Our Think in Translation project has been made possible thanks to The Space and Creative Scotland.

Episode Five: Language and Self-Discovery


How does language shape us? In the face of a growing globalised culture that can sometimes feel uniform, many people are seeking ways to maintain and express their individuality. Language – its history, structure and nuances – is one way in which we can explore our roots: it can help us remember who we are and what makes us unique.

In this episode, Angie Crawford, the Scottish books buyer for Waterstones, discusses Gaelic and Scots writing, how literature in each language is now being received, and the important role literature plays in keeping languages – particularly minority ones such as Gaelic and Scots – alive.

The Think in Translation podcast is a literary podcast series featuring international authors, translators, publishers and booksellers, with the aim of making translated books accessible to all readers.

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You're listening to Think in Translation, a literary podcast from Vagabond Voices in Glasgow.

The series is made up of conversations with international authors, translators, publishers and booksellers, with the aim of making translated books more accessible. Episodes air every second Thursday.

This week's guest is Angie Crawford. Angie is the Scottish Buying Manager at Waterstones. She discusses Gaelic and Scots writing, how literature in each language is now being received, and the difference between the Orkney Gruffalo and the Dundonian Gruffalo.

My name’s Angie Crawford and I’m the Scottish Buying Manager at Waterstones Booksellers.

My favourite work of translated Scots – and I’m talking about pieces of work that have been translated into Scots, if that makes sense – is actually a bit of a funny one. It’s The Doric Gruffalo. One of the reasons that I love it is that I have always understood that Scots was part of our heritage and our language, but I didn’t really think about the various nuances that we have within the Scots language or dialect, and when I read The Doric Gruffalo and I compared it to The Gruffalo in Scots, it was very interesting in a way that I hadn’t expected it to, and it made me really think about the different dialects that we have in Scotland, and what that says about the people and the landscape around the country.

For example, The Doric Gruffalo starts, “A moose tuik a dander ben the wid. A tod saw the moose, an the moose luiked guid. Come a wee bit farrer intae thon deep mirk wid, an fin oot fit happens fin the sleekit moose faas in wi a hoolet, a snake an a hungry gruffalo.” Now, that was my first introduction to the word “fit like”. I didn’t understand what that was or what that meant, and coming from up north, or in the Highlands of Scotland, I couldn’t understand that, but it just means, “fit like – what do you like?” And comparing that to The Gruffalo in Scots, it’s, “A moose took a dauner through the deep, mirk widd. A tod saw the moose and the moose looked guid. Come a wee bit further intae the deep, mirk widd, and find oot whit happens when the sleekit moose comes face tae face wi a hoolet, a snake and a hungry gruffalo.” So, when you’re reading it, it doesn’t sound massively different but there’s just that little bit that’s softer round the edges, and just creates a sense of something that’s quite different, and I think with this particular translation – or translations, you get it in The Orkney Gruffalo, the Dundonian Gruffalo, the Glaswegian Gruffalo... I think you get one that’s The Shetland Gruffalo as well – and I find that, because it’s such a well-known story, that many of us with kids could pretty much recite, to hear those gentle nuances are really interesting.

I can understand some Gaelic – I’m actually from the Western Isles in Lewis, the Isle of Lewis in the West Coast of Scotland. So I was brought up in Gaelic, I was taught in Gaelic, but I’ve been away from the island for such a long time – more than half of my life, and none of my relatives are alive on the island, so that ability to read and certainly talk in it has diminished over the years, although when I do go back, once a year, it’s funny how you understand the language even though if you asked me to read something just now I wouldn’t be able to in the way that I might have once been able to.

For many years I think Scots as a language was very much neglected, and overlooked both culturally but also in our education system, and I think, thinking about Gaelic, I’m a great example of someone who comes from the islands, and I’m bringing up a family who are not living on that island, and my relatives who did once upon a time speak Gaelic, are no longer with us. So that, that is being lost throughout the generations, and I do think that having Scots and Gaelic in the written form is a great way to keep that going. So I know myself with my children that although they’re not taught in Gaelic, I can do some Spot Goes to School in Gaelic with them for example, and that’s one of the first books that I read in Gaelic, and I think that you are passing something down which is incredibly important.

