BOSLIT in the 1990s

In this exceptional piece, Paul Barnaby reflects on his work as BOSLIT’s first full-time researcher. Most of BOSLIT’s 20th-century records were compiled by Paul from 1994-1999. This provides him a with an excellent vantage point, not only to disclose the backstage of BOSLIT‘s early years, but also to discuss some of his key findings, including the paradoxical reception of Scottish modernist literature. Read on to find out more.

Paul Barnaby working for BOSLIT during the mid-1990s

I began work as BOSLIT researcher in November 1994, based in the National Library of Scotland, where I’d previously held a number of cataloguing posts. Although my academic background was in Romance languages, I had a longstanding personal interest in Scottish writing and a postgraduate degree in Italian literature had awakened an interest in translation and reception studies.

Although housed in the NLS, the project was managed by an external Steering Committee—consisting of library professionals, arts administrators, writers, translators, and academics—to which I reported on a quarterly basis. The Committee was chaired by Peter France, Professor of French Literature at the University of Edinburgh. A distinguished translator from Russian and Chuvash himself, Peter was very much the prime mover behind the project in its early years. Other very active committee members included Tessa Ransford, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library, Shonagh Irvine and Gavin Wallace, Literature Officers of the Scottish Arts Council, and Ann Matheson and Dennis Smith of the National Library of Scotland. On a day-to-day basis, I worked particularly closely with Dennis who maintained the Bibliography of Scotland, a database that provided the structural model for BOSLIT.

Initially, the project’s scope was restricted to listing post-1975 translations of 20th-century Scottish writing. Over the next five years, coverage was gradually extended to include translations published throughout the whole 20th century and to cover a small group of ‘classic’ pre-20th-century Scottish writers. (In these early stages, BOSLIT was variously funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, the British Academy, the Scottish Library and Information Council, and the Scottish Arts Council.)

The first task was to draw up a search-list of Scottish authors. Helpfully, Dennis Smith maintained a comprehensive list of Scottish writers of all kinds for the Bibliography of Scotland (which at that point consisted of both a constantly updated online database and a series of annual printed volumes). We went through Dennis’s list identifying, in the first instance, just under 400 literary authors. Literature was defined in a fairly old-school fashion, privileging writers of poetry, drama, and literary fiction. We did, however, include a selection of children’s writers and of writers of genre fiction, particularly crime, thrillers, and science fiction. Our search list also included a small number of non-fiction writers, like educationalist A. S. Neill and ‘anti-psychiatrist’ R. D. Laing, who reached a wide international audience as public intellectuals and whose work had exerted an important influence on the literary scene.

When drawing up our search list, we also adopted the Bibliography of Scotland’s definitions of ‘Scottishness’, where, very broadly speaking, Scottish birth trumped Scottish residence. We thus resisted the mindset—still strong at the end of the 20th-century—of seeing writers who lived and worked outside Scotland as having somehow exited the sphere of Scottish literature (and having entered that strange no-man’s land of the ‘Scottish-born’). On the other hand, though, we may have been excessively wary of including writers long resident in Scotland but born or educated elsewhere – a position that was later reversed.

For purely practical reasons, we initially excluded Arthur Conan Doyle, almost certainly Scotland’s most translated writer, as we feared that too much project time would be taken up on an author who might arguably be seen as tangential to the mainstream of Scottish writing. In retrospect, had we realized that I’d end up cataloguing 1600 translations of the thrillers of Alastair Maclean and several hundred of James Herriot’s tales of a Yorkshire vet, we might have taken a different tack.

Once we’d drawn up our search-list, how did we start looking for translations? For book-length translations, we initially relied on the following sources:

  • UNESCO’s Index Translationum, an annual round-up of translations published in the UN’s member states, very useful but far from comprehensive.
  • the annual national bibliographies published by many of Europe’s national libraries.
  • lists of books in print maintained by national booksellers’ or libraries’ associations.

When I began work, these were all still published as annual hardcopy volumes, to which, happily, the National Library of Scotland subscribed. The first few thousand records on the database were, then, largely a result of trawling methodically—search-list in hand –through piles of printed volumes. As the 1990s drew to a close, these publications were increasingly issued in electronic form or were replaced by constantly updated online databases. By then, I was also able to access online national library catalogues or national union catalogues, although, in these relatively early days of the internet, coverage often did not extend beyond fairly recent acquisitions.

Besides book-length translations, we also tried to record poems, short stories, and essays that appeared in foreign periodicals or anthologies. Some smaller countries covered this kind of material in their national bibliographies, but, in most cases, we relied on contacting individual authors, translators, literary agents, publishers, and academics. As email was still in its infancy, this generally meant communicating by surface mail. Given how easy it is now to find contact addresses online, it is strange to think how much project time was spent hunting down individual mail addresses (a process which often itself involved sending multiple letters). Such communication often involved unexpected risks. I still cringe over crass errors like misgendering the poet Gael Turnbull or starting a letter ‘Dear Ms Spark’ rather than ‘Dear Dame Muriel’.

