New Scotland’s Literature of the World

One Friday morning in late August 2014 I attended a seminar at the University of Stirling on how literature, Scottish literature, reflects or fails to represent the devolution. A participant remarked that within the British Empire, the English ran their emporium of commerce while the Scots built an imperium of spirit. Scottish spirit. In this view of the imperial British past, Scots wrote, invented, founded universities and educated the ballooning British Empire from Canada to South Africa, India, Australia, and to New Zealand. Unfortunately – according to this view – in the wake of the Great War when settler colonies were turned into dominions complete with home rule, these pioneers of Scottish spiritual imperium speedily morphed into Canadians, South Africans, Anglo-Indians, Australians or New Zealanders. The spiritual imperium of Scotland disappeared two generations earlier than the English’s emporium of commerce.

All of a sudden, Scotland appeared even poorer than it had been before joining the English imperial project of the British Empire. The spirit declined, though it was not extinguished, even when Scotland became just a northern appendix of England in the decades that followed World War II. Hence, the long-striven-for project that bore fruit in the form of devolution and the Scottish parliament, remains soulless, a political feat that needs grounding in the spirit in order to be revived. The spirit of the nation. The Scottish nation in a future independent, or maximally devolved, Scotland is to be civic, open, tolerant and all-embracing. But to be true to itself, this nation also must be a phoenix reborn from the long-gone-cold ashes of the aforementioned Scottish imperium of spirit.

Today’s literature of Scotland, seen in this classical Herderian manner as the most direct emanation of this spirit, is rachitic. Great works are few and far between, rarely noticed and appreciated outside Scotland itself (though with the unique exception of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting). What is to be done? A suitably grand national literature should be created to meet the Scottish nation’s renewed desire for spiritual greatness. But at the seminar no recipe was offered on how to reach this commendable goal.

What is more, numerous unanswered dilemmas remain. How can a Scottish national literature become Scottish, if most of Scotland’s authors write in English, the official and national language of tens of states and nations? There are half a billion or so speakers and users of English across the world, while Scotland’s population is a tad more than five million, equal for that matter to that of Slovakia. Statistically speaking, the distribution of talent in Scotland, even when intensively nurtured, will not yield a hugely disproportionate number of excellent English-language poets, novelists and playwrights who could decisively shake the Anglophone world and lead to the recreation of the proposed pre-1918 Scottish imperium of spirit. Arguably, any literary greatness in Scotland will hover within the statistical range of Slovakia, with a similarly intensively literate and well-read population.

Strangely, the speaker chose to shun Scots and Gaelic – Scotland’s two native languages – focusing exclusively on literature created in English. This idiom of the literati from the English capital of London rules supreme in Scotland nowadays, so there is no way to escape its influence. But can it alone be employed for rebuilding the Scottish imperium of spirit, with no concessions to native Scots and Gaelic? A Scottish national literature written monolingually in English strikes me as a rather inauthentic project, a reflection rendered in highfaluting words of the current status of Scotland as an appendix of England. Furthermore, if the new Scotland is to be open, civic and European, maybe its literature should embrace the languages of all its inhabitants, including the New Scots, who arrived from all over the world and the European Union, and write in a plethora of languages.

The project of a Scottish national literature in English appears eerily unScottish and un-civic. Do Scotland and the Scottish nation need a national literature at all? It is falling for the nineteenth-century culturalist model of nationhood that became the norm across continental Europe. Nowadays, in this age of global flows, limiting a literature to a nation or state instead of promoting greatness would stunt its development. Most states and nations extant at present in the world do not have and do not aspire to spawn their own national literatures. Writers are active in the literature-less or literature-poor polities, but their goal is not to add to some national literatures, but mostly to earn a living and, if possible, to create a great work of lasting importance that would seize the imaginations of readers across a continent or two.

This majority of states that do not strive for a national literature are not diminished by its absence. Job creation, security, education and universal access to the internet may be seen as more pressing and practical priorities. These polities and their nations do not ‘exist less’ than their counterparts who enjoy national literatures.

Perhaps, Scotland could excel differently, if it is to be noticed also for the creativity of its inhabitants, and not only for the beauty of its ragged coasts, lochs, Highlands and golf. National literatures were an invention of the age of nationalism a century and a half ago. New approaches to literature should be tried out in this interconnected world of today, where books and computer programs are available in over 600 languages, written in tens of different scripts.

The biggest dilemma faced by the Anglosphere is the closing of the English-speaking mind in the confines of its own language. Granted, the confines are spacious, and one may never notice them, but they are confines nevertheless. And at some point, instead of the open steppe stretching beyond the horizon, you find yourself standing at the feet of a huge wall, unable to scale it. This wall is the minuscule amount of translations from other languages into English, a phenomenon reinforced by shunning other languages already at school in English-speaking countries. No more than three percent of novels, collections of short stories and poetry in Anglophone bookshops are translations. At the same time, translations amount to about half of the fiction on offer in German, French, Italian, Russian or Spanish bookstores. The percentage of translations is even higher in the case of languages spoken by smaller numbers of people. In Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland or Sweden over two-thirds of novels and poetry are translations from other languages.

It is with literary translations that Scotland could open the overheated and increasingly incestuous hothouse of the Anglophone mind. This would put the country back on the intellectual map of the world as a bold innovator and a distinguished player in world culture, hitting well above its minuscule weight. In turn, such a decision to promote the translating of the globe’s literature into English, Gaelic and Scots would open Scotland even wider to the world, instead of closing it in the narrow cabin of a nationally construed literature.

Employing the underutilized human capital of immigrants, those well-versed in foreign languages that are native to them, could be the way forward. They might team up with persons excelling in literary English. The language experts would provide the latter with so-called philological (that is, working) translations of commendable works from the 600 odd languages in which literature is published. Next, specialists in the English turn of phrase would polish the translations, turning to native-speakers for advice and comment. Although it is impossible for Scotland – and even for all of Britain – to produce a group of expert literary translators from among the local English-speaking population to cover all the above-mentioned 600 languages, the method of teaming up with native-speakers would provide a means of scaling this seemingly insurmountable obstacle in no time.

Not only would Scotland’s publishers corner the Anglophone book market of fiction but they would also re-open the wealth of the world’s culture for other, demographically and territorially much bigger English-speaking countries. Scotland’s forward-looking intellectual emporium of world literature translated from over 600 hundred languages into English (but also into Gaelic and Scots) would fulfill its dreams of renewed intellectual grandeur without imprisoning the country in a cabin of inward looking national literature.

September 2014
Dùn Dé / Dundee