Gaelic is predominantly an oral language, a lot of traditions, music, cutting the peats, wauking the tweed... You would sing and in Gaelic you would have rounds, you’d talk over and over, and I think up north if you went to a céilí which we traditionally see as when everyone does céilí dancing, but really, it would be gathering in somebody’s living room over a dram and having storytelling in the Gaelic. And books, because that was a very strong oral tradition, particularly up in the Highlands and the west coast of Scotland, having it written down helps keep that going if that makes sense, so that even though you don’t live on the island, or you’re not part, where your family are, you can have a little bit of that and I think...

I was thinking about that earlier today, when you think about the Scottish diaspora and how many Scots people are spread around the world, and you look at places like Nova Scotia in Canada... Australia, New Zealand, America... Gaelic in some of those places is more used as a language than we do in Scotland, so in a way it’s helping people be true to their own identity and who there are and where they come from and I think that’s also really interesting because when I go back home to Stornoway, one of the first things people always ask you, if I have friends with me: “Who are your people?” “Where are you from?” And as soon as they hear that, they’re able to make connections or try to understand you better.

So I guess – you know, we touched on earlier about culture – and I am very much a “teuchter”, somebody from up north, but you know in Scotland and certainly in the tradition of translation of books into Scots, I think back to some of the best-known Scottish writers – you know, Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hugh McDermott, even contemporary writers like Liz Lochhead and Irvine Welsh, or Anne Donovan – they’re writing in Scots. So, it helps you understand what they’re writing about and how that culturally resonates with us living in Scotland, which I think is really important, and also I guess there is a sense of pride that it is enough for these books to be translated into these I guess very old languages, but it also helps us keep learning and reading and enjoying in Gaelic or indeed Scots, which I think is really important so that it’s not seen as something that we have to do but that we actually enjoy reading and writing in those languages.

Something that I haven’t really mentioned that I am particularly proud of and I’m sure any Gaelic speaker will tell you is that Gaelic is a very beautiful language. Even if you can’t understand it, it is very very beautiful to listen to. And if you can listen to it and understand it, and then being able to read it out loud, I think that is a real attraction as well. I guess in forms of narrative fiction or non-fiction that possibly is a bit more challenging, but in terms of poetry or shorter works of fiction, I think it can be very beautiful to listen to.

You have a lot of autobiographical works in Gaelic, you get a lot of local history in Gaelic as well, and that’s people who enjoy reading these genres, and perhaps aren’t given to fiction reading in the same way, so perhaps an older readership. But then you also have poetry because, I mean a lot of Gaelic is very musical. You have poetry and you also have music and songwriting in the Gaelic, but music and poetry are very – if you were learning Gaelic, it is actually easier to follow and to take small pieces and learn that and translate it, rather than reading a work of fiction. And then by extension of that, there is – not an explosion, but – a very strong market for English books or any book being translated into Gaelic because you are reaching that readership who are... perhaps their parents don’t speak Gaelic, but they want their kids to learn and speak in Gaelic. So I think there is a bit in the middle that isn’t so easily accessible in Gaelic, and I guess that comes down to basically money as well, but how much it costs to translate a work of fiction – especially new fiction – compared to a shorter book like some poetry or picture books, as a good example of that.

In Scots though it’s quite a different picture for translation, in that, certainly when I was at school, Scots was very much looked down upon as “not the Queen’s English”, and it wasn’t... It was seen as slang. You didn’t speak in Scots, perhaps, in the way that we do now. I mean, I have to contextualise that by saying I am from up north so Scots isn’t as popular as it is in the Central Belt. I live in Fife now and Scots is very prominent as a way of speaking, but I think over the last fifteen years Scots has been very much introduced to the Scottish curriculum and is a very important part of the way, and of the what, children are learning at school.

