Speaking In Tongues
Scribbling in Voices



by Brian A.Holton


In a complex linguistic environment, where several choices are open to us, what factors influence our decision to use one tongue rather than another?
If we choose to use Scots we choose to use/abuse the following associations
self-conscious literariness
And if we choose to write prose in Scots, we must expect our readers to react in varying ways.
some will expect the text to be comic
some will be puzzled by the spellings
some will say ‘A cannae read this’
some will simply not bother
some will think of it as ‘Old Scots’
some will be delighted by the appropriateness of the match between text and tongue
If we choose to translate into Scots, the first question will always be ‘Why not English?’ (Though you wouldn’t ask a Dutchman or a Dane, ‘Why not German?’)
At least with translation there are a series of clear answers to ‘Why Scots?’
because this text demands non-metropolitan language
because we hear this authorial voice in Scots
because another tongue would impede or destroy the flavour of the original
because with this text the translator is happier in this tongue
And this is to ignore for the moment wider issues such as:
every tongue needs to grow
living languages are stretched best by cross-cultural contact
translations challenge the scope and accuracy of tongues
social/political/cultural factors demand the use of this tongue rather than that
the translator ignores/subverts/colludes with social/political/cultural factors


I took the job of making Men o the Mossflow in hand in the early eighties, at a time when I had become convinced of the suitability of Scots as a medium for extended prose narrative. I had for some time been attempting to make an English version of Shuihu Zhuan, with little or no success: the language was clumsy, and refused to bend to either my will or the lithe grace of the original. Stymied, I turned, despite an initial scepticism over my aptitude, to Scots. And the first chapter wrote itself, fell off the typewriter onto the page.
It later became necessary to try other experiments: was this just a freak, a one-off? Or could other Chinese texts survive the transition into Scots? With practice it became obvious that some texts not only survived, but even seemed to prosper in their new environment. It all depended on the individual voice of the original. So it could work, in at least some contexts. The next development came when I asked myself, ‘What kind of Scots do I want to use here?’
This question was to some extent limited by my own background - born into a Border family, brought up in Edinburgh and Falkirk and Selkirk, schooling finished at Gala Academy, university in Edinburgh. So the choice of a Lothian standard with Border tinges, while it may seem to fit the profile of the makars - and I couldn’t help but be influenced by them - actually grew as much from my own linguistic background as it did from conscious literary imitation.
When it came to spelling, the makars gave me the lead too - Lothian standard with local tinges. At first I used a pure Scots Style Sheet approach, but as the years have gone on I seem to have settled into a modified and simplified version which reflects a balance I try to hold between my ear, my own idiolect, and a vaguely-defined idea of what the general reader might be comfortable with.
So to translate a 17th century text written in a close approximation of daily speech, which is not entirely colloquial (like MacDiarmid’s Synthetic Scots, it’s a literary imitation of colloquial language), I tried to make a kind of Scots that could be spoken with ease, and which had enough elasticity to accommodate the shifting registers of the original. Clearly, if the characters all spoke like Rab C. Nesbitt, the tone of the original would not be easily sustainable. Registers of language other than the demotic are important in the text of Mossflow as much as in Rab’s discourse, and these must all be observed - but the fact remains that I’m not the Philosopher King, I’m not from Govan, and I must use the speech I am most at home with as a base on which to build. Since comic effects in Mossflow often build on dialect differences or on jarring shifts of register these must all come into the translation, so the kind of Scots to be used can’t be a simple aefauld creature, but must be as multi-faceted and as flexible as our grasp of the tongue allows.
One of the main influences on me has been ballad Scots: with its subtle shifts and turns between broad vernacular and high, almost biblical, language, it provides a marvellous vehicle for lively narrative. Legal language too, with its high and stately tone, its magical invocations of Latin, its evocative and timeless terms of art, is a treasure house - and a very handy one when you’re working on a text which hinges on outlawry and which bristles with legal terms. Scott’s grasp of the language of the law, and the rich ballad-primed Scots of Hogg’s prose works (especially The Three Perils of Man) were early and profound influences, as was the language of folk song. There’s no doubt that there are resources to hand - I haven’t even mentioned the resonant prose of religious dispute or the pawky precision of old saws and speaks, or even that peculiarly salty register known at polite Border tea-tables as ‘mill talk’ which owes a great deal to the discourse of the public bar.
Register has got a lot to do with the success or failure of translations into Scots. As in any translation, get the register wrong - and in particular, the subtle modulations of register that make so much poetry work - and the whole piece limps. That’s especially true of Mossflow, which relies for many of its effects - mocking wit, savage irony, gentle humour, sly backdoor allusion - on very subtle shifts of emphasis and of register.
Of course, while I am translating Mossflow whole and entire, I have worked on other texts in Scots, and I have to confess here that I have only worked on those texts that made sense to me: with some texts - poems, especially - I just didn’t get it, just couldn’t see the joke or could make no sense of some allusion, some catchphrase perhaps, on which a whole passage might turn. Translators all do it to a greater or lesser extent. Our imaginations work better with some writers than with others, just as our conversations with some humans are better than those with others. Hence the measure of truth in the old saw that Chinese poetry was invented by Arthur Waley: he was a great translator, but he only translated the poems that sound like Arthur Waley’s. He could do nothing else, and I don’t claim to be any better or any wiser or any more adaptable than him. We must work with the voices that echo within us, whose timbre we can reproduce with confidence. Register is one of the keys here, and this raises a problem which is specific to Scots. When we translate into Scots we are using a defective language - that is to say, ‘defective’ as Latin verbs are: missing some part or parts. Scots lost its high register prose somewhere between Jamie Baggy Breeks and the Union. High register verse lingered on, and the high prose register was picked up by English, but the vernacular revival led by Ramsay, Ferguson, and Burns in the following century didn’t bring prose back to life. When Walter Scott began to use Scots for dialogue, despite some wonderful passages, he didn’t encourage high-register prose writing, and Scots has still not regained the registers it lost. So the kind of text which sits easily in Scots is not so much one which reflects the ornate elegance of a vanished court, as one which speaks with the funky and irrepressible voice of the bad soldier, the dissenter, or the marketplace storyteller .
A digression. A problem I found with trying to use English for Mossflow was that I couldn’t get the language to bend enough for me to apply it to what is essentially a mediaeval novel. Scott did devise a sub-Shakespearian patois for historical fiction, but Zounds, lads!, it’s been done to death by his imitators. All this pishery and tushery couldn’t do the job (and I would have been embarrassed to have been caught trying).
Scots, on the other hand, precisely because it is defective, allows us to be more adventurous: since there are few rules and precedents, not only do we have more freedom to invent, we often have no choice but to invent - words, structures, registers - because if we do not, we will have a poorer, thinner tongue to work with. For a translator, particularly for a translator working with a book whose original language is new-made, inventive, playful and varied, that would be an impossible restriction. Our tongue is our toolkit, and where it is defective, we must make it new.
It’s also true that I can hear one kind of text in Scots and another in English. Though I have made Scots versions of some of Yang Lian’s poetry, as a youngish internationally-inclined modernist poet with surrealist leanings, he speaks to me more often in English, whereas the down-to-earth subversiveness of an outlaw novel brings out the Border reiver in my blood, and I can’t help hearing Scots behind the Chinese when I read Mossflow nowadays. With Yang Lian, however, it seems to me that the essential hameliness and familiarity of the Scots paradoxically enhances the strangeness at the heart of his poetry, just as the ordinariness of his poetic diction in Chinese contrasts with the oddness of his vision. What Scots seems to bring out is an earthiness, an immediacy and a strength which, together with the spikier rhythms of the Scots, can transmit Yang’s voice more powerfully than English versions have so far been able to. This is how he looks in Scots:

