The BOSLIT ‘Grand Tour’ (of Sorts)

Tom Hubbard was BOSLIT’s second Research Fellow, succeeding Paul Barnaby from 2000 to 2004. In this fascinating piece, he tells us about his experience, unearthing old translations of Scottish literature across European archives and libraries —and all this in the pre-internet world! It is thanks to the work of scholars like Tom that BOSLIT has now become a key resource for both the study and translation of Scottish literature. Much can be learnt from his 2000s peregrinations.

Researching and compiling BOSLIT was a pleasurable labour of Sisyphus. Unlike Albert Camus’s anti-hero, you had the feeling that, though the task could never be completed, you were always pushing the rock further up the slope. Such progress as you made could never be unmade. Or so you thought.

For years after the coffers had emptied and I’d taken my services elsewhere – in turn to Hungary, Ireland, the US and France – the lack of BOSLIT’s comprehensiveness still nagged at me. When I learned that the National Library of Scotland had ceased to host the database, I began to despair. The better part of four year’s work had, it seemed, come to nothing. The rock had fallen, never to be heezed again. Or so I thought.

A small committee was still functioning and preparing for the possibility of a revival of BOSLIT. I was aware that Zsuzsanna Varga and Kirsteen McCue, together with their team, were planning for a re-homing of the resource at Glasgow University. In January 2022 I learned that this would definitely go ahead. If  BOSLIT would never be complete – that’s a Platonic ideal – it now had a chance to achieve a more satisfying comprehensiveness. It’s my dearest hope, in retirement, that funds can be found for today’s bibliographers-in-waiting to take on the task, and in turn for a new generation of scholars to benefit from BOSLIT’s coverage in the furtherance of their own research. BOSLIT-revived promises new horizons in the study of Scottish and comparative literature.

I took up the post of research fellow for BOSLIT at Edinburgh University in July 2000; my working space (as a kind of Gastarbeiter) was in the NLS which was partnering the University for the project. My predecessor, Dr Paul Barnaby, had already created the records for Robert Burns, both post- and pre-1900. He had done a thorough job so I was able to concentrate on the translations of writers other than Burns. Inevitably the bulk of research and compilation would involve Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson; however, I was mindful of the particular challenge of the Scottish ballads, not only as regards their substantial influence on mainland European cultures during the nineteenth century, but their very anonymity. How could I research them in library catalogues and in bibliographies when there were no author entry points? Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border came partially to the rescue as, via Scott, I could locate translations of the ballads in anthologies and periodicals published across mainland Europe. Moreover, Paul Barnaby’s work on Burns served to identify those translators and publications likely to be interested in other areas of the Scottish literary corpus.

Part of the award from the then Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) was to be devoted to travel to mainland European libraries and research centres. It was important for me to augment my knowledge of European literary histories in order to follow up further clues as to possible printed sources, especially those most elusive, such as items hidden in periodicals and anthologies. It was still possible to perform a certain amount of such work from my base in the NLS, as digitisation  – though in its early stages – was under way in some countries. Helsinki University Library was good example of such progress. Moreover, access to Edinburgh University Library meant that I could borrow Russian texts containing rich bibliographical sources: Soviet and East/Central European bibliography was nothing if not intense.

Even so, for most of the material I was seeking, I would have to be physically present in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, Bern, Vienna, Copenhagen, Stockholm, The Hague, Madrid and Paris. Dr Zsuzsanna Varga – who was to write her Strathclyde University MSc dissertation on BOSLIT – was our assistant editor and we sent her to Lisbon in the light of her knowledge of Portuguese language and literature. Budapest and Bern were not funded by BOSLIT, as I was in these two cities for different  cultural reasons, but I found time to use the Hungarian and Swiss national libraries for BOSLIT purposes.

Prior to the Prague and Warsaw trip, I consulted Dr Jan Čulik, who lectures in Czech at Glasgow University. He was generous with his time and advice. In the Slavonic section of the library of University College, London, I increased my preparedness for the first BOSLIT search overseas. In the spring of 2002 I arrived in Prague and, as advised by Jan, visited a downtown institution which kept a wealth of bibliographical records on paper slips before heading for the National Library. In its café I met a gentleman from Hradec Kralové University: he had compiled a bibliography of Czech translations of Byron, whom we’d decided to add to our list of BOSLIT-able authors. ‘I was able to do such work without the régime breathing down my neck’, he told me. ‘Bibliography wasn’t considered ideological.’ At the Charles University I met Prof. Martin Procházka with whom, sixteen years later, I would co-convene a seminar on Scottish-Czech cultural relations at the ESSE conference in Brno. Martin and I took tea in a room with a superb view of Hradčany Castle and St Vitus Cathedral; he told me that Edwin Muir used to spend time in that room.

