In a complex linguistic environment, where several choices are open
to us, what factors influence our decision to use one tongue rather than
If we choose to use Scots we choose to use/abuse the following associations
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’
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
At least with translation there are a series of clear answers to ‘Why
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
the translator ignores/subverts/colludes with social/political/cultural
I took the job of making Men o the Mossflow in hand in the early
eighties, at a time when I had become convinced of the suitability of Scots
as a medium for extended prose narrative. I had for some time been attempting
to make an English version of Shuihu Zhuan, 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 and Falkirk and Selkirk,
schooling finished at Gala Academy, university in Edinburgh. So the choice
of a Lothian standard with Border tinges, while it may seem to fit the
profile of the makars - 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 - 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 which 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 17th century text written in a close approximation
of daily speech, which is not entirely colloquial (like 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 which had enough elasticity
to accommodate the shifting registers of the original. Clearly, if the
characters all spoke like Rab C. Nesbitt, the tone of the original would
not be easily sustainable. Registers of language other than the demotic
are important in the text of Mossflow as much as in Rab’s discourse,
and these must all be observed - but the fact remains that I’m not the
Philosopher King, I’m not from Govan, and I must use the speech I am most
at home with as a base on which to build. Since comic effects in Mossflow
often build on dialect differencesor 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 creature, but must be as multi-faceted 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 which hinges on outlawry and which bristles with
legal terms. Scott’s grasp of the language of the law, and the rich ballad-primed
Scots of Hogg’s prose works (especially The Three Perils of Man)
were early and profound influences, as was the language of folk song. There’s
no doubt that there are resources to hand - I haven’t even mentioned the
resonant prose of religious dispute or the pawky 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
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 Mossflow, 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.
Of course, while I am translating Mossflow whole and entire,
I have worked on other texts in Scots, and I have to confess here that
I have only worked 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 it to a greater or lesser
extent. 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 only translated 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 canreproduce
with confidence. Register is one of the keys here, and this raises a problem
which is specific to Scots. When we translate into Scots we are using a
defective language - that is to say, ‘defective’ as Latin verbs are: missing
some part or parts. Scots lost its high register prose somewhere between
Jamie Baggy Breeks and the Union. High register verse lingered on, and
the high prose register was picked up by English, but the vernacular revival
led by Ramsay, Ferguson, and Burns in the following century didn’t bring
prose back to life. When 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 which sits easily in Scots is not so much one which reflects
the ornate elegance of a vanished court, as one which speaks with the funky
and irrepressible voice of the bad soldier, the dissenter, or the marketplace
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 mediaeval novel. 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,
as a youngish internationally-inclined modernist poet with surrealist leanings,
he speaks to me more often in English, 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 Mossflow nowadays.
With Yang Lian, however, it seems to me that the essential hameliness and
familiarity 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 earthiness, 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
WHAUR THE DEEP SEA DEVAULS
blue’s aye heicher yet same as yir weariness
hes walit the sea 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
This is not the ornate and elegant poetic diction of, say, 8th
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 tongue, as well as your grasp of the other language.
WHAT IS MEN O THE MOSSFLOW?
In the early 12th century the Song dynasty had a succession
of bad days and the north was lost to the Jin Tartars.
Calamity. The Court and the Son of Heaven himself forced to flee south,
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.
The official Song History twice briefly mentions one Song Jiang,
who with his thirty-six companions, roamed around terrifying the northern
provinces. Once in passing, and once at slightly greater length when, in
the biography of a general, it describes his defeat and capture.
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 wholly fictional - and
whole cycles of stories grew up. 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.
Story-cycles were circulating, immensely popular plays were being performed,
and at some point in the 14thor 15th century a novel appeared
under the title Shuihu Zhuan, which I have rendered as Men o
the Mossflow. (It is also known in English as The
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
Men o the Mossflow is the first masterpiece to be written in
the vernacular language, and its putative author 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, that 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
Whoever was responsible, he (or they) made one of the world’s great
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. In all the long and book-haunted history of
China, perhaps there was no greater literary mind than Jin’s. An unorthodox,
thrawn kind of character, he was celebrated for his erudition and the astonishing
breadth of his learning, despite the fact that he only passed 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. And they had no jobs.
(Large numbers of over-qualified and talented people alienated from
government? A heady feeling of change in the air, the growth of new ways
of thinking about social relations, politics, philosophy, art, literature,
music? Sound familiar?)
In these wonderfully rich and creative times, much new work was being
done: Feng Menglong and Ling Mengchu were collecting stories from professional
and amateur storytellers, working them up into a new genre, and the novel
, which had made its first appearance in the early years of the Ming dynasty,
began to eclipse the theatre as the most popular of narrative forms.
Jin was part of this ferment. Born Jin Renrui, he early in life took
as his byname (a practice common among the literati) the style Shengtan.
