Thursday, 24 January 2013

Times Stephen Spender Translation Prize for Brian Holton

Many congratulations to Scottish PEN member Brian Holton whose translation of Du Fu's poem has been commended in the 2012 Times Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation. As far as we know it is the first time a major UK translation prize has given an award for work in Scots.

Below is the prizewinning translation and Brian's commentary. You can find out more about his poetry and translations on his website.



Spring Sun on the Watterside Clachan

Frae toun ti toun, fowk eident at the hairst;
frae bank ti bank, the Watter deep in spate.
Gin A cud see the lang miles o heiven an yirth,
A'd see but the turnin years o aa ma days.
Ma theikit ruif wis warth a pickle poems,
tho in ma hairt it wis Tír na nÓg A socht aye.
Cark an care they smoored the line o ma life –
whit a lang an wearie stravaig ti win here the nou!
Frae hyneawa A cam ti the thrie westlan kinriks:
it wis sax year syne A snappert an fell doun here.
Fremt masel, A forgaither wi auld freins,
but it's burn an shaw that kittles up ma speirits.
That faur ben wi idleset, A'll thole ma dairnit duds,
an whan A gang about, A'll dree ma holie shuin.
Ma mairch fences, they're aathegither stentless,
for the Lang Watter an the lift abune are aa ma joy.
The bamboo A plantit's insnorlt wi tender green,
the geans A sneddit back blushin like wee lassies;
ma hairt clear an cauld as the mune's stane gless,
A'm come to face the wund frae the snawy ben.
An ashet o siller they haunit this auld bodach,
a reid-tape dunderheid at did whit he wis tellt.
An wha'd hae thocht, whan ma teeth hed faan out,
ma name'd be doun i the Buke o Wyce Auld Men?
Maugre ma maladies A hae a crammasy signet still,
but nou A'm hame ti dauner owre purpie crottle;
A'm ettlin at ma eild inben ma kintra yett,
me at wis blate afore the wisocks o the Secretariat.
The bricht leam o the sun twines about the swallas,
an leafs on the watter pairt for the pickie-maas;
whiles the neibours brings shell-puddocks an fishies,
an speir whit time will A can gang an see them.
Yin cantin gowk1 made mane at cateran bands,
the ither2 wis incaa'd ti Court, a mid-age man;
the tane begoud ti scrieve his Speil the Touer,
the tither, weill-infitten, gat glorie for Bogle Tales:
their haas hereawa is set doun in the Buke o Warthies,
their hie ingyne better-kent nor our Halie Hermits.
In anither season, A umbethocht me o thir twae –
i the sun o yin mair springtime, ma hairt is wae.

Translated from the classical Chinese by Brian Holton 1Wang Can (AD 177–217) 2Jia Yi (201–169BC)

Translation commentary

Du Fu uses New-Style regulated verse, a form of some complexity, which, through the impudence of his rule-breaking and the virtuosity of his craft, he raised from being a vehicle fit only for upper class occasional verse to a poetic form of suppleness and precision which is capable of expressing the strongest emotions and transmitting the most complex messages: the tone and level of achievement are comparable to a Shakespearean sonnet or a Beethoven quartet.

The metrical patterns are based on syllable pitch-contours, something neither Scots nor English can replicate; there is a rhyme in every couplet, which is not easily achievable in translation: I substitute a shifting pattern of alliteration and a series of half-rhymes, and for the rhythm, a stress-based line in the style of the ballad stanza, with a mid-line caesura.

One reason for using Scots is to bring home the essential strangeness of Du Fu to English readers: the distance between his Eighth Century Chinese and the modern language is similar to that between English and Scots. For Scots speakers, by using the Mither Tongue, language of home and family and friendship, I aim to bring out both the essential warmness and humanity and the deep sorrow of Du Fu's voice.

Du Fu was also an extremely erudite poet, who was famous for the breadth of his reading, his knowledge of history, and the obscure and recondite nature of his references: such allusions can have no force at all in translation, and in most cases can only be kept by doing violence to the text, so I have gently substituted western allusions where I can (eg Boreas for an allusion of equal antiquity). Du Fu can also juxtapose a startlingly conversational couplet with one in the most high-flown diction. What a joy he is to work with!

Brian Holton

Monday, 7 January 2013

Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence

It may be a coincidence that just as the post-ironic Creative Scotland crumbles a book is published that expresses the views of 27 writers on the cultural implications of Scottish independence but I can’t help seeing a connection.

Over half the writers are members of PEN (and the rest would be very welcome if they’d care to join). The 27 essays vary greatly in tone and in points of departure and arrival, but most state or imply support for independence. There is, however, a prominent note of scepticism: whatever the political gains and losses of a self-governing Scotland, it is unrealistic to assume that an improvement in cultural health will automatically follow. The record under the SNP aegis is not encouraging.

The book’s editor, Scott Hames of Stirling University, states in his introduction that the collection aims to ‘record what various Scottish writers really thought about the independence question, in a context free from the noise and enforced concision of the media debate’. Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, the media debate has seized on the comments of two of Scotland’s leading writers, Alastair Gray and James Kelman, whose usefully (for the press) controversial depiction of English colonisation of Scottish culture has so far dominated response to the book. But Gray and Kelman should be read in the context of the other views expressed, many of which reach beyond the old resentments and complaints.

A phrase that comes up in many of the essays is ‘social justice’. To my mind, social justice includes the right of access to all forms of creative expression, as practitioner and audience. It includes the right of all our citizens, but especially our children as they will carry these expectations into the future, to read and write, to make and listen to music, to make and enjoy pictures, to dance, to design and construct all kinds of objects, to create in ways we haven’t yet imagined. Whether or not our writers win prizes emanating from the dubious activities of corporate organisations is hardly relevant to the literary health of Scotland. What does matter is that our citizens have access to the books our writers write, and are enabled to participate in the experience of reading and responding to their words.

The issues raised in these essays are important, now and for the future, and I’d urge all practising writers (and readers) to engage with them. For Scottish PEN, the relationship between government and artistic endeavour is crucial, and we need to be alert to the more insidious ways culture is manipulated and curtailed. Whichever way the referendum vote goes, we need to look both close to home and beyond our immediate neighbour for the means to sustain a vibrant artistic life. These 27 contrasting voices are a good place to start. Scottish PEN, with its international perspective and commitment to freedom of expression, has a key role to play in the coming months.

In the meantime, I recommend Unstated. It’s published by Word Power Books, But don’t hang about – the first printing is already sold out and there’s probably a queue for the second.

Jenni Calder