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Translator's Note: Loners

by Roddy Lumsden


The thinkers of Scotland have wasted much energy trying to decide whether Scots is a language, a group of intermingled dialects, a parallel tongue, or a species of English. Poets using Scots generally either opt for a particular dialect or an expansive, inclusive language which incorporates words from all dialects and often curious words which have fallen from common use (in which Scots is especially rich). Our great Modernist Hugh MacDiarmid used the term Plastic Scots for the latter, somewhat inauthentic approach, while W.N. Herbert, the finest poet currently writing in Scots, prefers the term Elastic Scots. But the concept is nothing new—Robert Fergusson, the poet and influence on Burns who died tragically young in 1774, used a version of Scots which included old Scots words he picked up from Allan Ramsay as well as the dialects of his home town Edinburgh and those of Fife and Angus, where he was educated, and Doric words from around Aberdeen which he picked up from his relatives.

Some find this form of Scots contrived, and it would be if you employed it for everyday conversation, but for poetry it can be engrossing and charming, and authenticity is not the foremost consideration. I had a few reasons for choosing to translate Jean Follain. There is, of course, a long history of collaboration between French and Scots—the Auld Alliance. My forebears, the Lumisdaine family, came over from France around 1100. Also, Follain's adjective-heavy combination of stark image and rural life suits Scots.

Although I grew up in a household full of Scots words, writing in this mode usually means having dictionaries at hand, and an online English-Scots resource for quick ideas. I made use of a French dictionary on occasion but worked mainly from French straight into Scots, making the English version afterwards. The chief problem in translating Follain is his near lack of punctuation, which I feel needs to be replicated, retaining the proper ambiguities and avoiding unwanted new ones. I have been less exact in parts than other translators—the first line of "Solitaires" is strictly "Always their door opens badly"—and since it is in my nature to seek music, I have made more use of sonics, especially rhyme, than in the French.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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