Spanish translation (2006) of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

Around 25% of the 22,000 translations recorded during my stint at BOSLIT were found via personal communication in this way. I also made a number of research trips to libraries and to academic centres of Scottish studies in Catalonia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, and Italy, where I both hunted down translations in publications inaccessible in Scotland and helped build up a network of BOSLIT-supporting scholars and translators.

Individual contacts were also the main means of tracing monograph-length translations in countries with no readily accessible national bibliography or national library catalogue. We struggled, in general, to locate reliable sources for non-European translations. In some cases, I think we may have assumed that we were missing more translations than was really the case. Subsequent research has suggested that in many areas, particularly Commonwealth countries and sub-Saharan Africa in general, it remained the norm to read English-language literature in the original rather than translation. Similarly, we perhaps underestimated the extent to which a single translation, brought out by a multinational publishing house, might serve the entire Spanish- or Arabic-speaking world. Nonetheless, there were clearly large swathes of the globe, particularly South-East Asia, that were under-represented in BOSLIT’s early years.

Once identified, translations were entered on an online database made accessible via the National Library of Scotland as one of its Scottish Bibliographies Online. Initially, remote access to the database was available only via the now long obsolete Telnet protocol. But as the World Wide Web expanded rapidly in the late 1990s, the database became widely available. Looking back, this was an exciting and fast-moving period to be involved in library work. The May/June 1995 issue of the professional journal Scottish Libraries featured the BOSLIT database as an example of how ‘the Internet is becoming a very tangible part of library life’, and gently mocked the scepticism of those who ‘can’t see how a bunch of computers talking to one another is going to alter [their] life one iota’. I vividly recall a colleague looking over my shoulder and exclaiming ‘Oh, so THAT’s the internet’.

Without getting too technical, BOSLIT records were catalogued using the MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloguing) data format and Library of Congress Subject Headings, with some local variants that had previously been established for the Bibliography of Scotland. At that point, the Library of Congress had no subject headings for literature in Scots, so the Bibliography of Scotland had devised its own.

While researching this article, I found the accompanying photo of myself working on the database in 1995. In retrospect, the fact that I’m wearing a jacket and tie is as much of a period piece as the giant desk computer.

Looking through articles written to publicize BOSLIT in the 1990s, I’m struck by the variety of audiences that the database was intended to serve. In no particular order, it would at long last present scholars of Scottish literature and of translation/reception studies with a reliable record of what had (or had not) translated. It would point foreign readers with an interest in Scottish literature or in a particular Scottish writer to translations in their own language. It would tell translators themselves which works or writers hadn’t been translated (and perhaps show whether they had been successfully translated elsewhere). In addition to these stated aims, it would alert the National Library of Scotland to translations missing from its collections and point the Scottish Arts Council to gaps that might be filled and to translators and publishers that might be supported.

My own view is that BOSLIT’s findings for the 20th century offer an unmatched opportunity ‘to see oursels as others see us’. They provide an often-challenging image of how Scottish writing was perceived abroad, where the writers who do gain international recognition are sometimes as surprising as those who don’t.

This isn’t the place for an in-depth analysis of the data gathered in the first phase of BOSLIT. For that, I’d refer the reader to the articles listed in the bibliography at the foot of this post. Here, I’d like only to highlight some of our most striking discoveries. Unquestionably, the greatest revelation was that the writers and works most closely associated with the interwar Scottish Renaissance awoke very little contemporary publishing interest.

Only five poems by Hugh MacDiarmid were translated before 1945. Only four novels by Neil M. Gunn were translated in the same period, while a Czech version of the relatively obscure Spartacus (1936) was the only translation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon/James Leslie Mitchell. Eric Linklater and Compton Mackenzie found some success with the lighter part of their production, particularly in Scandinavia, but were not seen as part of wider, distinctively Scottish literary movement. It’s not that Scottish fiction wasn’t translated. More middlebrow writes like Bruce Marshall and, particularly, A. J. Cronin were international publishing phenomena from the 1930s onwards. Nor was there a recuperation of the Renaissance in the post-war period. While Hugh MacDiarmid found translators in Communist Europe, his Renaissance contemporaries remained largely unpublished.

Japanese Translation of Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle

How do we account for the substantial non-translation of a movement that sought to return Scottish literature to the heart of Europe? The absence of any cultural body to promote Scottish literature nationally or internationally? The non-existence of Scottish literature as an academic discipline? A failure to see what was new about the Renaissance in a country already synonymous with cultural nationalism, whose most successful exports—Ossian, Scott, Byron, Burns—had inspired national literary revivals throughout 19th-century Europe? Did the Renaissance risk appearing anachronistic and politically suspect in the cosmopolitan, modernist 1930s? Conversely, in modernising Scottish literature, did Renaissance writers appear to be playing catch-up, producing works which, while credible and contemporary, might not appear to offer anything strikingly new in an international context? In the following decades, did the Renaissance’s self-presentation as a continuous movement from the 1920s onwards make little sense in cultures where the Second World War represented a cultural watershed?

