Translator's notes

Hauf o Life (Hälfte des Lebens into Scots)

By Friedrich Hölderlin

Confession time: my copy of David Constantine’s translations of Hölderlin bears the stamp of a noted literary institution, because ... well, because I nicked it.

I’m a poor reader of poetry, I tend to respond to the ‘hit’ or ‘aura’ of a poem. The ‘hit’ from Hölderlin was high, intoxicating, anxious, open. (Later I learned that Rilke had called him ‘exposed’ – perfect.) I thought ‘What is this strange, keening, poignant voice, what on earth is he saying?’ Also, there were things I liked ... mountains, rivers, ships, birds.

I hid the book in my bag. And having shamelessly stolen it, I continued to read it on the train journey home, which journey took me through Scottish mountains, along rivers, past lochs with swans floating there, so Hölderlin’s landscapes took on a Scottish flavour. It seemed I was reading what we’d now call an eco-poet. There’s an anxious earth-love in Hölderlin, and I liked that. 

Scots is the language of lowland Scotland, not to be confused with Highland Gaelic. Most lowland Scots have some of it, a good few words or phrases. At its full-blown best, as in Lorimer’s translation of the New Testament, it is at once earthy, wry, passionate, and majestic. Its status is still peculiar. Those of us over a certain age remember being forbidden to use it in school, or even at home if our parents were concerned that we should ‘do well for ourselves’. Its demise was constantly proclaimed, but now its promotion is official policy, apparently.

Translating obliges one to slow down and read very, very carefully – and I wanted to do that with Hölderlin. Translating allowed me the chance to ‘inhabit’ him, and try to fathom him out. (I should say I have no German, I rely on Michael Hamburger’s and David Constantine’s translations, and David very kindly provides me with literal versions.) Also I wanted to try to develop my Scots into a more tensile, robust and elegant medium. Robert Burns achieves a lovely intimate apostrophising in Scots – consider ‘To a Mountain Daisy’. Hölderlin has it too, but it’s hard to carry off in English, so I thought it would go well into Scots. As well, I wanted the chance to risk bigger emotional and rhetorical gestures than are commonly allowed in English, which is a language easily embarrassed. 

After all this I’m sorry to say I’ve only translated four small pieces of Hölderlin into Scots, and have yet to dare tackle his big hymns or odes. But I will do more.

The project is beset with the usual worries which speakers of archaic or minority languages will recognise. Is it legitimate to use a word never actually heard spoken, but gleaned from an old dictionary? What’s the point of the project at all, when only about fifty folk will be able to read it? But then again, almost all English-language poets alive now in Scotland also write in Scots. Why? Because we can, because it’s beautiful.

Kathleen Jamie

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