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Robert Burns Lives!
How more Popular could Burns be if translated into English? By Alastair McIntyre GOTJ, FSA Scot


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

Alastair McIntyre, owner and editor of electricscotland.com, has submitted the following article to grace the pages of our web site. Alastair is a most ingenious man and has built a marvelous site concerning Scotland and the Scottish people. His work on the internet has been called “a major educational resource about the history of Scotland, Scots and Scots-Irish”.  You will find that “Electric Scotland is so huge until you are encouraged to avail yourself to our own search engine to locate specific information”. Electric Scotland is the host of Robert Burns Lives! so I was thrilled several weeks ago when Alastair sent me an unsolicited article on Burns to post on our site if I deemed it suitable. I am pleased to share his commentary about Burns being better understood if his works were in English. You may agree or disagree. Your call!

I have a book on this subject entitled Burns Into English by William Kean Seymour who notes that “Burns made use of more than twelve hundred dialect words which are either peculiar to the Scottish Lowlands or have meanings distinct from similar English forms”. It is no wonder that William Cowper wrote “his candle is bright, but shut up in a dark lantern.” This is not an attack on Burns, but reading his works is not easily done without a glossary at hand. It is up to the individual to determine individually what is best for him or her. The so-called “Burns Police” may not agree, but then it is not often that I agree with them.

It is a joy to work with Alastair McIntyre. He is a good “boss” who gives me the freedom to do my job as I see fit, and for that I am grateful. It may sound odd to welcome our owner but here is a big welcome to Alastair who raises some interesting questions about Burns. I’m sure his article will raise a few “hackles” as well. (FRS: 3.13.13)   

How more Popular could Burns be if translated into English?
By Alastair McIntyre GOTJ, FSA Scot

While I am a Scot from as far back as I can trace I was mostly brought up in Iran, Kuwait and Malta and then attended boarding school at Dollar Academy in Scotland for some 7 years.

At that school I remember in the English Class that we got the poem "Tam O' Shanter" which we had to discuss and study.

At home in Scotland we did have a complete book of Robert Burns with all his works.  I don't however remember it ever being opened until I started my Electric Scotland web site when I decided to do a section on Robert Burns.

I tried to remember part of "To a Mouse" as a kind of party piece. In fact I can still recite the first verse.

To be frank that is about it when it comes to Robert Burns although over the years I did attempt to read a few other poems but the Scots language was a bit beyond me. That meant that Burns was not a particular influence on me and while I recognised him as a favourite Scottish Bard with a world wide reputation that was about it.

As I worked on the Burns section for my web site I came across a lot of information about him and his poetry which I was happy to make available on my web site for those that were interested. You can see this section of the site at http://www.electricscotland.com/burns

That all changed when I received an email from George Wilkie about his new book "Understanding Robert Burns".

Now if we take that poem "To a Mouse" in George Wilkie's "Understanding Robert Burns" he starts...

On turning her up in her nest, with the plough, November, 1785

We again see how, in the words of Thomas Carlyl, the poet "rises to the high, stoops to the low, and is brother and playmate to all nature." This is, by readers gentle and readers simple, acknowledged to be one of the most perfect little gems that ever human genius produced. One of its couplets has passed into a proverb:- "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, gang aft agley."

George Wilkie then says in his book...

"Surely one of the finest poems written by Burns, containing some of the most famous and memorable lines ever written by a poet, yet, to this day not really understood by the mass of English-speaking poetry lovers, for no other reason than that the dialect causes it to be read as though in a foreign language. All readers of Burns know of the "Wee sleekit cow'rin tim'rous beastie" but not many understand the sadness and despair contained within the lines of this poem.  What was the Bard saying when he was inspired by turning up a fieldmouse in her nest one day while out ploughing?"

He then goes on to explain the poem to us in the format of displaying the origional poem verse by verse then alongside each verse he adds his commentary.  Here is how he deals with the first two verses....

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie,
O, what panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

The poet is doing his utmost to assure this terrified little creature that he has no intention of causing it any harm. bickerin’ brattle = scurry, run; laith = loath; pattle = a small spade for cleaning a plough.