blue’s aye heicher yet same as yir weariness
hes walit the sea same as a bodie’s glower gars the sea
get twice as dreich
gaun back same as aye
ti the wrocht stane lug whaur the drumbeats is smoorit
peerie coral corps a yowdendrift
gairie spreckles on deid fish
same as the lift at bields yir ilka want
gaun back ti the meiths same as the enless gaun back
ti the scaurs storm heids aa about ye
yir pipes weirdit ti skirl on efter yir daith tunes o corruption i the howe o the flesh
whan blue’s been kent at the last the mishantert
sea millions o caunles blinters an devauls
This is not the ornate and elegant poetic diction of, say, 8th century Tang poetry, whose effortless ease and grace are not easily rendered into European tongues. (The linguistic need to clumsily insist on explicit markers for tense, gender, number, etc. is a dead weight that cramps the sinewy allusiveness and simplicity of classical Chinese verse to such an extent that there are few poets who survive the exchange with anything like their native grace.) This is strong, muscular poetry, with a pronounced Beijing accent and a profound sense of place; perhaps these are some of the qualities shared by Scots, and perhaps this may explain why these versions work. But in the end, it’s all down to your ear, and your grasp of your ain tongue, as well as your grasp of the other language.


In the early 12th century the Song dynasty had a succession of bad days and the north was lost to the Jin Tartars. Calamity. The Court and the Son of Heaven himself forced to flee south, the homeland in the hands of foreigners, national humiliation, gross loss of face: all round, a pretty bad business from the Chinese point of view. The causes were of course believed to have been corruption at court, the emperor (infallible, by convention) getting bad advice from self-serving mandarins, peculation diverting funds for frontier defence, and so on. In these last years before the loss of the north, when corruption held sway and government was failing the people, there were expressions of popular dissent. Starving peasants rioted, high-ranking officers deserted, individuals made heroic attempts to change the course of history and stem the tide of dynastic decline. And stories were told about some of them.
The official Song History twice briefly mentions one Song Jiang, who with his thirty-six companions, roamed around terrifying the northern provinces. Once in passing, and once at slightly greater length when, in the biography of a general, it describes his defeat and capture.
In the century following the loss of the north, stories began circulating - in the countryside and among the professional storytellers of the marketplaces and teahouses. These stories told of the exploits not just of Song Jiang, but of other figures too - some historical, some wholly fictional - and whole cycles of stories grew up. We know that street theatres as well as the theatres patronised by the gentry were putting on plays based on these outlaw heroes in the same period, and we even have surviving lists of paintings of these heroes as they appear in dramas of the time.
Story-cycles were circulating, immensely popular plays were being performed, and at some point in the 14th or 15th century a novel appeared under the title Shuihu Zhuan, which I have rendered as Men o the Mossflow. (It is also known in English as The Water Margin.)
It has been attributed to Shi Naian, a shadowy figure who may never even have existed, and to Luo Guanzhong, a slightly more substantial figure who seems to have been associated with the early publication of other novels. The textual history is convoluted and uncertain, but whoever the author was, and whoever Shi Naian might have been, this is a splendid piece of work.
Men o the Mossflow is the first masterpiece to be written in the vernacular language, and its putative author the first master of the vernacular. The language is racy and vivid, with a fresh-made feeling like the smell of new paint. Over all the registers it uses there is a feeling of mastery and control. Now, it may be the case that, as some scholars still think, that Luo Guanzhong simply edited the text from the performance of some great storyteller (perhaps this is where Shi Naian comes in - as the marketplace storyteller whose performance enthralled Luo), or it may be that Shi Naian, as another theory holds, was a storyteller who took the guild’s promptbooks and from them wrote the novel. We’ll probably never know.
Whoever was responsible, he (or they) made one of the world’s great books.
But before we come to why and how it’s a great book, there’s one other name to be mentioned: Jin Shengtan. He was born around 1608 and was executed in 1661. In all the long and book-haunted history of China, perhaps there was no greater literary mind than Jin’s. An unorthodox, thrawn kind of character, he was celebrated for his erudition and the astonishing breadth of his learning, despite the fact that he only passed the lowest of the exams for the mandarinate.
In his day the Yangtse delta was, as it had been for centuries, the intellectual and creative heartland of all China, and his hometown of Suzhou was celebrated as a city of great culture and elegance. But because of a breakdown in the bureaucratic system few appointments were being made, the civil service was in steep decline, and as a consequence there were large numbers of men who had spent their lives in prolonged and abstruse study, preparing for the entrance examination that would make mandarins of them. And they had no jobs.
(Large numbers of over-qualified and talented people alienated from government? A heady feeling of change in the air, the growth of new ways of thinking about social relations, politics, philosophy, art, literature, music? Sound familiar?)
In these wonderfully rich and creative times, much new work was being done: Feng Menglong and Ling Mengchu were collecting stories from professional and amateur storytellers, working them up into a new genre, and the novel , which had made its first appearance in the early years of the Ming dynasty, began to eclipse the theatre as the most popular of narrative forms.
Jin was part of this ferment. Born Jin Renrui, he early in life took as his byname (a practice common among the literati) the style Shengtan. This phrase appears twice in the Analects of Confucius, meaning ‘the sage [Confucius] sighed’: once over the genius of one of his disciples, and once over the wicked ways of the contemporary world. So Jin calling himself Shengtan was not unlike a punk musician taking the stage name Jesus Wept. And like the Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses of the punk movement, Jin saw his duty as a sustained assault on convention. He set up, in direct competition to the canonical Six Classics (which had scriptural authority) his own list of Six Works of Genius: they included:
the poems of the great Tang poet Du Fu
the strange shamanistic masterpiece ‘Encountering Sorrow’ by Qu Yuan
the work of the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi
the popular drama Romance of the Western Chamber
the brilliant historian Sima Qian’s groundbreaking Historical Records
Shuihu Zhuan, which we know as Men o the Mossflow.
This list was heterodox, almost blasphemous, in that the works were chosen for their literary merit and not for their powers of moral edification. A further shock for the pedant lay in the fact that both Mossflow and The Western Chamber were popular, both in the sense that they were widely read and admired, and in the sense that they sprang, not from the world of the academies and ministries, but from the streets and marketplaces. As for the fact that The Western Chamber dealt frankly with issues of romantic love, while Mossflow explored highly political issues such as the nature of loyalty and the reasons for rebellion - well, that just beat all! Jin made many enemies among the ultra-conservative Confucian pedants of his day.
Jin took hold of the Mossflow, which had been circulating in editions of varying lengths, and re-edited it, cutting it down to a mere 70 chapters and a prologue. In doing so he claimed, quite rightly, to have excised much that was otiose and repetitive in order to make the book’s fundamental structure clearer. His other innovation, no less bold, was to add to the book a series of prefaces, chapter commentaries and interlinear commentaries in the style of scriptural exegesis, in which he gives an idiosyncratic but blindingly revelatory series of insights into the structure of the novel, and into the possible motivation of the author.
It was a brilliant move: overnight his 1641 edition became a best seller, and remained so, to such an extent that all other versions were eclipsed and almost entirely forgotten until the literary renaissance of the early 20th century disinterred them.
In his recension, the book has a clear sub-text: what do good men do about bad government?
The story is set in the early 12th century, in the closing years of the Northern Song dynasty, just before the loss of the north to the Jin Tartars: the government is corrupt, enervated and in terminal decline, totally unable to prevent the imminent invasion. Local hardmen and gangsters are intimately entwined with government at every level, bandits terrorise the countryside, and the forces of law and order are totally incapable of either protecting the innocent or deterring the vicious.
In this context, we meet first of all a number of individuals who meet with a particular injustice, do the right thing in the situation, yet fall foul of corrupt officials or incompetent government, and can only save themselves by taking to the hills as outlaws. (A good example is Lu Da, who, in order to protect Emerant Lilly and her old dad, goes round to teach the West Mairch Crusher a lesson: not knowing his own strength he inadvertently kills the Crusher, gets a murder rap laid on him, and has to go on the lam.) One by one these good men are driven into outlawry, and slowly they begin to band together in twos and threes, then in larger groups, until finally they are a formidable army, whose aims are to remind the emperor of the wrongs being done in his name and to redress the injustices committed by avaricious or wicked officials.
Well and good, but about halfway through the book, after a series of chance meetings and coincidences (‘He’s a useful man, wouldn’t it be good if he was with us?’ - and lo and behold, he turns up!), the leaders of the band begin to seduce otherwise decent and upright individuals into joining them. Then in one horrific incident, a child is murdered in such a way as to throw the blame onto his guardian, whose skills the outlaws urgently need for the next big battle with the authorities. Weren’t they supposed to be the good guys? Slowly disillusion sets in until, under Jin Shengtan’s guidance, the discerning reader begins to see that these people have become as ruthless and as morally corrupt as the government they set out to reform.
So the sub-text, brilliantly elucidated by Jin Shengtan, using a radical mixture of scriptural exegesis, tactical rewriting and judicious cutting, is one about institutionalisation. An upright man does the right thing but is forced to step outside the law, having no alternative but to take to the hills. Each says to himself that it’s only a temporary measure, but is drawn into a horrific nightmare of rebellion and slaughter. And that process is the natural and inevitable end of banding together into a unit so large that it takes on its own momentum, regardless of the aims of its founders.
In its own time, this was a dangerous doctrine. Mossflow has always been dangerous, of course, and has been banned many times in its history, but in the closing years of the Ming dynasty, when invasion by Manchu nomads seemed imminent, and the symptoms of dynastic decline seemed to mirror those shown in the book, it was especially so.
Was Jin Shengtan rousing the masses to rebellion? Whose side was he on? Jin, like any wise man, knew that simple answers are for simple minds. Previous recensions had ended either with the heroes dying in battle, or with them receiving an amnesty from the emperor. Jin, by pruning away the final chapters and ending the book with a dream of retribution at a climactic moment when all the 108 heroes are gathered together, lets the reader make up his own mind: this version is morally ambiguous. Just as each of the major heroes exemplifies one of the answers to the question of what good men do about bad government - no easy, one-size-fits-all answer, but a different response for each individual - so the ending challenges each reader to ask what he or she would do if faced by this same dilemma.
The political questions raised in this book are dynamite in any era.
Men o the Mossflow is not afraid to explore the dark side of the psyche either. What does ‘heroism’ mean? What is a ‘hero’? Here are men who booze and brawl their way through their lives, causing mayhem and murder all around them, under the collective rubric of ‘Justice and Righteousness’. Cannibalism, rape, indiscriminate slaughter, robbery and violence - are these the distinguishing marks of the hero? In dark and difficult times, times when the leaders of the nation seem to be stuck with their heads in the trough of peculation and pilfering, what is heroism? Does the term have any meaning? What, as decent individuals, can we do about it?
No easy answers, but a great and challenging book here, one whose astonishing scope and range dawn on the reader afresh with each re-reading.


