The Three Polis: Scots and Intralingual Translation


The panel I took part in on translation at last week’s Newcastle Poetry Festival raised a number of issues of equal fascination to both poets and translators, and, one would hope, readers of both. I found myself as excited by the far-ranging nature of the discussion, and the diversity of approaches of the panel, as I was impatient to think through how it related to my own practice.

From Jean Boase-Beier’s intense engagement with the text, usually solitary, usually focussed on the work of dead poets, trusting to etymology to deepen her investigation, to Erica Jarnes’s discussion of the responsibility of the translator to engage with and represent work outside the Grand Old Men of European heritage – thinking in particular of the Poetry Translation Centre’s representation of the poetry of minority, usually, immigrant, cultures within that European context; from Fiona Sampson’s subtle distinction between the meaning of the words in a text and the implications for meaning created by the text as a whole – moving away from what the words ‘mean’ to looking at how the cultural context of the poem independently generates meaning – to Sophie Collin’s careful deconstruction of what we mean by terms like ‘literal’ and ‘fidelity’ – it was an exciting and stimulating discussion.

Having worked with PhD students on the related topics of ekphrastic poetry, and the incipient poetry of the translation literal, I was struck by the continued relevance of the ‘Three Kinds of Translation’ listed in Sophie Collin’s anthology Currently & Emotion, which refers to Jakobson’s categories of interlingual, intralingual, and intersemiotic translation.

While we were effectively focussed on the first of these in our discussion on Saturday, and while ekphrasis would be ‘the most recognisable example’ of the third, I’ve been most concerned recently with the second, ‘an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs in the same language’ (Jakobson), or ‘any approach in which a text is adopted to a new purpose within the same language, with famous examples including erasure texts and paraphrasings’.

Essentially, as mentioned in previous posts, I’m translating the ‘Monolog Recreativ’ chapter from The Complaynt of Scotlande. What I mean by this is a sort of four part composition, a quartet of sorts, or rather a quadrilogue (as indeed is Wedderburn’s original text) in which four textual strategies are set side by side.

I’ll discuss those strategies later, and will focus first on an aspect of intralingual translation which I found impinged most directly on my other main translation project, the Poettrios Experiment, where we are investigating how translations are generated by a trio of source poet, target poet, and language advisor.

In order to include any Scots poems in those batches of work I send out for translation before an international festival, I usually have to include my own literal or interlinear to enable the translator to approach the original. Scots combines differences in spelling, grammar and vocabulary which one can’t expect someone used to translating from English to feel they have the necessary expertise in, while its proximity to English arguably places such literals somewhere in the intralingual category – but where? It might seem easier to leave it out.

To set aside all such work, though, is to present a simplified version of the poetry of the British isles – English’s dominance as a world language can seem to manifest itself as a matter of tensions about what is grammatically correct or stylistically elegant, rather than as an exercise in power, a monologue from the motherland which denies that it also functions as a complex plurality of modes (which may or may not include such significant literary units as Scots).

So it was with a heightened awareness of such matters that I was in the midst of preparing literals, notes, and glosses for the Poettrios project (the British poets involved, who include Fiona, will in our first session be translated into Dutch, and in the second, will translate from it), when I realised that I had stepped over a boundary between saying what a Scots word meant, and explaining its cultural and literary context – certain words seemed to demand both explanations, till I noted this was a luxury of exegesis not extended to my fellow poets.

This would seem to illustrate the strange relation between Scots and English, in which the former is at once less and more than a language, in that its existence, and the social and literary strategies which that involves Scots and English speakers and readers in, reveals English’s linguistic hegemony in all sorts of interesting ways. (Scots has a somewhat fraught relationship with autocorrect, for instance…)

The point about certain Scots words therefore carrying both literal meanings and strong cultural connotations hadn’t occurred to me in quite those terms. Of course all language does this – consider the nightingale – but in terms of that interrelation between Scots and English, some words were evidently symbols of almost-separate-but-proximate heritages, generating complementary but different interpretations for Scots and non-Scots.

I won’t refer to any of the Poettrios texts here for the same reason that I then pulled back in my interlinears from explaining the literary and cultural context of certain words – so as not to pre-empt the discussion in those translation sessions. But I can give an example from my work on the ‘Monolog’.

In a much earlier poem – among my first work in Scots, written back in my 20s – I’d referred to a sort of intralingual pun, where a word from my reading echoed one from my upbringing, bringing my literary and local heritage into an odd relationship. In the ‘21st Doldrum’, from a sequence of poems about the social and spiritual stagnation I felt had taken hold of my home town of Dundee in the first flush of Thatcherism, I referred to a story I’d been told by a policeman – a representative of, in Scots, the polis – of recovering the body of a suicide from the River Tay.

