Review: Scottish Spleen Edited by Tom Hubbard, James W. Underhill and Stewart Sanderson

Spitting Spleen into the Streets

Scottish Spleen is a Scots-language translation of a selection of Baudelaire’s prose poems, collected posthumously as ‘le Spleen de Paris,’ with a couple of better-known works from Les Fleurs du Mal also included.  The small collection comes with a comparatively lengthy foreword making a passionate case for the validity of the work of putting Baudelaire into Scots, arguing that to do so brings across the demotic and the vital in the Frenchman’’s work.   The poems demand you approach them wholeheartedly, that you accept the artifice of 19th century French rendered in to 21st century Scots.  James W. Underhill’s ‘‘Crood-bathin’’ is about the ability of a poet, in a crowd, to be “able at will to be baith hissel or any onybody else.” This is what the best of the poets do here, embodying a long-dead cosmopolitan French Poet in their own work, a process which, in his own introduction, Underhill likens to the Scottish hallowe’en tradition of guising.  He also claims that the syntax of modern Scots has more in common with Baudelaire’s original French than some standard English does.  This may or may not be true, but certainly the best of them do fizz and sparkle with life, feeling more conversational and less hidebound than the equivalent English renderings may.  They are scabrous and foul in places, tender and surprising.  Tom Hubbard’s ‘The Dug and The Scent-Bottle’ is a highlight, which demands to be read aloud to anyone in earshot with a rhythm that the best poems in this volume share: urgent, conversational and beautifully suited to the scots vocabulary.  The translations are from a number of pens in different flavours of scots, with spelling and orthography not standardised, allowing each poet’s voice, or rather, each poet’s version of the voice of Baudelaire, to come through.  Despite this, the collection feels unified in purpose and tone.

It is a real shame that Robert R Calder’s translation of ‘Chacun sa Chimère’ as ‘Ilkane his ain Chimaera’ should render “la surface arrondie de la planète se dérobe à la curiosité du regard humain,” as ‘The planet taks aff her veils for the human ee’s inquisitiveness,’ which seems to be a mangling of the verb se dérober (to slip away, occlude) with its opposite (‘taks aff her veils,’ here)  It doesn’t make much sense in context and mars what is otherwise a surprisingly faithful collection. There are many turns of phrase I suspected to be cut wholly from translators’ cloth which turn out to have a fitting analogue in the original, which is pleasing.  All of this is for nothing though, if the poetry does not connect, through these layers of accretion: of being a translation, of being a translation into Scots. Thankfully the poetry  does connect, on the whole.  Tom Hubbard’s ‘Invitatioun to the Stravaig’ has a sincerity and a  tenderness to it that makes it feel spontaneous, and punches through the patina of age and reputation to deliver a gruff emotional impact.

An odd collection then that requires a commitment from readers similar to that of Tapsalteerie in putting it out in the first place; a willingness to revivify the hidebound Baudelaire of leatherbound anthologies and send him spitting spleen into the streets.  On these terms, it succeeds.

Sredni Vashtar


Tapsalteerie, RRP£5.00, 34pp