It’s not simply a question of just choosing a language, of course. We must build the language we lack. Any good writer transforms his own language, just as any translator worth his salt will transform his own tongue.
If Scots is to be something worth the keeping, then it should be able to handle the biggest of books that we can throw at it. Or, to put it another way, we should be able to take the biggest of books and stretch the tongue beyond what we think it can do, make the tongue new by including things we’d never before have dreamt of saying in Scots, to build the language we lack out of the otherness of a different tongue.
And why not a transfusion of Chinese? It’s the oldest surviving literary language in the world, and in its vast literature, you can find anything you want, from the bawdiest, coarsest speech to the most refined and elliptical of diction. Why not transfuse some of that richness into our ain tongue?
If the Scots tongue can handle Chinese, it can handle anything. That’s one reason for doing it: to show that this ‘elegant and malleable’ tongue (as Stevenson called it) has still the pith and the virr in it to encompass all that the Chinese can do, to show that Scots, bereft of some registers though it may have become, can still bend and stretch and expand, can still become a major player again.
And as for the choice of the Mossflow as a vehicle for Scots - well, far be it from me to suggest that in this blessed age we in Scotland should know anything of bad government......But just in case such a possibility should cross anyone’s mind, then the statement (however oblique) of the problems that might as a consequence arise from such a possibility may well gain extra force from their expression in Scots. They will certainly be expressed in a way that has never before been attempted. So the gain will not only be linguistic.
‘Why not Scots?’ is another perfectly reasonable response to the question, of course.
 As if we needed a reason......


