“To a Mouse” – Translation and Notes

(Original Text)  
To a Mouse 
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, 
November, 1785 
To a Mouse
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough,
November, 1785
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie! 
Thou need na start awa sae hasty, 
Wi’ bickering brattle! 
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee, 
Wi’ murdering pattle
Soft, teensy, cowerin’, nervous beast, 
Oh, gosh, what a panic’s in your breast! 
There ain’t no need for such doggone haste, 
Wit’ scurrying scuttle! 
I’d be a real ass if I gave chase, 
Wit’ murdering shovel! 
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion 
Has broken Nature’s social union, 
An’ justifies that ill opinion 
Which makes thee startle 
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion 
An’ fellow-mortal
I’m awful sorry Man’s dominion 
Has broken Nature’s social union, 
And justifies that bad opinion 
Which makes yeh startle 
At me, yeh poor, earth-born companion 
An’ fellow mortal! 
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live! 
A daimen-icker in a thrave 
‘S a sma’ requet; 
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave, 
An’ never miss’t!
Ain’t no doubt as yuh sometime a’thieve; 
Who cares? Poor thing, we all got to live! 
A few piddlin’ grits out of the whole? 
Too small to reckon; 
I’d feel right blessed to a’have the loss, 
I wouldn’t care none! 
Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin! 
Its silly wa’s the win’s are strewin! 
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane, 
O’ foggage green! 
An’ bleak December’s win’s ensuing, 
Baith snell an’ keen! 
Yer little shack, all up in ruin! 
Its flimsy walls the winds’re strewin’! 
And nothing, now, to build a new one, 
Of mosses green! 
An’ bleak December’s wind’s ensuin’, 
Blows sharp n’ mean! 
Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste, 
An’ weary Winter comin fast, 
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast, 
Thou thought to dwell, 
Till crash! the cruel coulter past 
Out thro’ thy cell. 
You seen the fields laid bare and long, 
And weary Winter comin’ strong, 
Snug as a bug, beneath the throng, 
You thought to sleep, 
Till crash! My heavy plow was brung 
Out through yer keep. 
That wee bit heap o’ leaves and stibble, 
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble! 
Now thou’s turned out, for a’ thy trouble, 
But house or hald 
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble
An’ cranreuch cauld! 
That teensy heap of leaves n’ rubble, 
Has cost more than one weary nibble! 
Now y’alls homeless, fer all yer trouble, 
No house or hold, 
To shield from Winter’s sleet and dribble, 
And hoar-frost cold! 

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, 
In proving foresight may be vain: 
The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men 
Gang aft agley, 
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, 
For promis’d joy! 
But varmint, though fit to be tied, 
You show foresight may’s well be pride: 
The best-laid plans o’ Mice n’ Men 
Often go tits up, 
And shove our happy days aside, 
With a rough wallop! 
Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me! 
The present only toucheth thee: 
But Och! I backward cast my e’e, 
On prospects drear! 
An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see
I guess an’ fear
Still you’re real blessed, compared with me! 
Only the present makes you flee: 
But dag! Backward I can’t unsee, 
Those prospects dead! 
And forward, though I cannot see, 
I guess an’ dread! 

Translator’s Note 

Given an hour and a room full of poetry scholars, I could procure a list as long as my arm of people who are fans of Robert “Robbie” Burns. 

Born in the 1750’s, Burns is often seen as Scotland’s most famous poet, and for good reason. His usage of Lowland and broad Scottish dialect in his poetry launched him into popularity with pieces such as “Auld Lang Syne” and “To a Mouse.” However, when he was still alive, Burns was generally seen as an anomaly and a genius who merely had the misfortune of having come from humble beginnings. The prejudices against Scottish people by the British were at their height during the time Burns was active, so his choice of common Scots dialect and subject matter were generally seen as low, crude, and unbecoming of someone with his literary skill. 