This phrase appears twice in the Analects of Confucius, meaning
‘the sage [Confucius] sighed’: once over the genius of one of his disciples,
and once over the wicked ways of the contemporary world. So Jin calling
himself Shengtan was not unlike a punk musician taking the stage
name Jesus Wept. And like the Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses of
the punk movement, Jin saw his duty as a sustained assault on convention.
He set up, in direct competition to the canonical Six Classics (which
had scriptural authority) his own list of Six Works of Genius: they
the brilliant historian Sima Qian’s groundbreaking Historical Records
Shuihu Zhuan, which we know as Men o the Mossflow.
This list was heterodox, almost blasphemous, in that the works were
chosen for their literary merit and not for their powers of moral edification.
A further shock for the pedant lay in the fact that both Mossflow and
The Western Chamber were popular, both in the sense that they were
widely read and admired, and in the sense that they sprang, not from the
world of the academies and ministries, but from the streets and marketplaces.
As for the fact that The Western Chamber dealt frankly with issues
of romantic love, while Mossflow explored highly political issues
such as the nature of loyalty and the reasons for rebellion - well, that
just beat all! Jin made many enemies among the ultra-conservative Confucian
pedants of his day.
Jin took hold of the Mossflow, which had been circulating in
editions of varying lengths, and re-edited it, cutting it down to a mere
70 chapters and a prologue. In doing so he claimed, quite rightly, to have
excised much that was otiose and repetitive in order to make the book’s
fundamental structure clearer. His other innovation, no less bold, was
to add to the book a series of prefaces, chapter commentaries and interlinear
commentaries in the style of scriptural exegesis, in which he gives an
idiosyncratic but blindingly revelatory series of insights into the structure
of the novel, and into the possible motivation of the author.
It was a brilliant move: overnight his 1641 edition became a best seller,
and remained so, to such an extent that all other versions were eclipsed
and almost entirely forgotten until the literary renaissance of the early
20th century disinterred them.
In his recension, the book has a clear sub-text: what do good men do
about bad government?
The story is set in the early 12th century, in the closing
years of the Northern Song dynasty, just before the loss of the north to
the Jin Tartars: the government is corrupt, enervated and in terminal decline,
totally unable to prevent the imminent invasion. Local hardmen and gangsters
are intimately entwined with government at every level, bandits terrorise
the countryside, and the forces of law and order are totally incapable
of either protecting the innocent or deterring the vicious.
In this context, we meet first of all a number of individuals who meet
with a particular injustice, do the right thing in the situation, yet fall
foul of corrupt officials or incompetent government, and can only save
themselves by taking to the hills as outlaws. (A good example is Lu Da,
who, in order to protect Emerant Lilly and her old dad, goes round to teach
the West Mairch Crusher a lesson: not knowing his own strength he inadvertently
kills the Crusher, gets a murder rap laid on him, and has to go on the
lam.) One by one these good men are driven into outlawry, and slowly they
begin to band together in twos and threes, then in larger groups, until
finally they are a formidable army, whose aims are to remind the emperor
of the wrongs being done in his name and to redress the injustices committed
by avaricious or wicked officials.
Well and good, but about halfway through the book, after a series of
chance meetings and coincidences (‘He’s a useful man, wouldn’t it be good
if he was with us?’ - and lo and behold, he turns up!), the leaders of
the band begin to seduce otherwise decent and upright individuals into
joining them. Then in one horrific incident, a child is murdered in such
a way as to throw the blame onto his guardian, whose skills the outlaws
urgently need for the next big battle with the authorities. Weren’t they
supposed to be the good guys? Slowly disillusion sets in until, under Jin
Shengtan’s guidance, the discerning reader begins to see that these people
have become as ruthless and as morally corrupt as the government they set
out to reform.
So the sub-text, brilliantly elucidated by Jin Shengtan, using a radical
mixture of scriptural exegesis, tactical rewriting and judicious cutting,
is one about institutionalisation. An upright man does the right thing
but is forced to step outside the law, having no alternative but to take
to the hills. Each says to himself that it’s only a temporary measure,
but is drawn into a horrific nightmare of rebellion and slaughter. And
that process is the natural and inevitable end of banding together into
a unit so large that it takes on its own momentum, regardless of the aims
of its founders.
In its own time, this was a dangerous doctrine. Mossflow has
always been dangerous, of course, and has been banned many times in its
history, but in the closing years of the Ming dynasty, when invasion by
Manchu nomads seemed imminent, and the symptoms of dynastic decline seemed
to mirror those shown in the book, it was especially so.
Was Jin Shengtan rousing the masses to rebellion? Whose side was he
on? Jin, like any wise man, knew that simple answers are for simple minds.
Previous recensions had ended either with the heroes dying in battle, or
with them receiving an amnesty from the emperor. Jin, by pruning away the
final chapters and ending the book with a dream of retribution at a climactic
moment when all the 108 heroes are gathered together, lets the reader make
up his own mind: this version is morally ambiguous. Just as each of the
major heroes exemplifies one of the answers to the question of what good
men do about bad government - no easy, one-size-fits-all answer, but a
different response for each individual - so the ending challenges each
reader to ask what he or she would do if faced by this same dilemma.