Entrance to the Slavonic Library (Prague)

There are rooms off the cloister of the Charles University and I eventually located the door of the Slavonic studies library. In the fumbled Slavonic mush that passed (if that’s the right word) for my Czech, I explained my mission and was presented with a pile of slips for me to fill in for such clues as I already possessed. The lady must have taken pity on me as she motioned me to follow her to a forbidding metal door. She unlocked it and we descended steps into the great dark. At last she switched on a light and directed me to a small table beside shelves of nineteenth-century periodicals. Eureka! It proved to be a paradise of BOSLIT gold. It was a gloomy place nevertheless and I was aware that outside and across the road were the streets once haunted by Kafka.  

On to Warsaw by train and a meeting with Prof. Aniela Korzeniowska (a native of Alloa) and her colleagues in the University’s English Department. I told them about BOSLIT and we agreed to keep in touch. Sixteen years later (again) I returned to the University for the Scotland in Europe conference at which I gave a keynote lecture and chaired a session on Poles in Scotland. In 2002, most of my time had been spent in the Biblioteka Narodowa.  

A tourist brochure in my digs informed me that one could be relaxed about walking in Warsaw after dark, and that it was ‘safer than Glasgow’.

The 2003 trip was to Austria. As a national library in a German-speaking country, Vienna seemed to me to be preferable to Berlin as it held materials in the many languages of the Hapsburg Empire, not least those of the Balkans. As for the German content, the national library yielded me all the documentation I could wish for and more, and I located a printed East German author bibliography with page after page of records of translations of Walter Scott. I photocopied these and was able to enter the information in BOSLIT when back at my desk in Edinburgh.

As usual, there were university meetings and with Dr Heidelinde Prüger, whose PhD was on William Soutar, I led a seminar on literary translation. Thence to Graz and my visiting lecture at that city’s University: I gave a historical survey of Scottish literature, pretty much on the lines of the lecture I’d given earlier in the year at Bern University.

2004 was the final year of my stint at BOSLIT. Now that I’d added substantially to the database, it was time to address countries which remained to be visited on the travel grant. The royal libraries in Copenhagen, Stockholm and The Hague ensued, as well as further meetings with library and university staff eager to help that exotic country called Scotland. It was a generally mild winter in Copenhagen and I ate my packed lunch in the royal library’s garden; here I gazed at the statue of Kierkegaard, as if to reassure him that I was in his city for reasons that were existentially authentic. By the spring and early summer, though, time and money were running out, and my final contracted weeks were taken up by visits to the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, followed by the uploading, back at base, of the data collected on these trips. While collecting my requested books at the counter in Madrid, I noticed a name plate for a recently deceased member of the library’s staff: he had been killed in the nearby Atocha train station when a terrorist bomb went off.

National Library of France

Negotiating the barriers in the Bibliothèque Nationale was like crossing a frontier. I waited in a queue to present my credentials, then joined another line to have my photo taken for the reader’s card / ID. Those final research days included the fulfilment of a promise I’d made to my friend Lilias Scott Forbes (1918-2013): as a result of her French connections she and her father (the composer Francis George Scott) had made, her poems had been translated in the magazine Marsyas, and she wanted copies of these. I called up all the volumes of Marsyas and went through them: I was beginning to despair until, at last, there she was. At the counter I was told that the items were too fragile for reproduction; however, disappointment was averted as at least I had traced their location in the magazine, and the municipal library of Toulouse was able to send photocopies to Lilias.

I look back at various high points, The Bern trip wasn’t under the auspices of BOSLIT: I’d been invited by the city council to discuss a proposed Bern-Glasgow writers’ exchange. I was taken to the apartment which would be occupied by the Glasgow writer and took notes on its dimensions and facilities. There was a meeting with the city’s genial mayor, Dr Baumgartner. The poet David Kinloch, a member of the BOSLIT committee, was keen to pursue the Bern initiative, and the exchange happened: Pedro Lenz came to Glasgow, and Donal McLaughlin to Bern. Mutual translation followed. Together with its partners, BOSLIT was proving to be pro-active.

I was given a copy of a visually stimulating diagram explaining Bern’s cultural policy; it reminded me of Patrick Geddes’s ‘thinking machines’, based as it was on philosophical rather than bureaucratic concepts.