To begin with what might seem an outré sort of passage, take the point where Lu Da is taking orders as a Buddhist monk. It fairly bristles with technical terms, few of which have any proper equivalent in English, let alone Scots. Even the word buddha, for instance, I render as Salvator: though I am well aware of the theological distinction between the Buddha and Christ, there seems to be a kind of functional equivalence which helps the narrative along. In cases like this, my first priority is the narrative - clotting the story up with abstruse technical terms may produce a kind of accuracy, but it doesn’t help to make a rattling good yarn. And in any case, Salvator is a lovely old word we don’t see or hear enough of these days. Similarly, the term zhai, meaning vegetarian food, such as is served in Buddhist monasteries, prompted the use of the old term lentren: doubly useful, as zhai, like lentren, also has connotations of ‘fasting’. Here is how part of the ceremony goes:
The Elder grippit the blank lines an spak this halie-rhyme:
"Ane blink o leivin licht ti see
Is mair nor warld’s gear nor fee;
The Salvator’s law is braid ti see:
PROFUNDITAS is the name A gie."
An whan the Giein o the Name wis by the Elder haunit the priestline ti Brither Quairmaister for
him ti transcrieve the name an pass it on ti Profunditas Lu ti keep. Neist the Elder gied forth the cassock an the vestments for Profunditas ti pit on, the Procurator led him afore the Throne o the Law for the Layin on o Hauns, an the Elder gied him the Admonition:
"ANE: beild ye in consent o the Enlichtencie o Divinitie
TWA: beild ye in observe o the Law o Veritie
THRIE: beild ye in reverence o the freins an dominies o the Order
ANE: takna nae life
TWA: reivena nor spulyie nane
THRIE: deboshna nor hure nane
FOWER: louna strang drink nane
FIVE: tellna nae lees"
Kennin naethin o the SAE SALL A or SAE SALL A NANE at maun be reponit afore the Offrin Table, Profunditas juist cam out wi "Ay, A’ll mind o that", an aa the brithers laucht.
A few notes will no doubt be in order here. The Salvator’s Law renders the Chinese fo fa: both of these terms are themselves translations from the Sanskrit. Fo renders buddha (‘enlightened one’), while fa renders dharma (‘the law, the teachings of the Buddha, the way things work/are’). A straightforward exchange here, losing a little theological detail, but keeping much of the sense. Salvator, being a little archaic nowadays, also gives a nice high-register feeling, and is also more detached from the image of Jesus Christ than the English ‘saviour’ would be in this context, which is all to the good here.
Profunditas is of course a Latin coinage (yes, reader, I made it up...). The original Chinese is Zhi Shen, literally ‘Wisdom Deep’ - hence my translation. I admit to stealing the wonderfully evocative and astonishingly handy Latinising of names (especially priestly names and titles) from the master of Chinese-English translation, David Hawkes. Latin helps to make names less opaque by giving some clue as to their meaning (they are quite transparent to the Chinese reader), and also gives some feeling of the high-register liturgical language which creeps into the text at this point. And, of course, when the grandly and ecclesiastically titled Profunditas starts to get roaring drunk and fight with the other monks, it retains a great deal of the comic effect of the original. By contrast, a mere Zhi Shen would mean nothing to the reader of the translation.
Ecclesiastical titles were produced in various ways. There exist Latin titles for the various offices and functionaries of a monastery: many of these were taken over as they stand; other titles were Scotticised from the Chinese (e.g. Brither Quairmaister); some, such as Procurator or Rector, adapted secular roles to suit the sense or the function of the Chinese title. Some others had to be invented from scratch, like Praepositor, which is a Latinising of the Chinese shouzuo (‘head seat’ - the senior monastic administrator).
Titles in general present the translator with a set of tricky problems. In the case of our text, which is set within the context of a formal and highly bureaucratised society which was extraordinarily fertile in its proliferation of ranks, titles and forms of address, these are compounded by the fact that many of the titles used are in fact unhistorical: some are anachronistic, some inaccurately applied - as when the character’s rank and duties are clearly those of an NCO, whereas his title seems to denote HQ staff officer level - and some are just plain made up. There can be no ready-made solution. By drawing on the records of the Royal Burghs, legal records, minute books of Craft Guilds and so on, some titles can be found and some can be adapted for use. Some are blindingly obvious, and need only to be translated. For example, Chief Justiciar o the Southron College o Kaifeng or Lord Collegiar o the Royal Registry are clearly high offices, and need little or no modification. Similarly, jiaotou is an arms instructor: jiao is the normal verb ‘to teach’, while the tou suffix is a noun-former. This becomes Leirsman with little or no friction. Tixia, on the other hand, is problematic: first, in that it’s not at all clear what the title means, and secondly, the responsibilities of the tixia are unclear. It does seem likely that it is a high military rank - yet Profunditas as we have him in the novel is clearly not much more than an unarmed combat instructor, an NCO. So I’ve called him Controller, for lack of anything more specific to go on.
Others are as tricky: yuanwai was a title awarded to those who had qualified to hold office but never actually did so. Its sense is ‘outside the [register of] personnel’, and at times this rank could be purchased: it was often used by rich and idle landowners, and is widely glossed as equivalent, at least in later Imperial times, to the English ‘squire’. Now this may have a kind of social appropriateness - which is what led me to use Laird in early versions - but in fact it tells you nothing about the holder except that he is of middling to high rank. It doesn’t tell you that he belonged to the literati class, for instance. Perhaps Supernumerary carries something more of the feeling of being an unattached mandarin. But I remain on the lookout for a better version.
Some titles will remain bafflingly obscure whatever we do: in these few cases, the best that can be done is to invent something that has a vague ring of what we think the character’s position might have entailed. Colour is often the thing - if the original suggests a musty pettifogging sort of job, or a dashing, heroic, make-up-the-rules-as-you-go role, responding to that is often as important as formal accuracy. (It ought to go without saying that much research is needed: you can’t get the feeling of a title until you have thoroughly investigated the what, when, where and how of it.)
Forms of address present particular problems in pre-modern Chinese, since politeness and polite language demanded that personal pronouns be avoided in favour of honorifics and humilifics: this is what produces ‘Johnnie Chinee’ horrors such as ‘your honourable house’. Clearly, I don’t want characters talking like Fu MacChu, but it is a fact that ‘your house’ was rendered by gui fushang (literally ‘your noble palace’). Hence the use of terms like yir guid hous or yir guid sel and so on. Conversely, a man of middle years, while talking to a social superior, would use the term laohan, which becomes this auld bodie and so demands the sort of obsequious third person once used by genteel shop assistants. Other forms, such as honest brither, spring from respect language and have been influenced in their making by ballad Scots as much as by anything.
Dialogue presents other problems, but here I‘ll focus only on the problem of dialect. Mossflow is admired for the ease with which it handles different dialects, and while much of that is today so obscure as to be invisible to the general reader, there are occasions where a character is so clearly identified by his own shibboleths that the translator can’t ignore them. A case in point is Lu Da, who we met as he metamorphosed into Profunditas Lu. A native of Gansu province in the far north-west, a wild frontier area on the fringes of the Gobi desert, he has a pronounced Gansu accent, marked mainly by his use of the first-person pronoun sajia. What can we do about this? Clearly there is no Scots equivalent. One possibility to present itself is the her nainsel etc. used by writers to represent the Gaelic-speaker’s difficulties with Scots, but it won’t do, because it was used patronisingly (if not insultingly) for so long that it’s hard to wash away that tone, and we have no evidence that the use of sajia carried the same negative connotations. My first version attempted to give Profunditas a strong local accent: I thought Buchan might do, but soon found out that I couldn’t write a convincing Buchan accent, so I simply ignored sajia. It later occurred to me that, though we have no first-person pronouns, we do have to hand the Shetland de, du, dy forms, which, if I used them and them only, would give the same faint whiff of an accent which is given by the use of sajia unsupported by other dialect forms. So the next recension of Mossflow will make use of this feature, and Profunditas will have a touch of the Shetlander about him.