The political questions raised in this book are dynamite in any era.
Men o the Mossflow is not afraid to explore the dark side of
the psyche either. What does ‘heroism’ mean? What is a ‘hero’? Here are
men who booze and brawl their way through their lives, causing mayhem and
murder all around them, under the collective rubric of ‘Justice and Righteousness’.
Cannibalism, rape, indiscriminate slaughter, robbery and violence - are
these the distinguishing marks of the hero? In dark and difficult times,
times when the leaders of the nation seem to be stuck with their heads
in the trough of peculation and pilfering, what is heroism? Does the term
have any meaning? What, as decent individuals, can we do about it?
No easy answers, but a great and challenging book here, one whose astonishing
scope and range dawn on the reader afresh with each re-reading.
WHY USE SCOTS?
It’s not simply a question of just choosing a language, of course.
We must build the language we lack. Any good writer transforms his own
language, just as any translator worth his salt will transform his own
If Scots is to be something worth the keeping, then it should be able
to handle the biggest of books that we can throw at it. Or, to put it another
way, we should be able to take the biggest of books and stretch the tongue
beyond what we think it can do, make the tongue new by including things
we’d never before have dreamt of saying in Scots, to build the language
we lack out of the otherness of a different tongue.
And why not a transfusion of Chinese? It’s the oldest surviving literary
language in the world, and in its vast literature, you can find anything
you want, from the bawdiest, coarsest speech to the most refined and elliptical
of diction. Why not transfuse some of that richness into our ain tongue?
If the Scots tongue can handle Chinese, it can handle anything. That’s
one reason for doing it: to show that this ‘elegant and malleable’ tongue
(as Stevenson called it) has still the pith and the virr in it to encompass
all that the Chinese can do, to show that Scots, bereft of some registers
though it may have become, can still bend and stretch and expand, can still
become a major player again.
And as for the choice of the Mossflow as a vehicle for Scots
- well, far be it from me to suggest that in this blessed age we in Scotland
should know anything of bad government......But just in case such a possibility
should cross anyone’s mind, then the statement (however oblique) of the
problems that might as a consequence arise from such a possibility may
well gain extra force from their expression in Scots. They will certainly
be expressed in a way that has never before been attempted. So the gain
will not only be linguistic.
‘Why not Scots?’ is another perfectly reasonable response to the question,
As if we needed a reason......
A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED
To begin with what might seem an outré sort of passage, take
the point where Lu Da is taking orders as a Buddhist monk. It fairly bristles
with technical terms, few of which have any proper equivalent in English,
let alone Scots. Even the word buddha, for instance,
I render as Salvator: though I am well aware of the theological
distinction between the Buddha and Christ, there seems to be a kind of
functional equivalence which helps the narrative along. In cases like this,
my first priority is the narrative - clotting the story up with abstruse
technical terms may produce a kind of accuracy, but it doesn’t help to
make a rattling good yarn. And in any case, Salvator
is a lovely old word we don’t see or hear enough of these days. Similarly,
the term zhai, meaning vegetarian food, such as is served in Buddhist
monasteries, prompted the use of the old term lentren: doubly useful,
as zhai, like lentren, also has connotations of ‘fasting’.
Here is how part of the ceremony goes:
The Elder grippit the blank lines an spak this halie-rhyme:
"Ane blink o leivin licht ti see
Is mair nor warld’s gear nor fee;
The Salvator’s law is braid ti see:
PROFUNDITAS is the name A gie."
An whan the Giein o the Name wis by the Elder haunit the priestline
ti Brither Quairmaister for
him ti transcrieve the name an pass it on ti Profunditas Lu ti keep.
Neist the Elder gied forth the cassock an the vestments for Profunditas
ti pit on, the Procurator led him afore the Throne o the Law for the Layin
on o Hauns, an the Elder gied him the Admonition:
"ANE: beild ye in consent o the Enlichtencie o Divinitie
TWA: beild ye in observe o the Law o Veritie
THRIE: beild ye in reverence o the freins an dominies o the Order
Thir is the THRIE PERFUGIA. The FIVE ABSTINENTIA is
ANE: takna nae life
TWA: reivena nor spulyie nane
THRIE: deboshna nor hure nane
FOWER: louna strang drink nane
FIVE: tellna nae lees"
Kennin naethin o the SAE SALL A or SAE SALL A NANE at maun be reponit
afore the Offrin Table, Profunditas juist cam out wi "Ay, A’ll mind
o that", an aa the brithers laucht.
A few notes will no doubt be in order here. The Salvator’s Law renders
the Chinese fo fa: both of these terms are themselves translations
from the Sanskrit. Fo renders buddha (‘enlightened one’),
while fa renders dharma (‘the law, the teachings of the Buddha,
the way things work/are’). A straightforward exchange here, losing a little
theological detail, but keeping much of the sense. Salvator, being
a little archaic nowadays, also gives a nice high-register feeling, and
is also more detached from the image of Jesus Christ than the English ‘saviour’
would be in this context, which is all to the good here.
