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Hard Roads an Cauld Hairst Winds

by Brian Holton

Introduction by Robert Alan Jamieson
Literary translation is difficult, poetry especially so, and the reader is always entitled to query the accuracy of what is presented. Ideally, the translator should be fluent in both the original and the target language, and a scholar of the poet concerned, their life, their period and its idiosyncrasies, as well as their writings – but this is not always the case. They must also be poets themselves, for it is, after all, poetry they are making. This is what we as readers desire, but sometimes what claims to be a ‘translation’ may actually be quite far removed from the original, either by design or through misinterpretation, even if it makes for a good poem. So that degree of honesty in those who do not claim to have translated, but to have created something anew is welcome, as Brian Holton does, and as Robert Lowell called his efforts, ‘imitations’.

  That said, the work remains – the desire to honour the form of the original in some manner, its very sound, its line length, syllable and stanza patterns, whilst balancing that against the content, the meaning of each word in the given context in order. These are objectives often in conflict with one another, but before the business of form, content must be understood in its original context, as what the poem means in subtle ways depends upon that. The poem’s semantic totality, text and beyond, however vague, must be decoded.

  It’s a tricky business. Words or phrases may have particular connotations in a certain period or location - localised knowledge may be key to unlocking the deeper meaning of the poem, in ways the outsider may not understand. For instance, when I first read the following transliteration of the opening line of a Czech poem I was working on, ‘The pianist in the sweetshop window is drunk as a rainbow’, I thought what a wonderfully inventive, slightly surreal image – not knowing that in “Communist Times” it was common for a sweet shop to have tables and someone playing music, or that to be ‘drunk as a rainbow’ was a common Czech idiom. Luckily my Czech co-translator was on hand to keep me right. Yet, even with this knowledge, and with the right words in right places, unavoidably the literal translation conveys a glamour of strangeness to the English reader which the original in Czech did not inspire to the same degree in native speakers. To them, it was familiar. A single case, then, to illustrate how misunderstandings are potentially manifold, and can pile upon one another to the extent that a relatively simple poem becomes complex, and far removed from the original mood or atmosphere created.

  To find a translator fluent and expert in both languages, who brings to the work a depth of scholarly knowledge of both the original and the intended cultures, is a rare and special thing, enabling versions as close as possible to the source in spirit and form. When that translator is himself a master poet, the text is exalted still further. This is what we find in Brian Holton’s translations of the classical Chinese poets Li Bai and Du Fu, mastery of material and great skill in the shaping of verse from a rich vein of literary Scots. These works so distant in terms of time and miles find a home in Scotland through Holton’s poetry. I need not stress this further, for I believe the book will speak for itself. The poetry and the scholarly annotation makes this a special volume alone, and with Chi Zhang’s calligraphy, a visual bridge between cultures as well.

Hairst Winds (Du Fu)
Hairst winds reishle-reishle
    blawin owre the Witchie Knowe,
Owre Bunemaist Fank, Nether Fank
    an Fettelt Watter-Yett;
Eastren masts, Southron steerers
    pullt alang wi muckle raips,
It's warmer gettin bi Castletoun wey
    an the cauld hesna come back;
When'll be the day the hie roads
    are dune wi aix an halbert?
The weirs hae spreid frae the Blae Drovers
    as fer as the Southron reivers.
Frae Midhaun County the’re nae news,
    an yon’s a guid thing;
The gloaming brings cateran drums
    toukin in the lang clouds.


Hairst winds reishle-reishle
    blawin at ma claes,
East o the Lang Watter, ayont the rain,
    the wesslin sun gaes doun;
Owre the wee touns the lift lichtens
    as fowk waulk the white silk,
On auld stanes an nerrae gates
    gaun-about fowk are few;
A dinna ken, the bricht mune
    wha's it guid for?
Late or air the lanesome coble
    it'll win hame anither nicht;
Then A'll tak my white hair in ma haun
    an lean on the tree in the close -
Ma auld kailyaird, the stank, the deas,
    are they aye there yit or no?


Lines on the Norlan Wind (Li Bai)

The Caunle Dragon reists at Cauld Yetts,
Licht comes wi his open een at keek o day;
Sae whit wey does the shinin sun an mune no set hereawa?
Aa there’s here is the norlan wind’s roused gurlin frae the lift abune;
On Swallae Braes flauchts o snaa
    muckle as bass mats,
Flaucht bi flaucht blawin doun
    ti the Deas o the Yalla Imperator;
At Dernt Annay he grienit for his wife,
    in the twalt month o the year;
Singin nae mair, lauchin nae mair,
    her bonnie eebrous droopin;
Leanin at the yett she looks for traivellers,
Thinkin on her man on the Lang Dykes in snell cauld, muckle ti mane;
Whan he wan awa he took his sword
    an gaed ti sauf the border,
Left his gowden dorlach here
    pattrent wi gowden tigers;
In’t wis a pair o braw arraes
    wi flichts o white feathers;
Ettercaps wove wabs aa owre it,
    aa mankie wi stour it wis;
The uiseless arraes are there yit,
But he’s deid in battle,
    an he’ll no be comin back;
She cudna thole seein thae things,
Brunt them, turnt them ti aiss;
Gin the Yallae Watter rives its banks
    it can be stappit back up again,
But in norlan wind an snaa an rain,
    this rue’ll no sned awa.

Taproot Press was awarded a Scots Language Publication Grant this year to produce Brian Holton’s Hard Roads an Cauld Hairst winds: Li Bai an Du Fu in Scots. Pre-orders for the hardback edition, which includes calligraphy by Edinburgh-based artist, Chi Zhang, can be made through Taproot’s website

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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