(The viewing platforms of the 1960s road bridge, it turned out, were pretty exactly the correct height to kill yourself if you jumped from them.)

In their role as agents of the law and witnesses of its transgressions, then, I wrote

…thi polis ur oor symbuls,
as Olson pit it, per accidens, nae kennin Scots:
‘Polis’-man as unit o thi Burg.

In a footnote, I quoted Robert Creeley on Charles Olson’s Maximus poems: ‘Polis…is never more than the aggregate of people who have so joined themselves together, and it is as members define it. Their perception constitutes the city.’

Here the Greek-as-assimilated-into-late-Modernist-discourse, and the ordinary urban Scots, with their correspondingly high and low(er) cultural references, exactly echoed each other in a manner which I thought was dramatic and relevant, and which I at least found amusing. (I have a similar reaction whenever I think of the county of Kent, which in Scots means ‘knew’ – often employed in the reductive put-down of someone who is perceived as getting above their station, ‘kent their faither’, ie I know his or her social background does not match the airs he or she is currently putting on. Scots sometimes think of the Home Counties not only as not their home, but as getting above their station in the supposed democracy of these islands.)

When I was re-reading the ‘Monolog’, however, I came across a third iteration of this pun, this time more properly intralingual. The ‘Actor’ or author, taking a stroll between writing their introduction and the opening scene of the quadrilogue (a vision of ‘dame Scotia’), recounts in encyclopaedic detail everything they see and hear, a far from restful listing which includes catalogues of birds’ and animals’ cries, an account of a sea battle, lists of tales, songs and dances (some extant, some extinct), and a mercifully brief account of the herbs they see as they fall asleep in the grass.

The central passage is an account of everything he knows by ‘the prencipal scheiphirde’ (which is so ‘prolixt’ he has to be interrupted by his wife): an attempt ‘to mak ane diffinitione of cosmaghraphie/(as far as ve scheiphirdis hes contemplit)’. This leads to a detailed description of the astronomic spheres and their influence over the weather and our health, which includes the following:

…ze sal ymagyne tua sternis quhilk ar callit the tua polis
of the firmament ane of them standis at the northt
quhilk is callit the pole artic boreal or septemtrional,
it aperis til vs in our habitatione be rason that
it is eleuat abufe our orizone, the tothir sterne standis
at the southt, and it is callit the pole antartic austral
or meridional it is ay hid fra vs for it aperis neuyr
in our hemispere be rason that it is vndir our orizon.
(My italics)

(…you shall imagine two stars which are called the two poles
of the firmament: one of them stands at the north
which is called the pole arctic, boreal, or septentrional,
it appears to us in our habitation by reason that
it is elevated above our horizon; the other star stands
at the south, and it is called the pole antarctic, austral
or meridional, it is always hidden from us for it never appears
in our hemisphere by reason that it is under our horizon.)

You can see from this why all the young shepherds used to skip his lectures and go dancing, especially as they could shake a leg to the likes of the following:

…the gosseps dance, leuis grene,
makky, the speyde, the flail
the lammes vynde, soutra,
cum kyttil me naykyt
vantounly, schayke leg,
fut befor gossep
Rank at the rute,
baglap and al…

The idea that one word, ‘polis’, could have three such distinct yet related meanings – Greek, late Medieval, and contemporary – creates a sort of dance-like energy between those meanings. The role of the writer/translator in linking them, as puns do, or as bodies do in a dance, provides a fourth meaning: the symbolic nature of such words to represent cultures across historical and etymological distinctions.

Imagine, then, if you may, a maypole round which Maximus of Tyre, Robert Creeley, the prencipal scheiphirde, Robert Wedderburn (not the one who wrote The Horrors of Slavery, though, while in interlingual mode, why not?), John Lennon dressed as a walrus (remember that ‘Mr. City policeman’?), the Chief Superintendent of Tayside, and an unnamed drowned person, are all dancing to the music of what Pound defined as logopoeia, which the Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid seized upon as something of particular interest to Scots, or, as here, anyone interested in the discourses of power and pleasure: ‘the dance of the intellect among words’.


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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One Response to The Three Polis: Scots and Intralingual Translation

  1. Reblogged this on The Poettrio Experiment and commented:
    Our collaborator Bill’s reflection on Saturday’s translation panel at Newcastle Poetry Festival and thoughtful exploration on issues of translation relating to Scots, and English in our experiment.

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