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From Rusty Staple to Highest Apple

An interview with Clive Boutle of Francis Boutle Publishing

by Jennifer Morag Henderson

A new anthology of Scottish Gaelic literature The Highest Apple / An Ubhal as Àirde was recently published, from an unusual publisher.

Francis Boutle Publishers specialise in publishing minority languages, and this is their first publication in Gaelic – though it will likely not be their last. I interviewed Clive Boutle, founder of the publishing house, to get an idea of the company’s ethos and learn more about their approach to publishing.

Clive Boutle originally worked as a second-hand bookseller. At his work in the late 1990s, he came across a manuscript collection of Cornish poetry, which intrigued him. Unused to Cornish contemporary literature, he was fascinated by the modern sensibility of the writing – and this curiosity started him on the track of publishing works in Cornish. Interest in the Cornish language led to awareness of Breton, and then to a wider interest in minority European languages. From a more general list which took in books on local history, Boutle began to specialise in publishing books in minority European languages, ranging from Occitan to Faroese, Esperanto to Sámi, and many more.

The Highest Apple / An Ubhal as Àirde is part of the ‘Lesser Used Languages of Europe Anthologies’ series, which aims to introduce the reader to the diversity of European writing and thought. Each of the ten anthologies in the series so far presents texts in the original language side-by-side with newly-commissioned English translations, and glossed with (English) explanations giving context and background. Aimed at the general reader, the books also provide a starting point for the more serious student, with considered introductions by experts in their fields. The Highest Apple / An Ubhal as Àirde is arranged chronologically, starting with historical texts from the period 600-1600, and ending up with contemporary verse from poets such as Pàdraig MacAoidh. Poetry is well-represented, but there are extracts from longer prose works, and even from essays and speeches about the place of Gaelic in modern society. The title “An Ubhal as Àirde” comes from a Runrig song on The Cutter and the Clan album, but the anthology carefully explains not only Runrig’s immense influence on the modern perception of Gaelic, but also the inspiration of the song title, which comes from a well-known Gaelic proverb ‘Bidh an ubhal as fheàrr air a’ mheangan as àirde’ (the finest apple is on the highest branch), as well as drawing attention to the Christian imagery in other lyrics. It is a considered approach which aims to present a rounded overview of the history of the language and how it is used and seen.

Boutle explained that he saw the minority languages as being all very different – but also in many ways the same. They frequently come up against the same barriers, for example, as they try to co-exist with more widely-spoken tongues. However, the situation often varies from place to place: “Grains of Gold”, the Occitan anthology equivalent to The Highest Apple / An Ubhal as Àirde, was one of the first anthologies Francis Boutle Publishing produced, and as such was a model for the others that followed. However, whereas Gaelic has official support in Scotland, in France the term ‘Occitan’ is not even universally accepted. People may distinguish between dialects, saying that they speak ‘Provençal’ rather than ‘Occitan’, or presenting it as ‘only’ a version of Old French.

Throughout the compiling of the anthologies, Boutle works closely with his trusted translators. The approach to each book is slightly different – some of the anthologies, for example, are arranged thematically rather than chronologically – and he discusses decisions closely with the translators. He believes the relationship between the translator and publisher is crucial – though often overlooked in a focus on the relationship between translator and author. Although the literary partnership with the author is important, the trade relationship between translator and publisher is crucial, he says, particularly for a small publisher. Often books are the publisher’s idea – and, of course, backed initially with the publisher’s money – so the building of these relationships is very important when bringing new work to the public.

New work can be brought forward in discussion with translators, who often have a wide knowledge of the literature of their language. After successfully working with translator Marita Thomsen on the Faroese poet Sissal Kampmann’s beautiful collection Myrking / Darkening, Clive Boutle plans to publish more Faroese work, with Marita having input on which Faroese authors to look at. Myrking is a long sequence of poems which looks at the modern Faroes, the dark landscape and its situation away from mainland Europe, through the lens of a sometimes long-distance romantic relationship. An uplifting read which recalls, in its looping sequences, the traditional ballads for the repetitive Faroese chain-dance, it is also thoroughly contemporary. Clive Boutle first saw Sissal Kampmann – a well-known poet in her home country – at a reading in London, where she read her poems in the original language, followed by an English translation read by an actress. He found the contrast between the two readings striking: Sissal’s gentle delivery was followed by a demonstrative performance from the actress, which he felt did not capture the essence of the original. One aim in publishing parallel translations is to allow people to compare original and translation, and the sequence Myrking was particularly interesting as the translation was composed simultaneously with the original, with Sissal sending the parts of the poem, as they were completed, directly to the translator. It remains one of a very small number of Faroese works translated into English.

Poetry is a particular interest of Clive’s – reading poetry, he says, in all sorts of languages, has helped him enormously in dealing with the semi-isolation and challenges of the last couple of years. Myrking is often bought by poetry lovers, rather than by learners of Faroese. Meanwhile, the Gaelic anthology is often purchased by Gaelic speakers and learners in Scotland, but also by many readers with a wider interest in Scottish heritage and history, particularly in North America. The customer base can be atomised, with different markets for each language, but some customers buy across the board, following all new work from the publishing house and supporting the aim of highlighting minority languages by donating to Francis Boutle Publishing as a charity.

Clive Boutle sees the work he is doing as a publisher as not just a personal and commercial journey, but also an important contribution to endangered cultures. He recalled the original Cornish works which sparked his interest in minority languages, joking that they used to be called ‘rusty staple’ books – although put together with the best intentions, they were often badly-produced and unprofessional-looking. He has always aimed to produce books with high quality design, working with his partner, a graphic designer, who designs the covers. Each book in the Francis Boutle imprint has a distinctive red spine. In 2017 Clive Boutle was recognized for publishing services to Cornish culture and the promotion of European minority languages by being invited to join the ‘College of the Bards of Gorsedh Kernow’ at the Gorsedh Kernow Esedhvos Festival. Gorsedh Kernow was established in 1928, with the aim of promoting Cornwall’s distinctive Celtic culture, and the Esedhvos is similar to the Gaelic Mòd. Clive Boutle considered the recognition to be a great honour. Bards choose a Cornish name for themselves, and Clive chose “Dren Rudh” – Red Thorn. The word ‘dren’ means not only ‘thorn’ but also ‘spine’ – recalling the distinctive design of the books he publishes.

In the future, Clive Boutle will be publishing further work in Gaelic, with two publications forthcoming from two very different Gaelic poets, and he is also looking at publishing work in Scots. His focus will remain on languages and minority cultures in Europe, though with interest also in folk song and song collecting. It is also a long-held ambition to do something in Icelandic.

The shape of each book changes with the needs of that particular book – parallel translations remain of paramount importance, but it is also vital to be aware of exceptions. This sympathetic approach to understanding and sharing languages has led to a fascinating list of works which shed light on many little-known cultures. The Highest Apple / An Ubhal as Àirde may be of interest to many Northwords Now readers, but Francis Boutle Publishing’s wider list is well worth seeking out, and contains many gems.

(Visit for more information on the aforementioned titles Ed.)

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