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How I met Tam O Shanter

In last months Newsletter, Sandy Davis from Fife contributed an article on the translation of Tam O'Shanter into a German dialect. See Deutsch Tam. By way of further background Sandy has added the following insight into Oswald Andrae.

Sandy writes:-

I was lucky enough in the late 70s to be spending a 3-year period of my life serving with the Richthofen Wing of the German Air Force. My wife and I had hosted a small Burns Supper in January 1977 that had proved a great success with those invited along. Even those whom I had persuaded to do the various speeches entered into the spirit of things with typical German thoroughness. The following year the persuasive boot was on the other foot, and I was prevailed upon to organise a full-scale celebration.

Rather too close to the event for comfort, I learned that the optician in the neighbouring town of Jever, Oswald Andrae, was a Low German (plattdeutsch) poet of note, and that he was reputed to be interested in Burns. The rest of that tale I shall leave to Oswald to relate in his own way. My only comment is that he is particularly self-deprecating in describing how 'Platt Tam' took shape. There were times when Oswald behaved just as the original progenitor is reputed to have done as he paced the banks of the Nith with the muse upon him. Detlev Pohl, the German language expert on this project, and I had hardly agreed a translation for a few lines when Oswald had turned it into his own vernacular rhyme and rhythm. You don't need to have any knowledge of German, Low or High, to understand that Oswald Andrae's translation retains virtually every nuance of the epic original.
Oswald did feel confident enough to recite his masterpiece at the ensuing Burns Supper. For once I could get some inkling of how the average Englishman (and probably one or two Scots, too, if truth be told) feels on hearing 'Tam O Shanter' for the first time.

Alexander Davis
31 October 2000

Oswald Andrae wrote the following on 29th January 1978

How I Met Tam O Shanter

For more than twenty years I had derived an academic pleasure in transferring old English sea poems into Low German. Later I corresponded with a teacher and author from Newcastle and attempted then to transfer some of my own Low German texts into English. The point of this was to acquaint these English colleagues with my work. So it came to pass that we set off for England on the 12th of July 1975 with our caravan in tow. It had actually been our wish for some time to travel together to England; my wife had worked there for a year shortly after the war.

We went first to Newcastle. And in one of those comfortable pubs where the amusement flows like poetry, I was allowed to read my "Low German Poetry into English" aloud to some interested people. An announcement had appeared earlier in the local newspaper:

"Poetry reading. There will be poetry reading on Sunday by a German poet, Oswald Andrae, at Tanner' s Arms, New Bridge Street, Newcastle. His work has been published extensively in Germany in books, periodicals and newspapers.

Admission is 10p."