The aim of my translation project is to bring one of Burns’ most famous poems— “To a Mouse”—into a similarly derided American dialect: Appalachian. I have done this not simply because Appalachian peoples (“hillbillies”) are generally viewed by culturally “pure” Americans in the same uncultured and crass way that Scots were viewed by the British, but also because there have been studies that have uncovered direct linguistic links between ancient Scottish dialect and what is perceived as “hillbilly slang,” as I will discuss later.  

The version of the poem I chose to use as my source text is from the Scottish Poetry Library website. Initially I had intended to use the Poetry Foundation version because, throughout high school and college, that had been the website all of my classes used for their poetry sources. However, after searching the Internet for the definitions of many dialectal words on the Poetry Foundation version such as “sleeket” and “cowrin,” I soon discovered that these words weren’t spelled correctly. After looking over several other translations, I found the SPL version and checked over it to see what was different between it and the PF version. The contrast was mostly superficial, with the SPL version having more truncated words (such as “o’ Mice an’ Men” rather than “of Mice and Men”). However, from what I’ve read about Burns’ dialectal style, the increased softening of these words seemed more aligned with the mood of the poem. I’ve kept the italics the SPL version deemed necessary in the original, but in my translation I haven’t italicized anything because, having already changed the structure of some of the lines, I don’t want to add undue stress upon these changes and further distance it from the original.

“To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785” is a poem of eight six-line stanzas. It is written mostly in iambic tetrameter, with lines four and six of each stanza written in iambic dimeter. Since much of this poem is written in “Lallan” (Lowland Scots) dialect, it was sometimes tricky to maintain both the meter and the rhyme scheme while also making sure the meaning and the emotion of the words didn’t get lost. The original poem fluctuates between the amount of syllables on lines one, two, three, and five of each stanza—sometimes there are eight syllables, sometimes nine. Within each stanza, however, the number is uniform. For example, a stanza with eight syllables on line one would not have nine syllables on line three. Though sometimes my translation deviates from the original with its number of syllables, it is never by more than one or two, and it always matches with its comrades within the stanza. I also attempted to translate much of the poem into exact rhymes when spoken with an Appalachian accent. Certain rhymes such as “ruin” and “new one” would be slant rhymes when spoken in MAE (Mainstream American English), but when spoken with a “twang” of the intended accent the rhymes line up perfectly.  

When finding linguistic equivalency, I did seek another translation and eventually found one by a man named Michael Burch. However, I did not like the things he changed in order to “modernize” it for today’s readers. For example, he changes the second line of the first stanza from a statement into a question. This alteration turns “O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!” into “Why’s such a panic in your breast?” The conversion of an exclaimed observation into a quest for the source of the mouse’s panic changes the tone of the narrator. Instead of fretting about the mouse’s distress and panic, the translated narrator is wondering why the mouse is terrified, which goes against the overall tone of the piece. Burns’ narrator never questions the mouse’s terror, instead accepting it and delving into the events leading to the inciting incident. My translation, “Oh, gosh, what a panic’s in your breast!” keeps the emotion of the statement without distorting the emotion that inspires it. I didn’t change much about that line, because the original reflects, for the most part, standard English, and if Burns didn’t “dialectize” (I just made that word up) the line, I shouldn’t feel the need to either.  

In Roman Jakobson’s essay, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” the author explains that, along with interlingual (from one language to another) and intralingual (between two versions of the same language) translation, there is a third and extremely important form of translation: Intersemiotic translation. This type of translation is, as the root suggests, based in Semiotics, or the study of symbols. This crucial part of translation ensures that the new version will not only reflect linguistic equivalency to the source text, but also carry the same weight of meaning. To pick on Burch once more, his translation of the second line of the third stanza has translated “poor beastie” (original) into “friend” (Burch translation). These two words aren’t equivalent; a “beastie” is defined by the OED as “An insect or other small animal,” whereas a friend is “A person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection.” Since “beastie” is a very Scottish-sounding word, and it was difficult to come up with an equivalent in Appalachian, I chose in my translation to generalize the address into “poor thing,” so as to objectify the mouse as an “other” as Burns has done, yet not limit the relationship between addresser and addressee as Burch has done. 