The lack of any institutional backing for the Renaissance certainly should not be underestimated. Certainly, the emergence of Scottish Literature as an academic discipline in the 1960s and formation of the Scottish Arts Council triggered a substantial increase in the translation of Scottish literatures from 1970 onwards. In particular, there were numerous translation anthologies of Scottish verse and special issues of literary periodicals devoted to contemporary Scottish interest. This resurgence of interest especially benefited poets of the generation of Norman MacCaig, George Mackay Brown, and Iain Crichton Smith. Novelists and dramatists remained under-translated, however, and it is questionable whether the recognition of distinctly Scottish poetic tradition extended to a perception of a broader Scottish literary tradition or to an awareness that 20th-century Scottish writers often saw themselves as contributing to a multi-genre, multi-linguistic movement.

As BOSLIT researcher, I was a little shy of highlighting the fact that canonical works of 20th-century Scottish canon remained untranslated. I often felt something of an interloper. I had no proven background in Scottish Literature and none of the experience I have since acquired in conference presentation or academic writing. I was also audibly born on the wrong side of the Border, despite living in Scotland from the age of six. However, I often also found a certain resistance to the idea that the Renaissance might not have been the international success that MacDiarmid so frequently and eloquently claimed.

I feel that the time is now ripe to look at BOSLIT’S findings dispassionately and investigate what they tell us about the problematic international reception of the Renaissance. Rather than seeing the non-translation of canonical works as an oversight or missed opportunity, this would involve acknowledging that a translation has to address the needs of a target culture. It might also be revealing to explore why some Scottish writers—often writers that are hard to shoehorn into a master narrative of Scottish literature—do enjoy extraordinary foreign success. Why is Edwin Muir the most translated poet of the 1950s and 1960s? Why is Muriel Spark by a considerable margin 20th-century Scotland’s most translated literary novelist? Why is Kenneth White much the most recognized Scottish poet and thinker of the 1980s and 1990s? Earlier in the century, one might look at J. M. Barrie, who, for an international audience, had no associations with the Kailyard (another largely untranslated phenomenon). Or one might explore how A. J. Cronin—viewed as a sentimentalist at home, but regularly reprinted in foreign series of ‘modern classics’—might have spoken to an international readership more directly than Renaissance contemporaries.

As noted elsewhere on this site, BOSLIT project was launched at a particularly auspicious moment for Scottish literature. The success of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting awoke an interest in Scottish writing unparalleled since the 1820s, when many Scottish writers were translated in the wake of Sir Walter Scott. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw translations of novelists like Ali Smith, A. L. Kennedy, Alan Warner, Laura Hird, and Andrew O’Hagan; of poets like Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay, John Burnside, and Don Paterson; and of dramatists like David Greig and David Harrower. There was a belated international discovery of writers who had emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, like Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, and Liz Lochhead. Shortly afterwards, successful translations of Ian Rankin led to the global discover of Tartan Noir. For the first time in almost two centuries, Scottish writing was not only widely translated but widely perceived as distinctly Scottish.

(It would be lovely to think that, in highlighting the importance of translation and gathering information on what had and hadn’t been translated, BOSLIT itself made a modest contribution to the international discovery of new Scottish writing, but perhaps that is wishful thinking.)

In truth, we were only just becoming aware of this phenomenon by the end of my stint with BOSLIT in 1999. It was not so much the print publication of Trainspotting in 1993, as its film adaptation in 1996, that triggered the explosion of interest in Scottish writing. Most of the bibliographic data recording the boom was entered after I left the project. What is currently unclear, and what the relaunched BOSLIT will surely help to establish, is whether renewed interest in Scottish literature was short-lived or a lasting phenomenon with a durable impact on international perceptions of Scottish writing. It would also now be fruitful to use BOSLIT data to compare the reception of the Interwar Renaissance and the 1990s generation, and to see whether the latter’s international success tells us anything about the former’s substantial failure to reach a global audience.


Paul Barnaby, ‘Scots Literary Scene On-Line’, Scottish Libraries, 51 (May/June 1995), 18-19.

— ‘BOSLIT (Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation)’, Scottish Poetry Library Newsletter, 25 (July 1995), 4-5.

— ‘Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation’, Scottish Book Collector, 5.4 (April-May 1996), 22.

— ‘From Afrikaans to Yakut: Researching a Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation’, Scottish Literary Journal, 24.1 (May 1997), 77-81.

— ‘Three into One: Twentieth-Century Scottish Verse in Translation Anthologies’, Translation and Literature, 9.2 (2000), 188-99.

— ‘Scotland Anthologized: Images of Contemporary Scottish Identity in Translation Anthologies of Scottish Poetry’, Scottish Studies, 3.1 (2002), 86-99.

— (with Tom Hubbard) ‘The International Reception and Literary Impact of Scottish Literature’, in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, ed. Ian Brown, 3 vols (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), I, 164-67, II, 33-43, and III, 31-41.

— ‘Scottish Poetry as World Poetry’, in The International Companion to Scottish Poetry, ed. Carla Sassi (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2015)

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