Robert Burns poem performed in Tamil for first time

As Scots celebrate the life of Robert Burns, the Bard's work continues to win new fans in unlikely corners of the world.

Reza Ali presents his Burns translation to members of the Mother Club in Greenock, thought to be the first time that Burns work has been performed in the Tamil language
Reza Ali presents his Burns translation to members of the Mother Club in Greenock, thought to be the first time that Burns work has been performed in the Tamil language

His poems have always held international appeal. They were translated into most European languages by the late 19th century, with an entire book on the subject - Robert Burns in Other Tongues - appearing in 1896.

Such was his fame in the Soviet Union, communist officials approved the translation of more than 200 of Burns’ works into Russian, with the resulting collection selling 60,000 copies when published in 1924.

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Now Tamil - a language spoken by more than 70 million people - can be added to the growing list of Burns translations, thanks to the efforts of Reza Ali.

The businessman from India translated A Man’s A Man For A’ That into his native language after spending time working in Glasgow in 2015.

Ali returned to Scotland last year to perform his work at Greenock Burns Club - known as the Mother Club - and hopes the translation will help spread Burns’ name in his home country as well as Singapore, where he now lives.

“I don’t think he is particularly well-known in India,” Ali told The Scotsman. “However, I have learned that in the very early days of the British Raj, Burns was popular in some areas such as Bengal, but since then there has never been any resurgence of Burns in the subcontinent.

“This is a pity because Burns offers something I think will benefit India and her sense of egalitarianism, pluralism, liberty and beauty. Burns captures the essence of all of these ideals and his messages will resonate strongly across India.

“I was unable to find any other Tamil translations of any of Burns’ work and so sought to undertake a translation of ‘A Man’s a Man for A that’, as it is one of my favourites.”

The project was not without its challenges.

“It was extremely difficult to say the least,” added Ali. “I had a first draft, which my mother helped refine and improve. I’ve since sent it to Mr A Palaniappan, the head Tamil specialist at the Singapore Parliament, to review my translation.”

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He continued: “It’s easier to convey the spirit of the poem – the messages of brotherhood are universal and the strength of the message has been retained in the Tamil version.

“I also made it a point to first review my understanding of the Scots with Raymond Jack of the Mother Club to ensure it was accurate prior to translating.”

Having completed his work, Ali felt it appropriate to present a copy to the Greenock club, which was founded in 1801.

“During my time in Glasgow, I made it a point to visit as much of Scotland as I could,” he added.

“I visited Alloway and bought one of the limited editions of the reprinted Kilmarnock editions.

“I was explaining to Raymond how profound I found Burns to be and he made it a point to invite me to the Mother Club Burns’ Supper last year.

“I was so moved by the passion they had for Burns. It was then I decided I wanted to present them with something unique and hence the translation.”

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Burns wrote his first poem aged 15. By the time of his death in 1796, aged just 37, he had completed around 220 works of poetry.

“He’s a man who worked hard on all fronts throughout his life,” said Professor Gerry Carruthers of the University of Glasgow.

“In addition to his poems, he worked on something like 400 songs. He always found the time to write.”

A definitive 10 volume Oxford edition of Burns’ complete works is due to be completed by 2024, having secured a £1 million grant last year.