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

He then goes on to apologise to the mouse for the behaviour of mankind using beautiful prose which requires neither translation nor interpretation. Listen to what he is saying, and you will be well on your way to understand what made Burns such a greatly loved man. Note how he equates himself with the mouse in life’s great plan.

Working with Peter and Marilyn Wright they recorded a number of Burns poems in the Scots language. I might add that they are both exceptional Scots language speakers and can carry on a conversation all day long in the language of Burns.

So with this explanation of this poem you can also listen to the words spoken the way they are meant to be spoken. See
http://www.electricscotland.com/burns/mouse.html

This is the 3rd most visited page on my web site which contains tens of thousands of web pages.

In many respects George Wilkie has actually made Burns more accessible to me personally.

I remember when in Sweden I attempted to translate this poem to several Swedes who spoke excellent English and failed miserably.

I want to tell you of one other specific benefit this book had on me and that is to do with the poem "The Auld Farmer's New-Years Morning Salutation to his Auld Mare, Maggie".

Now I have to say that this is one poem I have tried to read many times and got no satisfaction from trying to read it. In short I simply couldn't understand it.  Neither did I have any particular skill in reading it in the Scots language.

To illustrate this I want to show you how George Wilkie dealt with it...




So what was to me an incomprehensible poem turned into a charming poem which I've enjoyed ever since.

You can read the book "Understanding Robert Burns" at
http://www.electricscotland.com/burns/understanding_burns.htm

Now I am aware that the Scots language is an emotional language whereas English is a technical language.  To try and illustrate this I worked for a number of years with the Wrights in Scotland where Peter and Marilyn recorded many words, phrases, verses and stories in the Scots language. As a result of this work we have a huge section on the site full of real audio recordings. You can see this at http://www.electricscotland.com/culture/features/scots/index.htm

On that page the first several sections...

Introduction
This is where you get an introduction to the Scots language.

Short Poems
We list wee snippets and articles for you to enjoy.

Idioms
Here we list some popular Scots idioms.

Sayings
Here we list some popular Scots sayings.

Complete Poems & Stories
Here we provide you with full length poems and stories.

Children's Poems & Stories
Here are some for the wee ones to enjoy.

Glossary
Here you will find a glossary of Scots words and their translations as well as audio links so you can listen to the word being pronounced and used in context.

Working again with the Wrights on behalf of the Scots Independent Newspaper we produced a complete Burns Supper in Real Audio which we donated to the Internet community. You can listen to this at
http://www.electricscotland.com/culture/features/burns/index.htm

In the meantime I met Frank Shaw then of Atlanta in Georgia who was a "Burnsian". Now at the time I hadn't heard that term before but since become very familiar with.  Here was a person with a genuine love affair for the Bard and he wanted to share his passion with anyone willing to listen and I was happy to listen.

Frank created his "Robert Burns Lives!" series as he firmly believed that he still lives with us today through his life and poetry and still has great meaning to people of today.

Over the years Frank has produced some 165 articles (at time of writing this) about Robert Burns and has shared through his friends all over the world many aspects of Robert Burns. For a wee while he produced a mini series on "What Burns Means to Me" written by various people such as Professor David Purdie, Dr. Carruthers, Billy Kay, Eddi Reader, Dr. Kenneth Simpson, G. Ross Roy, and others.

He also tells stories such as where he introduced a young daughter of a friend to Robert Burns and how many years later she went to University to study Arts and Literature and how she told him that it was his introduction to the Bard that set her on that path.

All of Frank's efforts have certainly made Robert Burns come more alive to me and you can read Frank's articles at
http://www.electricscotland.com/familytree/frank/burns.htm

Now what does all this mean to the man in the street?

For me it was being able to understand Burns through the English language that made me appreciate his worth. Without the work of people like George Wilkie, the Wrights and Frank Shaw, I would still be very ignorant of his work and of his life.

I thus conjecture that a greater effort should be made on educating us about Burns through the English language.  As you can see from the above I have made a particular effort to educate people on the Scots language but it does take a lot of time and effort to become familiar with it.  I doubt the vast majority of people, that would otherwise enjoy his works, will take the time to learn it.

It's thus my opinion that we need to do far more work on showing off his work in the English language so that many more people can appreciate him. I have already shown how George Wilkie turned an incomprehensible poem into one that I have really enjoyed. Without that translation it would have remained an unappreciated poem.


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