Profunditas is of course a Latin coinage (yes, reader, I made
it up...). The original Chinese is Zhi Shen, literally ‘Wisdom Deep’
- hence my translation. I admit to stealing the wonderfully evocative and
astonishingly handy Latinising of names (especially priestly names and
titles) from the master of Chinese-English translation, David Hawkes.
Latin helps to make names less opaque by giving some clue as to their meaning
(they are quite transparent to the Chinese reader), and also gives some
feeling of the high-register liturgical language which creeps into the
text at this point. And, of course, when the grandly and ecclesiastically
titled Profunditas starts to get roaring drunk and fight with the other
monks, it retains a great deal of the comic effect of the original. By
contrast, a mere Zhi Shen would mean nothing to the reader of the
Ecclesiastical titles were produced in various ways. There exist Latin
titles for the various offices and functionaries of a monastery: many of
these were taken over as they stand; other titles were Scotticised from
the Chinese (e.g. Brither Quairmaister); some, such as Procurator
or Rector, adapted secular roles to suit the sense or the function
of the Chinese title. Some others had to be invented from scratch, like
Praepositor, which is a Latinising of the Chinese shouzuo
(‘head seat’ - the senior monastic administrator).
Titles in general present the translator with a set of tricky problems.
In the case of our text, which is set within the context of a formal and
highly bureaucratised society which was extraordinarily fertile in its
proliferation of ranks, titles and forms of address, these are compounded
by the fact that many of the titles used are in fact unhistorical: some
are anachronistic, some inaccurately applied - as when the character’s
rank and duties are clearly those of an NCO, whereas his title seems to
denote HQ staff officer level - and some are just plain made up. There
can be no ready-made solution. By drawing on the records of the Royal Burghs,
legal records, minute books of Craft Guilds and so on, some titles can
be found and some can be adapted for use. Some are blindingly obvious,
and need only to be translated. For example, Chief Justiciar o the Southron
College o Kaifeng or Lord Collegiar o the Royal Registry are
clearly high offices, and need little or no modification. Similarly, jiaotou
is an arms instructor: jiao is the normal verb ‘to teach’, while
the tou suffix is a noun-former. This becomes Leirsman with
little or no friction. Tixia, on the other hand, is problematic:
first, in that it’s not at all clear what the title means, and secondly,
the responsibilities of the tixia are unclear. It does seem likely
that it is a high military rank - yet Profunditas as we have him in the
novel is clearly not much more than an unarmed combat instructor, an NCO.
So I’ve called him Controller, for lack of anything more specific
to go on.
Others are as tricky: yuanwai was a title awarded to those who
had qualified to hold office but never actually did so. Its sense is ‘outside
the [register of] personnel’, and at times this rank could be purchased:
it was often used by rich and idle landowners, and is widely glossed as
equivalent, at least in later Imperial times, to the English ‘squire’.
Now this may have a kind of social appropriateness - which is what led
me to use Laird in early versions - but in fact it tells you nothing
about the holder except that he is of middling to high rank. It doesn’t
tell you that he belonged to the literati class, for instance. Perhaps
Supernumerary carries something more of the feeling of being an
unattached mandarin. But I remain on the lookout for a better version.
Some titles will remain bafflingly obscure whatever we do: in these
few cases, the best that can be done is to invent something that has a
vague ring of what we think the character’s position might have entailed.
Colour is often the thing - if the original suggests a musty pettifogging
sort of job, or a dashing, heroic, make-up-the-rules-as-you-go role, responding
to that is often as important as formal accuracy. (It ought to go without
saying that much research is needed: you can’t get the feeling of a title
until you have thoroughly investigated the what, when, where and how of
Forms of address present particular problems in pre-modern Chinese,
since politeness and polite language demanded that personal pronouns be
avoided in favour of honorifics and humilifics: this is what produces ‘Johnnie
Chinee’ horrors such as ‘your honourable house’. Clearly, I don’t want
characters talking like Fu MacChu, but it is a fact that ‘your house’ was
rendered by gui fushang (literally ‘your noble palace’). Hence the
use of terms like yir guid hous or yir guid sel and so on.
Conversely, a man of middle years, while talking to a social superior,
would use the term laohan, which becomes this auld bodie
and so demands the sort of obsequious third person once used by genteel
shop assistants. Other forms, such as honest brither, spring from
respect language and have been influenced in their making by ballad Scots
as much as by anything.
Dialogue presents other problems, but here I‘ll focus only on the problem
of dialect. Mossflow is admired for the ease with which it handles
different dialects, and while much of that is today so obscure as to be
invisible to the general reader, there are occasions where a character
is so clearly identified by his own shibboleths that the translator can’t
ignore them. A case in point is Lu Da, who we met as he metamorphosed into
Profunditas Lu. A native of Gansu province in the far north-west, a wild
frontier area on the fringes of the Gobi desert, he has a pronounced Gansu
accent, marked mainly by his use of the first-person pronoun sajia.
