Monday, 27 April 2009

Nationalism and the North

Reading Tom Gallagher's account at Harry's Place of the (to me, almost surrealistically strange) rapprochement between Scotland's Nationalist Party and extreme Islamist groupings in Scottish society, I was struck by a couple of paragraphs:
Scotland is enjoying an elaborate cultural makeover. A new stereotypical collective identity is being unfurled. It involves repackaging poets, artists and musicians as troubadours for Nationalism as well as high-profile festivals in the winter months where public participation will be tirelessly urged irrespective of the Scottish weather, and Gaelic lettering and Saltire flags emblazoned on every conceivable public space.

Such cultural propaganda, when tried out in Ireland, was mercilessly lampooned by satirists like Flann O’Brien. But in Scotland our stand-up comics and acerbic columnists for a long time have only had the United States, the wicked bankers, and despoilers of the environment in their sights. So the SNP’s bid to have us all marching in step to the same patriotic tunes along rain-washed Scottish streets has a good chance of success.
This cultural campaign is not something that has appeared overnight, and it has roots which can be observed. A few years ago, after more than 30 years of absence from the country where I was raised and educated, though not born, I decided to accept an invitation to take part in some events in Scotland that were, at least in part, funded by an ambitious pan-Nordic project called Network North. The project aimed, in the words of the official brochure,

to further links between the Nordic countries and adjacent areas in the northwest of Europe, particularly Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland. The project focused on the creation of a network of contacts and co-operative ventures in the fields of contemporary art and culture, including drama, folk music, music, film, literature and visual art.
Quite why the project targeted Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland, to the exclusion of, say, England or the Netherlands (both equally, one might have thought, "adjacent areas", and a part of northern Europe) is still not clear to me, but at any rate it gave rise to some new ideas and meetings. One of those was a week in 2002 at the Arvon Foundation house at Moniack Mhor, in a picturesque setting on a hillside in Invernessshire. This was a residential seminar for Nordic, Scottish and Welsh poets and their English-language translators, among whom were the Finland-Swedish poet Gösta Ågren, the Norwegian poet Arne Rust, the Icelandic poet Thorarinn Eldjárn, the translator Bernard Scudder (who died in 2007), the Shetland poet Christine Da Luca and your truly. The week was certainly interesting. and some of the translation projects and workshops were probably unique (one of them involved a poem in Shetland dialect being translated into Welsh and Danish). The New Zealander Robyn Marsack of the Scottish Poetry Library, which organized the event, wrote an account of it here. But I was struck by some of the assumptions that seemed to underlie the proceedings - particularly the notion that there was some sort of link between Scotland's (or Shetland's?) aspirations to independence and the actual status of Nordic nations in the world today.

This sense of an extra-literary agenda was further reinforced by another Network North project I took part in, again hosted by the SPL, which involved the creation of a facing-text anthology of Finnish poetry, with translations into English and Scottish dialect. This time there was a definite sense of cultural parallelism - Finnish and Scottish poetry were somehow being seen as being related in a way that would not be true, for example, of Finnish and English poetry.

Although I was pleased to be invited to these events, and in some ways had looked forward to them as a kind of "homecoming", I remember finding it strange that at readings or simply in introductions I was usually presented as "the translator David McDuff from London". I'd have preferred to be introduced as "the Scottish translator David McDuff", or maybe just "the translator David McDuff", but found that wherever I went and whomever I spoke to, I was invariably seen as a foreigner "of Scottish parentage". This still seems odd to me, and it's one of the reasons why, apart from a visit to the St Andrews Poetry Festival with the Finnish poets Lauri Otonkoski and Anni Sumari in 2005, I haven't been back to Scotland again. Perhaps I was wrong in the assumptions I made at the time - but, having read Tom Gallagher, I'm not so sure that I was.

4 comments:

  1. These regional groupings can be problematical, as language, history and other factors never overlap consistently.

    The Nordic Council has survived for a long time, but recently stopped its very good literary publication, not even moving it to the internet, as with "Books From Finland".

    Nowadays, it would seem sensible for cooperation to be extended to the Baltic countries, as there is plenty of literature there. But the Baltic countries have little in common with one another except for being occupied by Russia. Their literatures and cultures look in rather different directions. In religious terms, Estonians look to (Lutheran) Finland, the Lithuanians to (Catholic) Poland, and the poor old Letts are left as piggy in the middle. Linguistically Latvia and Lithuania are linked, and this time the Estonians are the odd one out. Knowledge about Latvia in Estonia is relatively circumscribed. And so on.

    Maybe bilateral cultural cooperation with the UK would work better, i.e. one country at a time. If you bring a group of, say, Danish writers over to Britain, British readers, not the most outward-looking readership, can take them on board in more compact doses. Next year, the Norwegians, then the Latvians, and so on. This would build up a knowledge of the Nordic and Baltic countries without overwhelming the audience in one go.

    As for the identity of the translator, I am, technically-speaking, a half-Dutch Englishman, if you take into account where my mother was born. But as I was educated in England alone, I have no problem with my identity as an Englishman. However, when the UK as a whole is mentioned in some languages, the adjective becomes "English" or its equivalent. This can cause confusion.

    Scholarship in Scotland seems to me to look to Scandinavia more than English scholars do. That is from my English perspective. Whether this is really true, I cannot tell. And the Arts Councils are split up per constitutive part of the UK.

    So the concept of nation, language and identity can give translators and the organisers of literary events a lot to think about.

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  2. >>As for the identity of the translator, I am, technically-speaking, a half-Dutch Englishman, if you take into account where my mother was born.<<

    I'm a wholly Scottish Scot - i.e. both of my parents were born and bred in Scotland - but I had the misfortune not to have been born there. I've learned that if one isn't born in Scotland, one will never be accepted as a Scot by other Scots.

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  3. Luckily for me, the Dutch are almost too easy-going regarding foreign provenance if you come from a neighbouring country. Even though I wasn't born in the Netherlands, where I've now lived for nigh on 20 years, a Brit like me, especially one that pronounces the language pretty well, blends in with the wallpaper. I rarely play the Englishman card. But it is, of course, there up my sleeve if needed. Englishmen are still regarded as slightly stuffy gentlemen, though most of my younger compatriots on short visits to Amsterdam will be wearing scruffs, getting stoned or pissed, or egging on their comrades to have a quick one with a lady sitting in a window plying her trade in the Red Light District.

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  4. The word "English" is slippery enough to cause chaos. In Anselm Hollo's introduction to his translation of Saarikoski's later poems, he praises Herbert Lomas as (this is from memory) "a fine English poet who has translated Saarikoski into British English".

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