As a result of that, we are seeing a lot more books translated into Scots from other languages. And I guess one of the things that really makes Scots stand out is, not just its expressiveness, if I can use that; it’s also that it’s extremely funny to listen to, and when I touched on how Gaelic is used all over the world where you find Scottish people, Scots you find that a lot of people will send Scots books to family in other parts of the world because – not even just because it’s a memento of Scotland, but it’s actually a very funny book to read and we’ve had I guess most recently, Harry Potter in Scots, which was pretty much one of the top books for Christmas in Scotland, and people were buying that not because they wanted to read it in Scots but because they genuinely found it a fun way of reading and I think Scots brings that to the table in a way that maybe other languages don’t.

And I think there is expression in Scots that you think, Wow that is really just exactly what I was meaning to say. You know I think of words like “gleekit” is really a great example of that because it means just being a bit dopey, and I can’t think of another word that really hits that the way that the word “gleekit” does.

In a world increasingly where there’s uniformity and the editing is so accessible, that having individuality becomes more important, and I think that people look around and are very proud of their roots and where they come from and what they stand for, and I think that makes genuinely people think about, you know, what their language is and how it has been built, you know, I think in Gaelic there’s definitely an active desire with some people who aren’t Gaelic speakers themselves and really want their families to speak in Gaelic and be able to interact in Gaelic culture.

I think in Scots it’s a gentler approach because, you know, you can pretty much work Scots out without having to learn the language but it’s very much that it speaks of our identity and where we’re from, and it’s also very enjoyable. And it helps us understand, you know, it was the language of our royal families, and how expressions of literature in Scots, and I think that’s a really important historical fact as well.

My experience of Gaelic is, that Gaelic is... It can be very localised. So Gaelic in, for example the Isle of Skye, will be... will have some differences and nuances, compared to Lewis or even Harris. And then again, comparing that to Glasgow, it will be a little bit different again. So I think it’s always evolving as well, and that makes it quite difficult to get a handle on.

In Scots I’m not so sure. I think it’s very localised, and you do get very marked dialects and versions that, when we touched on earlier about children’s, the translations, I think as a bookseller, when we saw translations of books in different dialects within Scots, I really didn’t understand the need for that until I started reading them and saw the marked difference depending on the part of Scotland that that dialect came from. And I think that is quite interesting but I don’t think it’s evolving in the same way as Gaelic.

I’ve bought books in Scotland as a retailer for nearly eleven years and I think one of the most interesting things has been the translation and passion for books in Scots. It’s really amazing to see that it’s not just – I can’t remember when, there’s a publisher called Itchy Coo who specialise in Scots translations for children, I think that must have started about fifteen years ago... And in bookselling you’re always looking in the crystal ball to see what’s going to be the next big thing, and I think if you’d asked us ten years ago... “Oh, you know, it’s possibly a bit of a fad.” But it’s not.

The integration of learning in Scots and about Scots within the Scottish curriculum has been celebrated, and as young people are growing up they’re using that in their own language and they need books to do that as well. And so it’s very much part of our culture, and... our... I guess in any bookshop that you go to in Scotland, you’ll find an area of books that are in Scots – and actually I say that but in some shops you would just find that integrated into the general run of books because there are so many of them and it’s so part of our day-to-day life in a way that it wasn’t before.

I think that’s one of the things that’s really surprised me, and even seeing how some books can still top the charts because they’re translated into Scots is quite remarkable.

Thanks for listening to Think in Translation. This show is made possible by the support of The Space and Creative Scotland. For more information about Vagabond Voices and Think in Translation, including blog posts exploring translation from various angles, visit vagabondvoices.co.uk.

Our music, “Puid Metsa”, is written and performed by Matthew Hyde and his Quintet.

The show is produced and edited by Alex Blott.