Brian’s ‘staunin ma lane’ as a Chinese poem interpreter

Brian Holton of Melrose with his new book of Chinese verses which he has translated into Scots called, 'Staunin Ma Lane'.
Brian Holton of Melrose with his new book of Chinese verses which he has translated into Scots called, 'Staunin Ma Lane'.

Borders language expert Brian Holton is launching his 16th book this evening in Melrose – unveiling a collection of Chinese poetry tranlated into Scots.

Staunin Ma Lane is a fairly unique specimen, in that the author translates classic Chinese poems into not only English, but also Scots as well.

In fact, Brian is listed in Wikipedia as “the only currently-publishing Chinese-Scots translator in the world”.

“One of my aims is to show Chinese poetry is not neccessarily as serious as people might expect,” he says. “There are a good range of voices to be heard.”

It turns out that there are social similarities between Chinese poets of the eighth century and Scots of today, and their poems can bring to light an affinity with alcohol, loneliness and philosophical meandering.

Take, for instance, Li Bai’s ‘Bouzin Ma Lane Ablow the Mune’ or, in English, ‘Boozing Alone Under the Moon’ which has the first line “Amang the flouers wi a pig o whisky” and speaks of the writer’s relationship with his moonshadow, fearing the almost inevitable time when sobriety ensures their parting, and the decision to stay drunk and go “gallivantin thegither the galaxie owre”.

He says the translations are not what you would find in a dictionary, as “that sort of drably mechanical ‘accuracy’ does not make poetry, and a poem that doesn’t move the reader is like a joke that isn’t funny”.

Brian and his twin brother Harvey were born in Galashiels, to their mother Isobel, a natural Borders 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.

Moving back to Scotland, Brian attended Galashiels Academy, where, like his father, he found a flair for languages, studying Latin, Greek, French and English, all at Higher Level, and went on to gain an MA first class Hons (summa cum laude) in Chinese Studies from the University of Edinburgh in 1975.

He taught the art of English/Chinese translation at Newcastle University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University – where he had to learn a new language – Cantonese.

Locally, he is known as a musician, a former voice on Radio Tweed, and for helping curate Halliwell’s Museum in Selkirk.

He is now based in Melrose, and spends most of his time translating from Chinese – working a lot with the works of ‘Misty’ poet Yang Lian, whose poems had been forbidden in his home country and a warrant issued for his arrest.

With Staunin Ma Lane having been published, he is now working his way through the translation into English of a Chinese spy novel.

Staunin Ma Lane launches tonight in the George and Abbotsford Hotel in Melrose at 7.45pm.