Profanity, vulgarity, swearie-words, ‘mill talk’ - what do we do about them? Well, if we’re honest, we’ll reproduce all of it, no matter how foul we might think it, and we’ll reproduce it as closely as we can, because our job is to let the text speak - not to bowdlerise, gut or rewrite it. One which has raised eyebrows is a great favourite among the braw lads o the watterside: zhiniang zei would be rendered in English as motherfucking bandit, but I didn’t like the way it sounded so much like an Americanism, so I took advantage of the fact that niang can be used for other female relatives, and came up with grannie-shaggin for the first part. Bandit was another thing: cateran or reiver were nearhuan by, but they didn’t seem to roll off the tongue the way the original undoubtedly does, so I opted for alliteration - always a good idea with swearie-words, I think - and came up with grannie-shaggin get instead , which is both satisfactorily obscene and satisfyingly rhythmic. Another common term of abuse is si, usually in phrases such as ni zhe si. Its history is clear - archaic term for a domestic servant - and its use simple - generalised vaguely offensive appellation. But we don’t have an equivalent, so I took instead (with apologies to travellers, Romanies and others to whom it has been misapplied) tink, which is a similarly mild though abusive term. And ni zhe si (literally, you this tink) becomes quite happily ye tink, ye.
Proverbs and saws are scattered liberally through our text, and the difficulty there is to give them that worn-down, used feeling a good proverb has. The best advice I can give is to trust your ear: go about repeating your various versions, chant them like mantras, sing them in the bath - until one falls into a loose easy rhythm that sticks in your head. Some examples:
atween the fower seas, we’re brithers aa
whan twae ill-willers meet, byornar shairp’s their een
you an me we’ll leive thegither, an thegither we’ll dee
The saw should roll off the tongue like a ballad verse: rhythm is the key here. And when, as is often the case, the little saws are themselves in rhyme, we’ve just got to set to and do what we can. For instance:
Afore the Nine-League Hills there wis a battle,
Whaur herd-lads nou finds spear an sword;
As sweet winds riffle owre the Blackwatter River,
E’en sae did Lady Yu bid fareweill ti her lord.
Now the reader doesn’t actually need to know what all Chinese readers would: that this verse refers to the tragic story of the favourite concubine of warlord Xiang Yu, who killed herself as her lord was about to be defeated in his last battle. The main thing is that in the text it appears as a comic counterpoint to Profunditas’ getting his comeuppance from the Abbeymaister. Similarly, this:
Bi yir bunnet’s bonnie leam
Ye’re ti be the groom at een!
Bi yir jimp an narra shift
Ye’re ti be guidson this nicht!
This is no more than a simple folk song sung at a wedding, and need be no more (and no less) elegant than a folk song. Again, as with the saws, the songs have to be repeated again and again until they turn into something you can hear, and can imagine yourself singing, at the very least.
Then there are puns. Of all the great world languages, Chinese is the poorest in speech sounds, and hence the richest in homophones. What a tongue this is for punning! There was even a fashion in the 13th-14th century for verse forms which involved long palindromic puns, and still today a form of multi-level punning called xiehou yu (‘wait-a-bit words’) is very popular in China. Mossflow, being an action novel, contains far fewer wordgames than would, say, a novel set among the idle literati class, but they still crop up. One example will be enough here: when Profunditas is first creating havoc in the monastery he gets into an altercation with a monk who tries to stop him sleeping in the meditation hall. ‘Shan zai!’, says the monk sarcastically - ‘Oh, wonderful!’. Profunditas hears this as shanyu, meaning ‘eel’. I had to resort to ‘ye’re daein weill!’ which Profunditas hears as daimen-eel - so the pun has a kind of transferrable sense. Here’s the passage:
"Ay, ye’re daein weill!" says the bodie.
"Daimen-eel?" rairs Profunditas. "Haive-eel A’ve etten, but whit’s a daimen-eel?"
"Och, it’s wersh wark" says the bodie.
"Wersh? It’s got a muckle fat belly, the haive-eel, guid fat sweet eatin - hou’s it wersh?" quo Profunditas....
It’s not easy to deal with puns, and serendipity is often all that can help. Puns are always a problem.
As are the obscurities, the hapax legomena, the words or expressions rendered wholly opaque by the passing of time. Trust to luck, be bold, revise and revise, ask for help, do as much research as is feasible, try to know your text as well as you possibly can - and it’s still down to a lucky hit much of the time. For instance, while I was working on a version of a 14th century poem cycle by Qiao Jifu I met a very obscure word: Chinese dictionaries (and I consulted them all - or all that I could find in Beijing, London, Edinburgh and Durham) came up with nothing much: a kind of water bird, possibly purple, or a water bird, bigger than a duck - that was as much help as I got. So I did what you do, inserted a splint, and decided to come back to the problem later. Much later, while looking for something else in the Concise Scots Dictionary I found this: fewlume, n. some kind of bird, e16 , with the helpful thought that it might be related to the Gaelic word for a seagull. Bingo! In went fewlum, and in fact, in went fewlums in flauchts. It’s as obscure as the original, but since it appears in a long list of birds that were being startled into flight, it’s comprehensible. Hits as lucky as that are rare, though.
Names present their own delights. Each of the main characters in Mossflow has got more than one name, for a start. Lu Da becomes Profunditas after his ordination, but has also the byname of The Flourist Freir. Song Jiang’s byname is Timeous Rain, Li Zhong’s General Toober-the-Tiger, and so on. Like the Border reivers, each of them has his byname, and like the reivers’ bynames, they are often very colourful. The Reid Deil, Braid Daylicht Rottan, The Sleikit Staur, The West Mairch Crusher all appear in the list of Mossflow characters. These I would render as closely as possible to the original. Names - in the usual Chinese order of family name first and personal name after - I have not changed, except to follow the sinological convention of translating female names while leaving male ones in transliterated form. This may not be entirely ideal, since male names are as transparent to the Chinese reader as female ones - personal names are all invented by the family, and are chosen for their meaning. But it does have the merit of burdening the text with fewer Chinese names, and giving a more positive identification to the female characters. So Auld Jin’s daughter becomes Emerant Lilly rather than Jin Cuilian, and the famous besom Pan Jinlian will appear as Gowden Lilly.
Another habit is to name sons by their sequence in the family: Mr. and Mrs. Wang’s second son would be Secundo Wang, his brothers Tertio, Quarto, Octavo and so on. I have used this convention for minor characters, and have sometimes translated their names in full - Lucky Li for Li Ji, for example. This helps to keep the translated text free of too many opacities, and helps (I hope) to keep the heroes distinct from the walk-on parts.
Place names I will, in future recensions, scotticise as much as I can. Xiao Hua Shan has already become Smaa Glore Hill, and Dongjing, The Eastren Capital. Similarly, Xinzhou could be rendered as Faithlands, Jiangnan as Besouth the Watter, and so on. This is again to prevent the text from being cluttered up with words which are meaningless to the general reader.