Though in his essay, “How to Read a Translation,” Lawrence Venuti cautions against limiting a translation by attaching too many cultural markers to it (thereby narrowing its understanding to a small space of time and culture), he also champions the selective use of certain varieties of tone to convey the original message of a text in the new version. The example he gives is of his own translation of an Italian noir fiction novel using what he calls “hardboiled prose” and certain cultural markers. In a similar way I’ve translated Burns from an outdated Scottish dialect to Appalachian, or “hillbilly,” something that may be more easy to understand in modern America yet is also culturally equivalent to what Burns accomplished. The slang words I’ve used, such as “tits up,” “varmint,” and “doggone” are meant to signify that this isn’t a formalist writing an apostrophe to a small, cowering creature, it is instead a humble farmer lamenting the destruction of a mouse’s home as winter nears. He may wax philosophical at the end, but even in Burns’ original work, it’s reserved for the last two stanzas as almost a suspension of thought before heading back to work. Thus, Venuti would have to agree that the use of dialect in this piece is crucial to our understanding of the rhetorical situation as well as the emotions with which the narrator views the destruction of the mouse’s nest. Jakobson, as well, would agree with this, considering he argues in his essay that meaning lies with the signifier rather than the signified. Thus, the mode of relating the information, the actual way I have translated, is where meaning lies, rather than the ever-elusive signified that the translated words point to. 

An article originally published in Scotland’s Magazine in 1959 entitled “Robert Burns and the Scots Tongue” sheds light on his use of dialect when it quotes Burns as saying to George Thomson, “I have not that command of the [English] language that I have of my native tongue. In fact, I think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish.” Here we see that it was partly due to ease of dialectal access that Burns wrote in this linguistic style. However, more interestingly, it was the fertile way in which he could express his thoughts in the Lallan tongue that moved Burns to structure his poetry this way. Thomson postulates that Burns attempted this style to evoke the spirit of folk-singers and storytellers in Scottish culture, many of whom Burns studied extensively.  

Who wants to hear about English literary bullies in the 1700’s? I know I do.

In Robert Lane Greene’s book, “You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity,” the author defines a particularly unpleasant sect of individuals who condemn and contest others who use (what they deem) improper grammar as “grouches/prescriptivists/ sticklers,” or “GPS.” These individuals will hold forth on the lack of attention paid to the proper usage of “their,” “there,” and “they’re,” as well as complaining that prepositions are improper words to end sentences with. 

Though these people stalk the walls of Facebook night and day in our modern world, they are not a product of today’s modernity. In fact, Robert Burns himself fell prey to many such individuals for his use of the Lallan voice in his poetry. One particular critic was William Cowper, a prominent 18th century English poet. In a letter to his friend Samuel Rose, Cowper commented that it would be “a pity if [Burns] should not hereafter divest himself of barbarism, and content himself with writing pure English, in which he appears perfectly qualified to excel. He, who can command admiration, dishonours himself if he aims no higher than to raise a laugh.” Much of the Western literary world at this time, like Cowper, saw Burns’ use of his native dialect not as a stylistic and linguistic choice but as a crutch of his common upbringing. 

According to David Sampson in his article, “Robert Burns: The Revival of Scottish Literature?” it wasn’t until after the death of Burns that scholars began to view his use of Scottish vernacular as its own unique poetic form rather than merely an unfortunate consequence of his low beginnings. Burns’ use of Lallan, according to English critics at the time, was simply “to raise a laugh,” and in fact the Scots dialect was not to be considered its own linguistic group, merely “dirty English” as opposed to the “pure” form used by Cowper and others of that century.  

This idea of “pure” English is one that Greene focuses on in his book. In “Chapter 4: More Equal than Others,” Greene discusses the cultural and hierarchal identities that go with certain forms of dialect. Ironically, as an example on page 102 he quotes a short excerpt from the very poem I have chosen to translate (I assure you, my project was decided before I read this chapter). By choosing to write in Lallan, Burns was consciously coding himself and his voice as distinctly Scottish, risking the understandably real consequences of assuming this underprivileged cultural identity. At the same time, one could argue that by using uniquely Scottish words and grammatical structure, Burns attempted to privilege his own dialect, excluding those who only interacted with “pure” English and, thus, may have had no understanding of Lallan.  

