the silent demand of a night of wordless whispered love…


Cockaleekie Dreams

blackmail. bog. cosy. convene.
galore. gob. glamour. gumption.
mackintosh. pet. pony. rampage.
slogan. smithereen. spunk.
tarmacadam. trousers. wee.

Eh hae a dwaum o Inglis
fou wi thi wurds o meh leid
an Inglis in totie lettirs lyk Bede’s miniscule
an Inglis that wad wearie a Sassenach’s jaa
an Inglis whaur thi bairnies practice wi grannie sookers
tae ask fur a ‘be’er bit o bu’er’ oan thir breid

an Inglis whaur a pregnant wumman can say she’s in jizzen
sae braks thon wurd free fae uts dickshunry prison
an Inglis whaur freckle-besprent gingers ur magic
and no jist Princess Di-eyes wi tragic dishwaater lips
an Inglis whaur luve means thi wud fling
atween a man and his darlin
lyk bodach and carlin
and no jist atween him and his car

an Inglis withoot owre mony buts tae its ben
an Inglis wi mair nor seeventeen wurds fur rain
an Inglis that disnae talk doon tae Northernirs, Jocks, Paddies & Taffs
aabdy that works in Indian call centres or Chinese kerry-oots
weemen in thi wurk place or kirk place or ony place
that isnae Crampshire or Puckringham Chatterlist
an Inglis o tastin smokies wi thi fehv fingirs
an Inglis that can talk o luve wi thi ehs alane

and Eh dwaum o an Inglis
whaur the men o that perjink, aye-stervin leid
beh bouquets o lilies and jasmine
tae tak hame tae thir mim wives
as a silent ask fur a nicht o murmellin wurdless luve


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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2 Responses to Meena into Scots

  1. arjun says:

    supreme! firstly, this is probably one of Meena’s finest poems: the whole imagery and the political context; having said that i must not ignore her other amazing socio-political poetry on dalit and women issues. “i dream of an english” transcends way too many borders and everyone within the colonial commonwealth connects with it in their own way.
    the Scots version touches another such boundary. and i love the humour you bring to it. ‘respect’

  2. Magnifique. Savoureux. Ta traduction donne un écho en profondeur au poème de Meena.

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