What can we do about this? Clearly there is no Scots equivalent. One possibility
to present itself is the her nainsel etc. used by writers to represent
the Gaelic-speaker’s difficulties with Scots, but it won’t do, because
it was used patronisingly (if not insultingly) for so long that it’s hard
to wash away that tone, and we have no evidence that the use of sajia
carried the same negative connotations. My first version attempted to give
Profunditas a strong local accent: I thought Buchan might do, but soon
found out that I couldn’t write a convincing Buchan accent, so I simply
ignored sajia. It later occurred to me that, though we have no first-person
pronouns, we do have to hand the Shetland de, du, dy forms, which,
if I used them and them only, would give the same faint whiff of an accent
which is given by the use of sajia unsupported by other dialect
forms. So the next recension of Mossflow will make use of this feature,
and Profunditas will have a touch of the Shetlander about him.
Profanity, vulgarity, swearie-words, ‘mill talk’ - what do we do about
them? Well, if we’re honest, we’ll reproduce all of it, no matter how foul
we might think it, and we’ll reproduce it as closely as we can, because
our job is to let the text speak - not to bowdlerise, gut or rewrite it.
One which has raised eyebrows is a great favourite among the braw lads
o the watterside: zhiniang zei would be rendered in English as motherfucking
bandit, but I didn’t like the way it sounded so much like an Americanism,
so I took advantage of the fact that niang can be used for other
female relatives, and came up with grannie-shaggin for the first
part. Bandit was another thing: cateran or reiver
were nearhuan by, but they didn’t seem to roll off the tongue the way the
original undoubtedly does, so I opted for alliteration - always a good
idea with swearie-words, I think - and came up with grannie-shaggin
get instead , which is both satisfactorily obscene and satisfyingly
rhythmic. Another common term of abuse is si, usually in phrases
such as ni zhe si. Its history is clear - archaic term for a domestic
servant - and its use simple - generalised vaguely offensive appellation.
But we don’t have an equivalent, so I took instead (with apologies to travellers,
Romanies and others to whom it has been misapplied) tink, which
is a similarly mild though abusive term. And ni zhe si (literally,
you this tink) becomes quite happily ye tink, ye.
Proverbs and saws are scattered liberally through our text, and the
difficulty there is to give them that worn-down, used feeling a good proverb
has. The best advice I can give is to trust your ear: go about repeating
your various versions, chant them like mantras, sing them in the bath -
until one falls into a loose easy rhythm that sticks in your head. Some
atween the fower seas, we’re brithers aa
whan twae ill-willers meet, byornar shairp’s their een
you an me we’ll leive thegither, an thegither we’ll dee
The saw should roll off the tongue like a ballad verse: rhythm is the
key here. And when, as is often the case, the little saws are themselves
in rhyme, we’ve just got to set to and do what we can. For instance:
Afore the Nine-League Hills there wis a battle,
Whaur herd-lads nou finds spear an sword;
As sweet winds riffle owre the Blackwatter River,
E’en sae did Lady Yu bid fareweill ti her lord.
Now the reader doesn’t actually need to know what all Chinese readers
would: that this verse refers to the tragic story of the favourite concubine
of warlord Xiang Yu, who killed herself as her lord was about to be defeated
in his last battle. The main thing is that in the text
it appears as a comic counterpoint to Profunditas’ getting his comeuppance
from the Abbeymaister. Similarly, this:
Bi yir bunnet’s bonnie leam
Ye’re ti be the groom at een!
Bi yir jimp an narra shift
Ye’re ti be guidson this nicht!
This is no more than a simple folk song sung at a wedding, and need
be no more (and no less) elegant than a folk song. Again, as with the saws,
the songs have to be repeated again and again until they turn into something
you can hear, and can imagine yourself singing, at the very least.
Then there are puns. Of all the great world languages, Chinese is the
poorest in speech sounds, and hence the richest in homophones. What a tongue
this is for punning! There was even a fashion in the 13th-14th
century for verse forms which involved long palindromic puns, and still
today a form of multi-level punning called xiehou yu (‘wait-a-bit
words’) is very popular in China. Mossflow, being an action novel,
contains far fewer wordgames than would, say, a novel set among the idle
literati class, but they still crop up. One example will be enough here:
when Profunditas is first creating havoc in the monastery he gets into
an altercation with a monk who tries to stop him sleeping in the meditation
hall. ‘Shan zai!’, says the monk sarcastically - ‘Oh, wonderful!’.
Profunditas hears this as shanyu, meaning ‘eel’. I had to resort
to ‘ye’re daein weill!’ which Profunditas hears as daimen-eel
- so the pun has a kind of transferrable sense. Here’s the passage:
"Ay, ye’re daein weill!" says the bodie.
"Daimen-eel?" rairs Profunditas. "Haive-eel A’ve etten,
but whit’s a daimen-eel?"
"Och, it’s wersh wark" says the bodie.
