Robert Burns in BOSLIT (Some Data)

To celebrate Robert Burns, our team members, Dr Paul Malgrati and Dr Luca Guariento have mapped out the Burns records in BOSLIT. They produced the following charts, displaying both the countries and date ranges of publication of all recorded Burns translations.

Number of Burns records per ‘target language’ in BOSLIT
Number of Burns records through time in BOSLIT

These charts, which can be accessed with more details here, provide the first, comprehensive visualisation of the history of Burns translations. Admittedly, it is unlikely to be complete and, similarly to the rest of BOSLIT, it does not include twenty-first century materials. Nevertheless, it should provide a precious resource for any student, scholar or publisher interested in either Burns or the international reception of Scottish literature.

Below are a few initial comments about the significance of these charts:

  • With 3,074 recorded adaptations, Burns is the second most translated author in BOSLIT, below Robert Louis Stevenson’s 3,480 translations and just above Walter Scott’s 2,845 versions. Certainly, we know that there are important gaps in BOSLIT’s coverage of Scott and it is likely that Burns only ranks third (and possibly fourth if BOSLIT were to include Conan Doyle). Nevertheless, such records are a testament to Burns’s exceptional global fame.
  • BOSLIT records translations of Burns in more than 57 languages. As such, Burns is believed to be the most diversely translated Scottish poet.
  • Historically, these graphs demonstrate that the growth of Burns translations accompanied the poet’s rising reputation following both his centenaries in 1859 and 1959, respectively. This comes as no surprise, considering that those anniversaries were key to pin Burns on the global map.
  • More surprising, however, is the particular emphasis on Burns’s 1959 Bicentenary, which, until now has only caught the attention of a few scholars. Indeed, whilst the extensively-chronicled 1859 Centenary was primarily an imperial, Anglophone event, the 1959 Bicentenary occurred in the midst of the Cold War, at a time when Burns’s radical memory was a rising star in the Communist world. This might help explain the correlation between the high volume 1950-70s Burns translations and the high proportion of Burns adaptations in former Communist countries (including Russia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Belarus, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldavia, Estonia, Albania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan). Certainly, there would be more to write on this topic, especially regarding the use of minority languages (including, for instance, both the Hungarian-based Kuvasz and Crimean Tatar) in the 1960s-70s at a time when emphasis on ‘the national road to Communism’ was the core ideological doctrine of the Eastern bloc.  
  • Germany’s first place as a Burns-translating nation is certainly worth detailing. A handful of reasons can be evoked. First of all, Scottish literature was already on German radars in Burns’s own lifetime. Indeed, the poems of Ossian, translated by J.W. Goethe in his Werther (1774) had already trained the ‘Celtic’ ear of German readers before the publication of Burns’s Kilmarnock poems, twelve years later. Such Ossianic tastes were not particular to Germany, however, as eighteenth-century French intellectuals had also praised the works of Macpherson’s Ossian.[1] Yet unlike Germany, France’s Paris-centric literature would prove less receptive to Burns’s ‘regional’ vernacular tongue. By contrast, the disunity of Germanophone spaces provided a fertile ground for Burns adaptations — the most famous of which, written by Ferdinand Freiligrath, became hugely popular during the 1848 Revolution. Such a radical reception of Burns would continue further, into the twentieth century, when many adaptations of the poet were printed (or re-printed) in East Germany. Finally, a last possible factor behind Burns’s modern German popularity might lie in the tension between Germany’s rich romantic, folk traditions and the difficulty to articulate such heritage to national culture after the Second World War. The need to import foreign folk literature, especially from Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia, appears particularly acute in this context. It might help explain Burns’s unabated success in contemporary Germany, corroborated a couple of years ago by the Centre for Robert Burns Studies’ ‘Interactive World Map of Burns Suppers’, which also revealed Germany to be the most Burnsian nation outside the Anglosphere.[2]

[1] More on this topic can be read in Dominique Delmaire, ‘From Bard to Boor: the Critical Reception of Robert Burns in France’, in Murray Pittock (ed.), The Reception of Robert Burns in Europe, (London: Bloomsbury,2014), pp.67-115.

[2] See also Frauke Reitemeier, ‘Lost in Translation : Burns in Germany’ in Pittock (ed.), The Reception of Robert Burns, pp.9-33.

One Reply to “Robert Burns in BOSLIT (Some Data)”

  1. It may be worth adding a couple of historical footnotes before the knowledge gets lost in the mists of time.

    1) To mark the bicentenary of his death, BOSLIT ran a special Burns project in 1996, aided by funding of £1,500 from the Scottish Arts Council. This helps to explain the large number of analytical entries in BOSLIT from this era, covering single poems or small groups published in journals or anthologies as distinct from monographs. This level of granularity was largely lost after 2000.

    2) BOSLIT coverage seriously underestimates the amount of material in Russian and other ‘Soviet’ languages. BOSLIT approached various Russian libraries around 1996 asking for information and one library replied offering to research Burns translations if we could fund the work. When we replied that – sadly – no funds were available they went ahead and did the research anyway, and sent a parcel of print-outs listing many hundreds of translations. With limited time and Russian-language skills at the BOSLIT end, this was put on a backburner and in the end the records were never checked and input. One feature of Russian reception of Burns is that the same translation often appeared many times, in local papers and journals all across the USSR. So a simple headcount of records is potentially misleading.

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