Among the listeners was Keith Armstrong, a young author and editor of the literature-magazine OSTRICH. He asked me for permission to publish my dialect texts in three languages in his magazine. That was on the 15th of July. On the 16th I read to a German class at Blakelaw School, one of the new English Comprehensives.
From Newcastle our way led to Scotland. In fact, first of all to Edinburgh, where once in the house at No.59 Castle Street lived the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott; where at No.17 Heriot Row the English (sic) author of fantastic adventure stories Robert Louis Stevenson lived; where once in Smellie's Printing House the first Edinburgh Edition of the Scottish poet Robert Burns' poems had been printed. I read in a brochure the slight hint - Burns had written dialect poems in the style of old ballads and songs. His work had been translated into German by Freiligrath.
We travelled right across Scotland and collected many impressions to take home with us, including a bottle of whisky. I sustained myself for a long time on what I had seen and experienced. I wrote texts. I also wrote the song "Glens un Bens", which Helmut Dobus now sings.
One day a friend who had studied English gave me a book he had brought from Britain: "Burns: Poems and Songs - edited by James Kinsley". So I then translated with the help of my friend Detlev Pohl a Burns song which, written in the spirit of the French revolution, expresses the troubles and worries of the many ordinary people in Scotland. Freiligrath translated it very freely, or rather he worked this Burns song over and rewrote the text to reflect the situation of the '48 (sic) Rebellion. Hannes Wader sings it today: "In spite of all." In contrast to the Freiligrath-treatment, I took pains to produce a Low German translation very close to the original; thus "For a' that and a' that" became "För all dat un all dat."
That had become known. And one day, the 4th of January 1978, one of those Wednesday afternoons I spent teaching at the college in Emden, a young man came into our shop. He wanted to speak to me; to that Andrae as he put it, who had translated Burns into Low German. He introduced himself as Squadron Leader Davis of the Royal Air Force, currently serving on exchange in Wittmund. He spoke an amazingly good German, having previously studied German in England (sic), as it turned out. He was planning to hold a Burns Supper and had come with a specific request. I was to translate the Burns poems "To a Haggis" and "Tam O Shanter" into Low German. My wife told me all this that evening. I looked these texts up and was horrified: "Tam O Shanter" - 224 lines!
I waited with baited breath. What's the fuss, I thought; silly old fool that you are. But my friend the English scholar was excited. A few days later the Scotsman came back into our shop. We agreed on a first appointment: Thursday, the 12th January 1978 in the evening at his house in Wittmund. Whether it would succeed, I knew not. But one must try.
So we sat down that Thursday with whisky and water. The Scotsman and the Anglist translated painstakingly and accurately line for line into English then German, while I, with an eye on the origina1 and an ear on the translators, made notes in Low German (ilka = elk). By 1.30 in the morning we had got to line 114. A week later the second session lasted until midnight. Then I got down to the delicate work. On the evening of Saturday 21.1.1978 I was finished, and since I knew that Dr Jochen Schütt of RADIO BREMEN also studied English, I called him to see whether he might be interested in publishing it. "Tam O Shanter"? Yes, he had written a longish essay comparing "Tam O Shanter" with Klaus Groth's "Hans Schander". What's that? Groth? I had to swallow hard. Jochen Schütt was very surprised that I had no knowledge of this poem of Klaus Groth. Groth had started off writing in High German, but as a result of studying the Scottish dialect poems of Burns he had taken to writing poetry in Low German. "Hans Schander" - after Robert Burns - was one of his early works so was at the beginning of "Quickborn". Jochen Schütt wants to send me the essay.
At first I was very frustrated. Hadn't I said so straight away; a silly old fool. I wouldn't have wasted my precious time on this exercise if I had known all that. Yet it had been a pleasure, and I had enjoyed the work all the same.
A year earlier I had got 6 volumes of his works from the Klaus Groth Federation. I looked for "Hans Schander", but didn't find it. I was missing "Quickborn" Volume I. The book is out of print, so I asked the Institute for Low German if they could send me a copy of the poem.
Now I've got it; "Hans Schander". With all due respect to the old master Klaus Groth, but I would definitely not have recited this poem at a "Burns Supper". I had meanwhile also received Jochen Schütt's essay, a special printing from the "Commemorative Volume for Gerhard Cordes on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday" (Kar1 Wacholtz Verlag Neumünster, 1973):

Robert Burns "Tam O Shanter"- Klaus Groth "Hans Schander"
A Comparison
Jochen Schütt (Kiel)

Schütt writes:
"One of the few places you can find information about how a poem comes into being is in his "Life Sketch" first published in full in 1932. You can see from this the way in which Groth tried to overcome the difficulties he encountered:

'But when I then set out to write in Low German, I realised to my horror that I could not escape from the pattern of my High German education. Rhymes, expressions, grammatical forms came out instinctively in High German, even with Low German words, Low German thinking. I didn't know what course to follow, other than that I should take a foreign material with an inner form which approximated as closely as possible to Low German thinking, and use this as a frame on which to tack Low German vocabulary. The words should come from the head and not the heart, and the process had to continue until I became familiar with it. Burns helped me in this regard. At times it took me weeks of ceaseless work to produce a few lines that I was happy with. This was how I translated the first half of "Tam O Shanter". Then I felt that I had conquered it. I now picked the thing up, transposed it into rhyme, composed the second half on my own, and from now on I had earned calm, regained the self control over my urges until they found the correct way to express Low German thoughts.' "

So much for Klaus Groth as quoted by Jochen Schütt.
I am of a different opinion. Klaus Groth did not find the "correct way to express Low German thoughts". Nor did he manage it with his rhyming tale "Hans Schander". Burns's pepper is missing; the irony, the powerful language of the narrator. As I have already implied, Hans Schander is too lame in comparison with "Tam O Shanter." I neither wish nor am able to assess whether one can say that my so spontaneous effort at the request of a Scotsman has found the "correct way to express Low German thoughts". At least it is closer to the original, line for line. I have to admit, though, that what to some today might seem a pointless exercise brought me a great deal of pleasure.

Contributed by Sandy Davis