It’s all useful if it’s written in Scots - the Makars, MacDiarmid, S.R. Crockett and Annie Swan, Para Handy, Edwardian doggerel, folk song and ballads, Wilson’s Tales of the Borders (which you’ll have to mentally translate back into Scots), Scott, Hogg, Ferguson, Burns, Galt, Garioch, McLellan, W.N. Herbert, Irvine Welsh, 19th century newspaper serials, 18th century correspondence, chapbooks, Burgh Court records, Pitcairn’s Trials, Stair’s Institutes, Murray’s Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland, Barbour’s Brus and Blin Hary’s Wallace, 13th century romances and 20th century transcriptions of tales and reminiscence - as well as anything and everything published by the Scottish Text Society. Nothing like an exhaustive list, of course - just what comes up at random - but the point is not to exclude anything. You’re not reading for good taste.
Read the dictionaries too. Don’t just consult them. Graze them, browse on them, follow chains and trails of words through each one, and from dictionary to dictionary. You can never have access to too many dictionaries or glossaries: they are your tools. No matter how obsolete or jejune or incomplete a dictionary, there may come a time when it is the only tool to help you out of a jam. Know your dictionaries as well as you do your texts. And make your own. No matter how helpful a shelf of dictionaries and glossaries may be, what you will need is a reference to your own idiolect. (Computers make it easy.) A dictionary for each text you translate will help you with consistency and accuracy, of course, but it will also help you to develop the individual authorial voice which each text will need.
What you must do is read to sensitise your ear to the possible rhythms, to the allowable or potentially useful structures. You must learn your own language as thoroughly as you can (if you don’t think that’s necessary, go and read the instruction leaflet for your Japanese video, and reflect on how non-native speakers write English). Scots prose is, for almost all of us, gey near a foreign tongue, and unless we make a conscious effort to master this discourse, we will never be able to translate into it.


