Book review: Chinese Makars, by Robert Crawford

Robert Crawford is one of Scotland's leading poets, but if there's any justice history will also remember him as one of our more innovative educators. This latest project, created in collaboration with the photographer Norman McBeath, is a production of Crawford the poet, but it's also worth noting the way it has fed into his teaching at the University of St Andrews, where he is a professor in the School of English.

Robert Crawford FRSE FBA, the Scottish poet, scholar and critic, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015. Photograph by Gary Doak/Writer Pictures

The book consists of Scots translations of poems written during China’s Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 until 907. This is considered a golden age for poetry in China, and its foremost poets – Li Bai, Wang Wei and Du Fu – are held in the same high regard as the Scots Makars of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, hence the book’s title. Crawford concedes that some of the words in his translations may seem unfamiliar, even to modern Scots, and so English (re)translations are provided.

The book is a work of “photopoetry,” with a photograph accompanying each poem. These images, Crawford says, should be regarded “not as illustrations but as artworks which resonate alongside the poems”. The translations of Wang Wei and Xue Tao, a female poet of the Tang period, are presented alongside photographs by McBeath, while those of Li Bai and Du Fo appear with photographs taken by John Thomson, a pioneering Scots photographer active in China and South East Asia in the mid-19th century.

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The Scots Crawford writes in here is elegant, economical and earthy when it needs to be – reminiscent of Hugh MacDiarmid’s early work at times, as in his translation of Xue Tao’s “Oan The Kirk Ayont-The-Cluds,” with its faint echoes of “The Watergaw”, both in terms of language and tone. McBeath’s images – either identifiably Scottish or semi-abstracts of indeterminate locations – mostly set up interesting conversations with the facing poems, without overpowering them. By contrast, the juxtaposition of Crawford’s rich Scots and Thomson’s exotic pictures – all lakeside temples and women in traditional dress – can be a little jarring at times, but perhaps that’s the point.

As part of a broader Chinese Makars project, Crawford set up a series of workshops at St Andrews in which creative writing students from the School of English and Chinese-speakers from across the university were paired up and invited to experiment with translating classic Chinese poetry into Scots. The results are due to be published in a pamphlet, Loch Diànnão. As Salman Rushdie once put it: “It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.”

*Chinese Makars by Robert Crawford, with photographs by Norman McBeath and John Thomson, is published by Easel Press, £25