"Wersh? It’s got a muckle fat belly, the haive-eel, guid fat sweet
eatin - hou’s it wersh?" quo Profunditas....
It’s not easy to deal with puns, and serendipity is often all that
can help. Puns are always a problem.
As are the obscurities, the hapax legomena, the words or expressions
rendered wholly opaque by the passing of time. Trust to luck, be bold,
revise and revise, ask for help, do as much research as is feasible, try
to know your text as well as you possibly can - and it’s still down to
a lucky hit much of the time. For instance, while I was working on a version
of a 14th century poem cycle by Qiao Jifu I
met a very obscure word: Chinese dictionaries (and I consulted them all
- or all that I could find in Beijing, London, Edinburgh and Durham) came
up with nothing much: a kind of water bird, possibly purple, or
a water bird, bigger than a duck - that was as much help as I got.
So I did what you do, inserted a splint, and decided to come back to the
problem later. Much later, while looking for something else in the Concise
Scots Dictionary I found this: fewlume, n. some kind of bird,
e16 , with the helpful thought that it might be related to the Gaelic
word for a seagull. Bingo! In went fewlum, and in fact, in went
fewlums in flauchts. It’s as obscure as the original, but since
it appears in a long list of birds that were being startled into flight,
it’s comprehensible. Hits as lucky as that are rare, though.
Names present their own delights. Each of the main characters in
Mossflow has got more than one name, for a start. Lu Da becomes Profunditas
after his ordination, but has also the byname of The Flourist Freir.
Song Jiang’s byname is Timeous Rain, Li Zhong’s General Toober-the-Tiger,
and so on. Like the Border reivers, each of them has his byname, and like
the reivers’ bynames, they are often very colourful. The Reid Deil,
Braid Daylicht Rottan, The Sleikit Staur, The West Mairch
Crusher all appear in the list of Mossflow characters. These
I would render as closely as possible to the original. Names - in the usual
Chinese order of family name first and personal name after - I have not
changed, except to follow the sinological convention of translating female
names while leaving male ones in transliterated form. This may not be entirely
ideal, since male names are as transparent to the Chinese reader as female
ones - personal names are all invented by the family, and are chosen for
their meaning. But it does have the merit of burdening the text with fewer
Chinese names, and giving a more positive identification to the female
characters. So Auld Jin’s daughter becomes Emerant Lilly rather
than Jin Cuilian, and the famous besom Pan Jinlian will appear as
Another habit is to name sons by their sequence in the family: Mr.
and Mrs. Wang’s second son would be Secundo Wang, his brothers Tertio,
Quarto, Octavo and so on. I have used this convention for minor characters,
and have sometimes translated their names in full - Lucky Li for
Li Ji, for example. This helps to keep the translated text free of too
many opacities, and helps (I hope) to keep the heroes distinct from the
Place names I will, in future recensions, scotticise as much as I can.
Xiao Hua Shan has already become Smaa Glore Hill, and Dongjing,
The Eastren Capital. Similarly, Xinzhou could be rendered as
Faithlands, Jiangnan as Besouth the Watter, and so
on. This is again to prevent the text from being cluttered up with words
which are meaningless to the general reader.
HOW TO DO IT YOURSELF
1. READ EVERYTHING
It’s all useful if it’s written in Scots - the Makars, MacDiarmid,
S.R. Crockett and Annie Swan, ParaHandy, Edwardian doggerel,
folk song and ballads, Wilson’s Tales of the Borders (which you’ll
have to mentally translate back into Scots), Scott, Hogg, Ferguson, Burns,
Galt, Garioch, McLellan, W.N. Herbert, Irvine Welsh, 19th century newspaper
serials, 18th century correspondence, chapbooks, Burgh Court records, Pitcairn’s
Trials, Stair’s Institutes, Murray’s Dialect of the Southern
Counties of Scotland, Barbour’s Brus and Blin Hary’s Wallace,
13th century romances and 20th century transcriptions of tales and reminiscence
- as well asanything and everything published by the Scottish Text
Society. Nothing like an exhaustive list, of course - just what comes up
at random - but the point is not to exclude anything. You’re not reading
for good taste.
Read the dictionaries too. Don’t just consult them. Graze them,
browse on them, follow chains and trails of words through each one, and
from dictionary to dictionary. You can never have access to too many dictionaries
or glossaries: they are your tools. No matter how obsolete or jejune or
incomplete a dictionary, there may come a time when it is the only tool
to help you out of a jam. Know your dictionaries as well as you do your
texts. And make your own. No matter how helpful a shelf of dictionaries
and glossaries may be, what you will need is a reference to your own idiolect.
(Computers make it easy.) A dictionary for each text you translate will
help you with consistency and accuracy, of course, but it will also help
you to develop the individual authorial voice which each text will need.
