His Schmäh Is Like A Red, Red Rose…

An bilingual edition of Robert Burns’ cantata the Jolly Beggars, in a masterful translation by Austrian poet Dieter Berdel

Bob Hewis performing next to a painting of Robert Burns | Photo: Hans Labler/Robert Burns Society Austria

Toni Burger, Joseph Lorenz (standing) and Werner Brix at the Robert Burns event | Photo: Hans Labler/Robert Burns Society Austria

Toni Burger, Joseph Lorenz (standing) and Werner Brix at the Robert Burns event | Photo: Hans Labler/Robert Burns Society Austria

 

Bob Hewis performing next to a painting of Robert Burns | Photo: Hans Labler/Robert Burns Society Austri

As a regular at the monthly open mic of Vienna’s Labyrinth Poets, one expects novelty at Café Kafka.  Still, the bilingual recital of Robert Burns’ The Jolly Beggars in early February set a new standard. Skillfully translated by Austrian poet Dieter Berdel, The Jolly Beggars, a ‘Cantata in Scottish Dialect’, became Die Fidön Bettla: A Kantatn im Wiener Dialekt. In a slender volume complete with tartan cover and a double glossary for difficult Scottish and Viennese term, the new edition in Scots/Weanerisch published by the Austrian Robert Burns Society was launched at this year’s Burns Night celebrations on the Jan. 25, which marked the 250th birthday of Scotland’s national poet.

Much of Robert Burns’ work can be read (or heard) as a celebration of his native language. He wrote The Jolly Beggars (also known as ‘Love and Liberty’) in a mixture of the Scots language and Scottish English dialect, resulting in an idiom that Berdel describes as ‘volksnah’: close to the people. The particular people Burns brings us close to in his cantata are a group of vagabonds carousing in ‘Poosie-Nansie’s’ tavern (Berdel: ‘Susis Hosnschdoi’).

Burns is said to have witnessed an actual beggars’ revel in 1785, in a dross house at Mauchline near where he lived, and recorded his impressions soon afterwards. In a succession of narrative recitatives and airs, he introduces a Sodger and his drab, a Merry Andrew or fool, a pickpocket carling, a little fiddler, and the caird or tinker: ‘a merry core / O’ randie, gangrel bodies’, or, in Berdel’s terms, ‘a fidöla Haufn, a wüde Bettlablodan’, who obviously knew how to party. The solo pieces are interspersed with choruses, and all sections are sung to popular tunes.

At Café Kafka, the buoyant Scottish verse was rendered convincingly by Bob Hewis, while Dieter Berdel declaimed his equally humorous translation in ‘Weanerisch’, sounding like a character from the legendary “Kaisermühlen Blues” comedy soap, who happens to speak in rhymes:

An’ ay he gies the tozie drab

The tither skelpin kiss,

While she held up her greedy gab 

Just like an aumous dish

Und dea gibt owa a ned feu,

a Bussl dera Nixn, 

offn schded ia giarechs Meu

wia a Schbendnbixn

 

The ‘extraordinary talents’ of ‘Scotland’s favorite son’ were much admired by the young Walter Scott, for instance, and Robert Burns has been a notable influence on many later generations of Scottish writers. During her visit to Vienna in spring 2008, novelist and poet Jackie Kay recounted how her childhood experience of Burns Suppers, which traditionally featured Burns’ famous Address To a Haggis at the piping and cutting of this curious national dish, had first inspired her to write poetry.

Toni Burger, Joseph Lorenz (standing) and Werner Brix at the Robert Burns event | Photo: Hans Labler/Robert Burns Society Austria

However, while Burns’ proto-romantic patriotism certainly endeared him to his own people, his reputation is by no means limited to Scotland. The mere existence of an Austrian Robert Burns Society testifies to the tremendous international popularity of the Scottish bard, whose memory is celebrated each Jan. 25 all over the world. On that day, people meet and, after consuming large quantities of haggis and whisky, raise their glasses in a last common effort for a quavering chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ At the Austrian Burns Society, the song was sung in Scottish and Viennese dialects. In fact, there are marked similarities between the two, as Dieter Berdel notes in his ‘Eifiearung’ (introduction) to The Jolly Beggars: like Scottish, Weanerisch is ‘volksnah’ – a strong, authentic mode of expression – and both dialects have rural origins.

All in all, the bilingual edition is a rewarding read, the more so as The Jolly Beggars is, undeservedly, one of Burns’ lesser-known works. In his creative translation, Berdel has managed to capture the defiant spirit of Burns’ lines while his rhymes sound remarkably unforced:

 

A fig for those by law protected!

Liberty’s a glorious feast!

Courts for cowards were erected,

Churches built to please the priest!      

A Pfui auf d Baragrafngneissa!

De Freiheid is a bozzn Fest!

Grichtshef san fia d Hosnscheissa

und d Kiachn is a Bfoffnnest!

 

The Jolly Beggars/De Fidön Bettla 

By Robert Burns, trans. Dieter Berdel

Leporello bookshop

9., Liechtensteinstraße 17,

(01) 319 86 12

(01) 319 19 54

service@leporello.at

www.leporello.at

 

or by special order

The Austrian Robert Burns Society

www.robertburns.at.

 

Julia Novak is founder and artistic director of Vienna Lit, a literary society dedicated to the promotion of literature/s in English and hosts of the bi-annual Vienna Lit Festival. She is a research assistant at the English Department at the University of Vienna, editor of Vienna:Views (Literaturverlag Luftschacht), a collection of literary texts about Vienna, and author of a book on reading groups (“Gemeinsam Lesen”, Lit-Verlag).


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