While Burns was finding success with his poetry in the United Kingdom, a burgeoning Scottish-American poetic movement was taking place in Appalachia. In an essay by Claude Newlin entitled, “Dialects on the Western Pennsylvania Frontier,” he explores the literary exploits of two Scottish-American poets: David Bruce and Hugh Henry Brackenridge. These two men wrote dueling poetry against each other in the local Appalachian newspaper and their pieces, sometimes mirthful and sometimes political, were written in a similar Lallan to that of Burns. The political intent in particular is interesting, as Newlin argues that the use of a working-class dialect such as Lallan was a useful one for David Bruce who, as a Federalist, wanted to appeal to the common folk as a trusted layman through his coarse and casual phrasing. I haven’t found any such intent by Burns on the political front, but this is understandable as his studies were primarily focused on folk songs and storytelling rather than politics. Another difference may lie in the political tension during the latter half of the 18th century for Americans.  

According to William Campbell in his studies on the cultural links between Scotland and Appalachia, the two regions were once connected by land before the continents split in ancient times. Even after Pangaea broke apart, when European settlers came to America in the 18th century, the majority of those who settled down in Appalachia were Scottish. Due to the mountainous and rural nature of the surroundings, pockets of cloistered communities preserved their own adapted version of Scottish dialect into what we would recognize today as, as I have said before, “hillbilly slang.” In verse three, I’ve added an a-prefix onto two of the verbs: “a’thieve” and “a’have.” This is to reflect Julia Dietrich’s study, “The Gaelic Roots of A-Prefixing in Appalachian English,” where she analyzes the pattern of attaching “a” to certain words and its prevalence in Appalachian English, then links it back to a common verbal pattern in Scottish Gaelic.  

Though my translation is far from perfect, as I am not a scholar of Appalachian dialect, I believe I have captured some of Burns’ spirit in this new version of his famous poem. The use of cultural coding in this translation is crucial to our understanding of the narrator’s plight, not only because of Robert Burns’ birthplace and upbringing but also because it prevents the domestication and gentrification of this piece into Mainstream American English, this prevention being to preserve the beauty of it through the lens of a distinct and underprivileged social class. The rich history of Appalachia has strong linguistic and genealogical ties to Scotland and it is only by understanding the words of Scotland’s National Bard through these ties that we may keep his memory alive.  

Sources Referenced:

Burch, Michael R. “To a Mouse, by Robert Burns.” Modern English translation by Michael R. Burch. January 2, 2018. Accessed at https://www.rcsdk12.org/cms/lib/NY01001156/Centricity/Domain/3732/to-a-mouse-translation.pdf on November 11, 2019. 

Burns, Robert. “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough,November, 1785.” Accessed at: https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/mouse/ on November 3, 2019. 

Campbell, William H. “The Thistle and the Brier: Historical Links and Cultural Parallels between Scotland and Appalachia.” Scottish Historical Review, vol. 84,2, no. 218, Oct. 2005, pp. 281–283. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3366/shr.2005.84.2.281. 

Dietrich, Julia C. “The Gaelic Roots of A-Prefixing in Appalachian English.” American Speech, vol. 56, no. 4, 1981, pp. 314–314. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/455136

Greene, Robert Lane. “You Are what you Speak.” Delacorte Press, 2011. 

Jakobson, Roman. “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation.” On Translation, edited by Reuben Arthur Brower, Harvard University Press, 1959. 

Low, Donald. Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage, TJ Press, 1974.  

Murison, David. “Robert Burns and the Scots Tongue.” Scotland’s Magazine, January 1959.  

Newlin, Claude M. “Dialects on the Western Pennsylvania Frontier.” American Speech, vol. 4, no. 2, 1928, pp. 104–110. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/452864.  

Sampson, David. “Robert Burns: The Revival of Scottish Literature?” Modern Language Review, vol. 80, no. 1, Jan. 1985, pp. 16–38. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2307/3729366. 

Venuti, Lawrence. “How to Read a Translation.” Translation Changes Everything, Routledge, 2013.  

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