What you must do is read to sensitise your ear to the possible rhythms,
to the allowable or potentially useful structures. You must learn your
own language as thoroughly as you can (if you don’t think that’s necessary,
go and read the instruction leaflet for your Japanese video, and reflect
on how non-native speakers write English). Scots prose is, for almost all
of us, gey near a foreign tongue, and unless we make a conscious effort
to master this discourse, we will never be able to translate into it.
Listen to everything: on the streets, in the pubs, on the wireless
and the TV. Scots is still a living language - you can’t write it naturally
if you don’t speak it naturally, and the best way to learn its cadences
and its rhythms is to listen to unselfconscious, natural speakers.
Get yourself away to the landart airts, listen to your grannie and her
pals, speak to the bairns. Be the chiel amang fowk takin notes.
As your ear develops, learn to trust it. Always read your drafts aloud:
if it doesn’t sound right to you, keep working at it until it does. And
once you’re happy with it, read to an audience: having an audience is a
great concentrator of the mind - and the audience will be on your side
if you’re getting it right, and can be a great help to you.
3. MAKE IT NEW
There are no rule books. There may be strategies and canons (such as
grammatical acceptability, dialect preference and so on), but there is
no one single way that is right. Our job is to reflect and to use the incredible
fecundity of the tongue, and if we are successful, to lay our wee chuckie
stane on the cairn. Defer to the wisdom of experience, but don’t let anybody
else tell you what’s right and what’s wrong.
You’re going to be making it new, and that can be a daunting experience.
You’ll need faith in yourself, too, because there’ll aye be the hoodie
craws to tell you that it’s a doomed enterprise, and that you’re wasting
your time. NEVER HEED THEM! You’re making it new, you’re working for the
future, not for the past.
WALE A LEID AN WALE A WARLD
If you choose a text from a distant time or place, you’ve already chosen
your world as you read it, as you silently collude with the authorial voice
to make it all new again - each reader has a different text, each re-reading
changes the text. Then if you choose to translate the text into another
medium, you create another text whose relationship with the ur-text
bears some relationship to the author-reader collusion, filtered through
the medium of the translator’s voice. And the translator - ventriloquist
and dummy together - must let his text speak in the best way he knows how.
Ego is not a factor here, as the voice of the translator is not the
point. The authorial voice and the translator’s voice must sing together
in a kind of unison, neither wholly obscured by the other, each separate
and distinct, but both sharing the same modes of delight.
Each word is touched by and filled with the activity of every speaker.
Each word changes every time it is brought to life. Each single word uttered
twice becomes a new word. You cannot twice bring the same word into sound.
It is a good direction to believe that this language which is so scored
and impressed by the commotion of all of us since its birth can be arranged
to in its turn impress significantly for the good of each individual. Let
us endure the sudden affection of the language.
Let us indeed learn to love language. To love its quirks and intricacies,
its coinages and its clumsinesses. And let us express that love in action.
Show the tongue what it’s capable of by offering it the greatest challenge
we can imagine, the greatest stretching of its powers.
I.M. Richards imagined that ‘the greatest challenge ever undertaken
by the human mind’ was the translation of Chinese philosophical texts into
English. Now, we can’t deny the enormous difficulty
of that task, but isn’t every act of speech an act of translation no less
stupendous? (If you doubt it, try telling your neighbour about the taste
of that wine you drank on holiday, or tell your loved one precisely what
was the feeling-tone of that dream that so scared you...)
Every act which involves the transfer of thought/emotion/sensation
into language is an act of translation, and though the hidden springs of
the process may not make it appear so to us, that transfer involves huge
resources of brainpower: imagination, intuition, comparison, analysis,
are all parts of this process. To translate a work of imagination from
one tongue to another requires these same stupendous resources to be used
to the full, and to be used in a conscious, directed way.
It is, they say, impossible.
Now, when we use sound or stone or daubs of bright colour on a flat
surface, or the urbane and elegant tongue that is mathematics, then clearly
we are trying to express what may not be susceptible of expression via
the medium of language. But when, as in a poem, we try to use language
against itself, to use our tongue to say the unsayable, then we are at
the heart of the mystery that is language. And to compound the absurdity
by trying to transfer that mystery from one tongue to another? Daft, of
course - yet it works. Eppur si muove.....Here is the Impossible
Machine we inhabit. Here is the mystery of that angelic meta-language that
Walter Benjamin imagined, where the transfer of meaning takes place.
It’s daft, but we dae it.
And maybe that is the best rationale of all for what we do as translators.
It’s daft, it’s maybe theoretically or philosophically dubious. But it
Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match each
other in the smallest details, though they need not be like each other..
[and so translation] must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s
mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation
recognisable as fragments of a greater language...
It works, in that we can - by whatever means, miraculous or otherwise
- make a rendering in our ain tongue of a text from the other end of the
world and/or from a time we have never known.
A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original,
does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced
by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.
My grandfather once said to me that nothing was worth having unless
you shared it - and this, he felt, applied especially to knowledge. Here
is your rationale. You may sit in your study beikin bi the fire, lost in
your books, but unless ye tak yir quair in hand like Henryson did and tell
those to whom the book is eternally shut, ‘Look, here’s a story, boys,
here’s something that might change your life’ - then what is the good of
your knowing, of your reading, if no-one but you knows the tale?