Listen to everything: on the streets, in the pubs, on the wireless and the TV. Scots is still a living language - you can’t write it naturally if you don’t speak it naturally, and the best way to learn its cadences and its rhythms is to listen to unselfconscious, natural speakers. Get yourself away to the landart airts, listen to your grannie and her pals, speak to the bairns. Be the chiel amang fowk takin notes.
As your ear develops, learn to trust it. Always read your drafts aloud: if it doesn’t sound right to you, keep working at it until it does. And once you’re happy with it, read to an audience: having an audience is a great concentrator of the mind - and the audience will be on your side if you’re getting it right, and can be a great help to you.


There are no rule books. There may be strategies and canons (such as grammatical acceptability, dialect preference and so on), but there is no one single way that is right. Our job is to reflect and to use the incredible fecundity of the tongue, and if we are successful, to lay our wee chuckie stane on the cairn. Defer to the wisdom of experience, but don’t let anybody else tell you what’s right and what’s wrong.
You’re going to be making it new, and that can be a daunting experience.
You’ll need faith in yourself, too, because there’ll aye be the hoodie craws to tell you that it’s a doomed enterprise, and that you’re wasting your time. NEVER HEED THEM! You’re making it new, you’re working for the future, not for the past.


If you choose a text from a distant time or place, you’ve already chosen your world as you read it, as you silently collude with the authorial voice to make it all new again - each reader has a different text, each re-reading changes the text. Then if you choose to translate the text into another medium, you create another text whose relationship with the ur-text bears some relationship to the author-reader collusion, filtered through the medium of the translator’s voice. And the translator - ventriloquist and dummy together - must let his text speak in the best way he knows how.
Ego is not a factor here, as the voice of the translator is not the point. The authorial voice and the translator’s voice must sing together in a kind of unison, neither wholly obscured by the other, each separate and distinct, but both sharing the same modes of delight.
Each word is touched by and filled with the activity of every speaker. Each word changes every time it is brought to life. Each single word uttered twice becomes a new word. You cannot twice bring the same word into sound.
It is a good direction to believe that this language which is so scored and impressed by the commotion of all of us since its birth can be arranged to in its turn impress significantly for the good of each individual. Let us endure the sudden affection of the language.
Let us indeed learn to love language. To love its quirks and intricacies, its coinages and its clumsinesses. And let us express that love in action. Show the tongue what it’s capable of by offering it the greatest challenge we can imagine, the greatest stretching of its powers.
I.M. Richards imagined that ‘the greatest challenge ever undertaken by the human mind’ was the translation of Chinese philosophical texts into English. Now, we can’t deny the enormous difficulty of that task, but isn’t every act of speech an act of translation no less stupendous? (If you doubt it, try telling your neighbour about the taste of that wine you drank on holiday, or tell your loved one precisely what was the feeling-tone of that dream that so scared you...)
Every act which involves the transfer of thought/emotion/sensation into language is an act of translation, and though the hidden springs of the process may not make it appear so to us, that transfer involves huge resources of brainpower: imagination, intuition, comparison, analysis, are all parts of this process. To translate a work of imagination from one tongue to another requires these same stupendous resources to be used to the full, and to be used in a conscious, directed way.
It is, they say, impossible.
Now, when we use sound or stone or daubs of bright colour on a flat surface, or the urbane and elegant tongue that is mathematics, then clearly we are trying to express what may not be susceptible of expression via the medium of language. But when, as in a poem, we try to use language against itself, to use our tongue to say the unsayable, then we are at the heart of the mystery that is language. And to compound the absurdity by trying to transfer that mystery from one tongue to another? Daft, of course - yet it works. Eppur si muove.....Here is the Impossible Machine we inhabit. Here is the mystery of that angelic meta-language that Walter Benjamin imagined, where the transfer of meaning takes place.
It’s daft, but we dae it.
And maybe that is the best rationale of all for what we do as translators. It’s daft, it’s maybe theoretically or philosophically dubious. But it works.
Walter Benjamin:
Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match each other in the smallest details, though they need not be like each other.. [and so translation] must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognisable as fragments of a greater language...
It works, in that we can - by whatever means, miraculous or otherwise - make a rendering in our ain tongue of a text from the other end of the world and/or from a time we have never known.
A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.
My grandfather once said to me that nothing was worth having unless you shared it - and this, he felt, applied especially to knowledge. Here is your rationale. You may sit in your study beikin bi the fire, lost in your books, but unless ye tak yir quair in hand like Henryson did and tell those to whom the book is eternally shut, ‘Look, here’s a story, boys, here’s something that might change your life’ - then what is the good of your knowing, of your reading, if no-one but you knows the tale?
Hence the need for folk like us - owresetters, takers-over: translators.
That’s the point.
Brian Holton
Newcastle upon Tyne
St. Andrew’s Day 1995


