Oor Man in China returns – to a prize for Chinese poetry in Scots

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A Border man’s translation of 8th-century Chinese poetry into Scots has impressed 2012 Stephen Spender Prize judges. The national competition challenges people to translate a poem from any modern or classical language into English.

Among the 51 languages entered this year – including Bengali, Tamil, Sicilian, Ukranian, Kurdish, Dutch and Irish – Brian Holton’s “innovative” and “creative” Scots translation of Spring Sun on the Watterside Clachan by the classical Chinese poet Du Fu was commended in the open category.

Brian, a former Galashiels Academy pupil, Selkirk museum curator and presenter on BBC Radio Tweed, is what Borderers would call “a man o’ pairts”. The 63-year old is hailed as the foremost translator from Chinese in his generation, and the only currently-publishing Chinese-Scots translator in the world.

Now living in Melrose, retired from academic teaching posts in the UK and China, Brian can dedicate more time to his Scots and English translations of Chinese poetry – and expand the two-metre long line of his own books on the shelf.

“I’ll never get bored,” he told TheSouthern, adding: “I’ll never be able to read all the surviving texts of 3,000 years. It’s some of the greatest literature ever written – and less than one per cent of it has been translated. That’s a hell of a toybox.”

Brian first experienced languages and travel at an early age – but in Africa, rather than Asia. He and his twin brother Harvey were born in Galashiels Cottage Hospital in 1949, to their mother Isobel, a natural Border Scots speaker with family connections in Berwickshire and Selkirk, and their Irish father Cyril.

The twins and their younger brother Norman grew up in Nigeria, where Cyril – a commando in the Second World War – learned local languages in jobs varying from buying hunters’ animal skins to the civil service. Cyril was bilingual in English and French, and fluent in the African languages of Hausa, West African Pidgin and Yoruba.

“Dad would play language games with us, asking us to ‘pass the sugar’ in Swahili,” recalls Brian.

Naturally, when the Holtons returned to the Borders, Brian chose languages – Latin, Greek, French and English – to study for his Highers at Galashiels Academy.

“The big moment of illumination for me was standing outside Jo’s Cafe in Selkirk when a friend asked, ‘Are oo gan swimmin?’.

“I realised all my life I’ve been speaking two languages. There’s at least two tongues in the Borders – what you speak at school, what you speak at the kirk, at the office, across the Tweed ...”

But it was a book of Chinese poetry he found in the school library in his final year that, he said, “blew me away”.

Chinese poetry, he explains, has “a clarity, a sense of light of openness. It’s like the beautiful Chinese vases you see: so simple and blindingly perfect.”

To help illustrate the point, he quotes the music critic Alfred Einstein (Albert’s cousin): “Mozart’s music is like clear water: only when you study it do you realise how deep it is.”

Brian added: “A lot of these books are great because they slap you between the eyes and change you. Reading Confucius as a young man changed my life: he teaches you tolerance, compassion and patience.”

He graduated from Edinburgh University top of his class (summa cum laude) in Chinese Studies, and went on to a postgraduate research degree at Durham University – two institutions where in the 1990s he later taught modern and classical Chinese language and literature.

After his student days were over, Brian returned to the Borders during the late 1970s and for a while lived in Yarrow, around Melrose and in Ettrick until the late 1980s, when he moved to the people’s Republic of China to teach English at Ningbo University.

Later, during the 1990s, he became the first programme director of the Chinese-English/English-Chinese translation programme at Newcastle University, before taking, in 2000, the post of assistant professor in Chinese-English translation at Hong Kong Polytechnic University – where he had to learn a new language.

Brian studied Mandarin and classical Chinese, but, he said: “Cantonese is a different language – a bit like the difference between French and Portuguese.”

Mandarin is the standard literary and official form of Chinese, while Cantonese is a form of Chinese spoken mainly in Hong Kong and south-east China.

Now Brian, the last surviving Holton brother, has come back to live in Melrose after 24 years away from this region where he will still be remembered as a weel-kent voice on BBC Radio Tweed, writing and presenting a programme called Life in Scots about the Border tongue.

During the 1980s he also worked in Selkirk for the Ettrick and Lauderdale Museum Service, helping to curate Halliwell’s House Museum, and penning a pamphlet for visitors called The Ring o’ the Toun.

The one-time member of the Hong Kong Ceilidh Band still plays the traditional music of Scotland, Ireland and Northumberland on his whistles, dulcimers, guitar, bouzouki, mandolin and Scottish smallpipes.

Read Brian’s commended poem at www.stephen-spender.org.