Language academic Brian’s efforts translated into success

Souters may remember Brian Holton from the 1980s as a weel-kent voice on BBC Radio Tweed, or as the man who first wrote The Ring o’ the Toun and the history displays in Selkirk’s newly-built Halliwells Museum, writes Sandy Neil.

Now, after 24 years away teaching Chinese at universities in China and the UK, Brian has retired back to the Borders as a prizewinning poet and translator.

This month the 63-year-old’s translation of an eighth-century Chinese poem by Du Fu into Scots, called Spring Sun on the Watterside Clachan, was commended by judges for the Stephen Spender Prize, an annual national competition challenging people to translate a poem from any language into English.

Certainly this ‘man o’ pairts’ has been busy since moving away from Yarrow and Ettrick – he 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, 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.

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 Second World War commando – learned local languages in jobs varying from buying hunters’ animal skins to the civil service. Bilingual in English and French, he was fluent in the African languages of Hausa, West African Pidgin and Yoruba.

Naturally, when the Holtons returned to the Borders, Brian chose languages – Latin, Greek, French and English – to study for his Highers at Galashiels Academy. He told The Wee Paper: “My big moment of illumination 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.”

After his student days were over, Brian returned to the Borders during the late 1970s, until 1989 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.

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