Karel Jaromír Erben’s ballad ‘Dceřina kletba’ (‘The Daughter’s Curse’) was essentially a version of the Scottish ballad ‘Edward’, albeit re-gendered. I made a Scots version (with some guidance from a French translation I encountered in Glasgow University Library, of the Erben text), and placed it in my second novel The Lucky Charm of Major Bessop (Grace Note, 2014). I used it by way of a Greek chorus-type juxtaposition with the book’s bleakly tragic main narrative: a microcosm setting off the macrocosm, as it were.

The AHRB awarded BOSLIT an ‘A’ rating. I cleared my desks at the NLS and on the floor of Edinburgh University’s David Hume Tower where they accommodated the odds and sods of the contracted staff: it was nicknamed Death Row. Some years later, at Maynooth University, I put together an online Bibliography of Irish Literary Criticism (BILC); it was modelled on BOSLIT but is currently (February 2022) dormant.

I would like to send a few pointers to those scholars, young and maybe not so young, who will be maintaining BOSLIT-regained. Some inclusions to the list of BOSLIT-able authors will occasion argument. We decided, at a relatively late stage, to include Byron. This wasn’t just because he declared himself, in Don Juan, to be an Aberdonian Scot familiar with the lore of the Brig o’ Balgownie, or that he compared Lochnagar’s beauties favourably with those of ‘tame and domestic’ England: rather, the subtle influence of his early Scottish Calvinist upbringing on, say, Manfred, counted for much. The poet Sheena Blackhall sings the songs familiar to Byron from his North-East cultural infusions.

Conan Doyle was excluded as most of his work wasn’t considered sufficiently ‘Scottish’ by any crude or sophisticated criteria. Where do we draw the line? Nevertheless, there could be a case for researching translations of such a work as The Firm of Girdlestone (1890), if only for its representation of Scottish student life, in comparison with, say, the more lurid later accounts of such in George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters and John MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie. Maybe we need to look again at some of the writings of the Edinburgh-trained medic, and at last I would have an answer to a Hungarian colleague’s half-teasing, half-indignant question, ‘Why didn’t you include Conan Doyle?’

Tom Hubbard (b.1950)

In future, the guardians of BOSLIT-to-be could look beyond Europe for translations of Scottish writing. It made sense, given both cultural reasons and time constraints, to focus on reception in Europe, but for a new start, attention might be paid to non-European countries whose language is European (e.g. Québec; Latin American Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries).  

Research might also follow up the converse of BOSLIT, i.e. Scottish reception of overseas literatures. The late Margery McCulloch was prolific on Edwin Muir in Prague; he was a leading translator of German literature (and in this respect at least he was a latter-day Carlyle). I co-edited, with Stewart Sanderson and James Underhill, a pamphlet of translations into Scots of Baudelaire’s prose poems, Scottish Spleen (Tapsalteerie, 2015). The idea for this was put to me by James during a pub crawl in downtown Grenoble. Not all of Europe’s cultural epiphanies take place in the tenebrous corners of its libraries and seminar rooms.

BOSLIT-related works by Tom Hubbard:

NOTE: a selection of relevant lectures and pieces, other than those listed below, will appear in my forthcoming book Invitation to the Voyage: Scotland, Europe and Literature (Rymour Books, 2022).

‘Early Scottish Internationalism through Translation: Landmark Records in the Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation (BOSLIT)’, Scottish Language, No. 22 (2003): 36-45.

‘Austere Intoxications: Literary Relations between Scotland and Switzerland from 1782 to the Present’, in Exercises in Translation: Swiss-British Cultural Interchange, edited by Joy Charnley and Malcolm Pender. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006: 175-192.

‘European Reception of Scott’s Poetry: Translation as the Front Line’, in The Reception of Sir Walter Scott in Europe, edited by Murray Pittock. London: Continuum, 2006: 268-284.

Scotland in Europe, edited by Tom Hubbard and R.D.S. Jack. (Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 7). Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006. 304p.

‘Dva brata: Robert Louis Stevenson in Translation before 1900’, Scottish Studies Review, 8:1 (Spring 2007): 17-26.

(with Paul Barnaby) ‘The International Reception and Literary Impact of Scottish Literature of the Period 1314 until 1707’, in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, Vol. 1, edited by Thomas Owen Clancy and Murray Pittock. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007: 164-167.

(with Paul Barnaby) ‘The International Reception and Literary Impact of Scottish Literature of the Period 1707-1918’, in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, Vol. 2, edited by Susan Manning. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007: 33-44.

(with Paul Barnaby) ‘The International Reception and Literary Impact of Scottish Literature of the Period since 1918’, in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, Vol. 3, edited by Ian Brown. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007:

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