Hence the need for folk like us - owresetters, takers-over: translators.
That’s the point.
Newcastle upon Tyne
St. Andrew’s Day
1. Has no-one else
noticed that lexicographers have been slow to note the existence of rhyming
slang in Scots? (Maybe it's because lexicographers don't go to pubs...)
2. Scots versions
as yet unpublished: for English versions, see Yang Lian, Non-Person
Singular, Brian Holton (trans.) (London, 1994); Yang Lian, Where
the Sea Stands Still, Brian Holton (trans.) (London, 1995)
3. For some of my
versions of Classical Chinese poetry in Scots, see Stokes, T. and Douglas,
H. Water on the Border (Yarrow, 1994).
4. Thank you, Frank
5. Some scholars take
the view that, since no other evidence for Song Jiang exists, he was in
fact a fictional character who was included in the histories by mistake.
6. This is still a
working title: Shui signifies water, hu is an obscure term denoting
the edge of a river or a riverbank, and Zhuan denotes a chronicle.
Since much of the action revolves around the bandit's lair in the vast
marshes of Liangshanbo, John Scott's suggested title The Fenland Saga
has much to commend it. We don't have in Scotland this type of geographical
feature (though the mid-reaches of the Forth may once have been similar),
so it hasn't been easy to find an equivalent. A mossflow is a loose
boggy bit of moorland: that and the echoes of S.R.Crockett's fine tale
of Border Covenanters, Men of the Mosshags persuaded me to stick
with the current title for the moment. But I'm still not wholly convinced.
7. The details of
his life are obscure: because he was executed, his name appears nowhere
in any officially-sanctioned publication. Non-persons weren't a Soviet
invention: the Manchus were pretty ruthless at suppressing all trace of
those who disagreed with them. For Jin's life and work, see John Wang,
Jin Sheng-T'an (New York, n.d.)
8. For the reasons
for this, see Ray Huang's 1587, A Year of No Significance: the Ming
Dynasty in Decline (New Haven, c.1981)
9. The Ming dynasty
ran from 1358 to 1644: say, Barbour to Urquhart of Cromarty.
10. Born 712, died
770. See Li Po and Tu Fu, Arthur Cooper (trans.) (Harmondsworth,
1973) and The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, David Hinton (trans.) (London,
11. Brilliantly translated
in Songs of the South, David Hawkes (trans.) (Harmondsworth, 1989)
12. See Chuang-tzu;
the Seven Inner Chapters and Other Writings, A.C. Graham (trans.) (London
& Boston, 1981)
13. See Wang Shih-fu,
The Romance of the Western Chamber, Hsiung Shih-i (trans.) (New
14. See Sima Qian,
The Warlords, William Dolby and John Scott (trans.) (Edinburgh,
15. For more details,
see Rolston, D.L., ed. How to Read the Chinese Novel (Princeton,
16. Most of these
terms have come in to English as unnaturalised Sanskrit words, and I didn't
feel that I ought to impose on the reader the necessity of learning Sanskrit,
on top of having to cope with the unfamiliarity of Chinese names.
17. Here I part company
with many (sadly, very many) of my sinological colleagues. I cannot see
the point of taking a spare and beautiful text and translating in such
a way that, constipated with abstruse and ugly technical terms, it becomes
unlovely. However accurate such a version may be, if it fails to render
the grace and elegance of the original, it fails as a translation. To render
beautiful prose in ugly prose is art murder, no less. And the perpetrators,
unless their aim is solely the production of an unlovely undergraduate
crib, should be ashamed of themselves.
18. 'Men o the
Mossflow', Brian Holton (trans.) Edinburgh Review 76, 1987,
p79 (minor authorial modifications here)
19. For which, see
his wonderful Penguin Classics translation of another great Chinese novel:
Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone David Hawkes and John Minford
(trans.) (Harmondsworth, 1973 - 1986)
20. This story is
the basis for the Beijing Opera Bawang Bie Ji, as shown in Chen
Kaige's film Farewell My Concubine
Review, 76, p.80
22. As yet unpublished,
but due to appear in a forthcoming issue of Gairfish
23. It should be
noted that the resonances and hidden allusions of the names in Shuihu
are much appreciated by connoisseurs as adding flavour and subtlety
to the narrative: perhaps the only way to bring any of that out would be
to take all the names, both male and female, and translate everything into
Scots. Wang Jin would then have to appear as King Promoter. I'm
not too happy about that. It seems to me to be about as accurate as translating
January as 'the month of the Roman god of boundaries who faces both
ways'. A bit over the top, really.
24. W.S. Graham 'Notes
on a Poetry of Release', Edinburgh Review 76, 1986
25. I.M. Richards
Mencius on the Mind: Experiments in Multiple Definition (London,
26. Walter Benjamin
The Task of the Translator, (London 1973) p78. (emph.auct.)