1. Has no-one else noticed that lexicographers have been slow to note the existence of rhyming slang in Scots? (Maybe it's because lexicographers don't go to pubs...)

2. Scots versions as yet unpublished: for English versions, see Yang Lian, Non-Person Singular, Brian Holton (trans.) (London, 1994); Yang Lian, Where the Sea Stands Still, Brian Holton (trans.) (London, 1995)

3. For some of my versions of Classical Chinese poetry in Scots, see Stokes, T. and Douglas, H. Water on the Border (Yarrow, 1994).

4. Thank you, Frank Kuppner.

5. Some scholars take the view that, since no other evidence for Song Jiang exists, he was in fact a fictional character who was included in the histories by mistake.

6. This is still a working title: Shui signifies water, hu is an obscure term denoting the edge of a river or a riverbank, and Zhuan denotes a chronicle. Since much of the action revolves around the bandit's lair in the vast marshes of Liangshanbo, John Scott's suggested title The Fenland Saga has much to commend it. We don't have in Scotland this type of geographical feature (though the mid-reaches of the Forth may once have been similar), so it hasn't been easy to find an equivalent. A mossflow is a loose boggy bit of moorland: that and the echoes of S.R.Crockett's fine tale of Border Covenanters, Men of the Mosshags persuaded me to stick with the current title for the moment. But I'm still not wholly convinced.

7. The details of his life are obscure: because he was executed, his name appears nowhere in any officially-sanctioned publication. Non-persons weren't a Soviet invention: the Manchus were pretty ruthless at suppressing all trace of those who disagreed with them. For Jin's life and work, see John Wang, Jin Sheng-T'an (New York, n.d.)

8. For the reasons for this, see Ray Huang's 1587, A Year of No Significance: the Ming Dynasty in Decline (New Haven, c.1981)

9. The Ming dynasty ran from 1358 to 1644: say, Barbour to Urquhart of Cromarty.

10. Born 712, died 770. See Li Po and Tu Fu, Arthur Cooper (trans.) (Harmondsworth, 1973) and The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, David Hinton (trans.) (London, 1989)

11. Brilliantly translated in Songs of the South, David Hawkes (trans.) (Harmondsworth, 1989)

12. See Chuang-tzu; the Seven Inner Chapters and Other Writings, A.C. Graham (trans.) (London & Boston, 1981)

13. See Wang Shih-fu, The Romance of the Western Chamber, Hsiung Shih-i (trans.) (New York, 1968)

14. See Sima Qian, The Warlords, William Dolby and John Scott (trans.) (Edinburgh, 1974)

15. For more details, see Rolston, D.L., ed. How to Read the Chinese Novel (Princeton, 1990)

16. Most of these terms have come in to English as unnaturalised Sanskrit words, and I didn't feel that I ought to impose on the reader the necessity of learning Sanskrit, on top of having to cope with the unfamiliarity of Chinese names.

17. Here I part company with many (sadly, very many) of my sinological colleagues. I cannot see the point of taking a spare and beautiful text and translating in such a way that, constipated with abstruse and ugly technical terms, it becomes unlovely. However accurate such a version may be, if it fails to render the grace and elegance of the original, it fails as a translation. To render beautiful prose in ugly prose is art murder, no less. And the perpetrators, unless their aim is solely the production of an unlovely undergraduate crib, should be ashamed of themselves.

18. 'Men o the Mossflow', Brian Holton (trans.) Edinburgh Review 76, 1987, p79 (minor authorial modifications here)

19. For which, see his wonderful Penguin Classics translation of another great Chinese novel: Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone David Hawkes and John Minford (trans.) (Harmondsworth, 1973 - 1986)

20. This story is the basis for the Beijing Opera Bawang Bie Ji, as shown in Chen Kaige's film Farewell My Concubine

21. Edinburgh Review, 76, p.80

22. As yet unpublished, but due to appear in a forthcoming issue of Gairfish

23. It should be noted that the resonances and hidden allusions of the names in Shuihu are much appreciated by connoisseurs as adding flavour and subtlety to the narrative: perhaps the only way to bring any of that out would be to take all the names, both male and female, and translate everything into Scots. Wang Jin would then have to appear as King Promoter. I'm not too happy about that. It seems to me to be about as accurate as translating January as 'the month of the Roman god of boundaries who faces both ways'. A bit over the top, really.

24. W.S. Graham 'Notes on a Poetry of Release', Edinburgh Review 76, 1986

25. I.M. Richards Mencius on the Mind: Experiments in Multiple Definition (London, 1932)

26. Walter Benjamin The Task of the Translator, (London 1973) p78. (emph.auct.)

27. ibid. p79