Monday 28 October 2013

Robert E. Howard in Scots

After seeing the fantastic work done by many folk translating REH into French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Swedish and many more, and having also seen many classic authors' work translated into Scots, I'm sorely tempted to translate some REH into my people's language. There are quite a few poems that I think would sound grand in Scots: obviously the ones involving a Scot like "The Rover". Maybe even some stories starring Scots.

Certainly Howard quite liked the Scots language, and he's even written a poem in the tongue.

(The following first appeared in my REHupa 'zine, "Elephants, Figs, & Lobsters With Wigs")

The idea for this series originates with Venarium buddy Barbara Barrett, as she asked me if I could identify the mysterious language Howard used in a poem, “The Deed Beyond the Deed.” My first thought was “what translating? It’s just Auld Scots.” A few seconds later, the penny dropped, and I realized how incomprehensible Scots can be to non-Scots.

Here's a classic I learned in school:

"To A Mouse"
Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.
I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal!
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't.
Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's win's ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.
That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld.
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!
I subscribe to the notion that Scots is a language in its own right: if Danish and Norwegian can be considered distinct, then so can Scots and English. Reading it with only knowledge of English is tough enough when you get to the daimen icker in a thrave, but imagine hearing it recited in a Scottish accent.

“The Deed beyond the Deed”
Rane o’ the Sword, wha’ men misca’ the fool,  
Has turned his galley to the unco’ lands;  
Now in the dragon girten prow he stands.  
Billows abune the token o’ his rule,  
Great fold on fold, the rover’s banner spread.  
The hard neives dirl the ash ayint the tide  
The war shields klish amain alang the side,  
The red moon hammers dune a sea o’ red.  
Rane o’ the Sword, nae sairly do we greet  
To see your taps’yls scuddin’ dune the west,  
Nae muckle love bear we for a’ your breed
Bluid willna dry like water—yet ’tis meet  
We gi’ ye due, that curious unrest  
Wha’ gars ye seek the deed beyant the deed.

By jingo, that’s a rare sang! So, let’s first look at the words which may be unfamiliar to non-Scots. I’ve put the spellings Howard used in parenthesis: given the fluid nature of the language, such little things as spelling tended to metamorphose over the course of history. Rather than use an alphabetical order, I decided to use a simpler method, and list them as they occur in the poem, allowing a quick back-and-forth approach.

wha’ – who (as in “Wha’s Like Us?” and “Scots Wha’ Hae”)
miscaw (misca') – miscall
unco – unknown
abuin (abune) – above
neives – closed or clenched fists, akin to “dukes”
dirl – the sensation of being hit/punched/impacted
ayint – against
klish – clash
alang – along
doon (dune) – down
nae – no (still in use today)
sairly – sorely
greet – cry, weep. (Fairly common even in modern times, i.e. “wheesht yer greetin’ - “silence your crying”)
taps'yls – topsails
scuddin' – gliding
muckle – a lot, large, great, many (mony a puckle maks a muckle - "many a small thing makes a big thing," an analogue for “every little helps”)
bluid – blood
willna – will not (in use even today, most commonly as the variant “willnae”)
gi' – give (also in use today)
gars – causes, provokes, inspires 
Amain is presumably the archaic term, as seen in "The Ride of Falume."

So, here's what I make of the poem rendered in contemporary English, albeit with an attempt to keep the poetic flow:
Rane of the Sword, who men miscall the fool,
Has turned his galley to the unknown lands;  
Now in the dragon girten prow he stands.  
Billows above the token of his rule,  
Great fold on fold, the rover’s banner spread.  
The hard fists smash the ash against the tide  
The war shields clash strongly along the side,  
The red moon hammers down a sea of red.  
Rane of the Sword, not sorely do we weep  
To see your topsail gliding down the west,  
 No great love bear we for all your breed
Blood won't dry like water—yet it's meet  
We give you due, that curious unrest  
What causes you seek the deed beyond the deed.

There are two other words in the poem which may or may not be Scots: Rane and Deed. In context, Rane is most likely a personal name, being of Nordic origin: in “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth,” Brunhilde’s father was Rane Thorfin. It is also the name of Olav Haraldsson’s mentor, Rane the Far-Travelled. Judging from the context of "him" and so forth, it probably is just a Viking warlord of Howard’s own conception: nonetheless, given Howard’s propensity for wordplay, it could indeed be a double-meaning. Rane in Scots is analogous to refrain, chorus, chant, rhyme: a repeated phrase, like a chant or song. Thus, not only could "Rane of the Sword" refer to an individual with that name, but also mean something like "Refrain of the Sword," "Song of the Sword," or "Rhyme of the Sword."

The second word is deed. It would seem logical that the use of deed is the common English word, even if exactly what the deed is happens to be somewhat unclear. However, it could also be a misspelling of deid, Scots for “dead,” which is pronounced identically. This would make the poem “The dead beyond the dead”: a more grim and unsettling interpretation.

What I find most intriguing is how well the poem works if we assume that Rane is not the name of some great Viking marauder, but used in the Scots context too. All said and done, “The Deed Beyond the Deed” is well in the tradition of Howard’s poems and prose regarding the Vikings, but the rendering into Scots adds another level of intrigue.


So what Howard works do you fine folks would benefit from a Scots translation? Here's a hastily-written example: see if you can guess what it's from...

He wis mirk, bit he didnae breed th' latins aroond him. Thare wis aboot him nane o' th' tosie, a'maist oriental sensuality o' th' Mediterranean whilk colored thair features. Th' blond barbarians behind sulla's chair wur less unlike th' man in facial ootline than wur th' Romans. Nae his wur th' stowed curving rid lips, nor th' rich waving curlies suggestive o' th' Greek. Nor wis his mirk complexion th' rich olive o' th' sooth; ower 'twas th' bleak darkness o' th' north. Th' hail aspect o' th' man vaguely suggested th' shaidaed rouk, th' mirk, th' cauld 'n' th' haar o' th' nakit northern lands. E'en his black een wur savagely cauld, lik' black ingles birnin` thro' faddoms o' ice.

His hicht wis ainlie middlin bit thare wis something aboot him whilk abuin mere pheesical bouk - a certain sair inmaist smerch, breed ainlie tae that o' a wouf or a baudrons. In ilka line o' his souple, nacket body, as weel as in his tauted straecht locks 'n' thin lips, this wis weel seen - in th' gled-lik set o' th' heid oan th' corded hause, in th' braid square shouders, in th' deep chest, th' stilpert lunyies, th' nairae feet. Bult` wi' th' savage hainin o' a baudrons, he wis an eemage o' feckfu scowth, pent in wi' airn owerins.

At his feet cruldged yin lik' him in complexion - bit thare th' breed ended. This ither wis a scruntit etin, wi' scroggit limms, massie body, a laich sidelins brou 'n' an face o' dreich ferocity, noo clearly kirned wi' fear. If th' man oan th' cross breed, in a tribal wey, th' man Titus Sulla cried guest, he far mair breed th' scruntit cruldged etin. 



  1. No guessing here. That's from Worms of the earth, says I. And well done.

  2. Hero of the Federation28 October 2013 at 22:25

    How did you do that?