From the Mearns to Berlin...

Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Last week Fettercairn was buzzing with unusual activity: the normally peaceful village was turned into a busy film location.

It was for the movie Sunset Song, an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s famous work

Regina in her kitchen in Cowie.

Regina in her kitchen in Cowie.

Destined for the big screen, the movie might also be shown in German cinemas. If so, it won’t be the first time that the story is brought to Germany.

In fact, for many years a German translation of a Scots Quair was successfully published in the former GDR.

On a chance visit to the Grassic Gibbon Centre in Arbuthnott, I spotted the evidence – a complete German edition of Grassic Gibbon’s work carefully arranged on the author’s jacket.

Being a translator myself, my curiosity was roused and as soon as I got home, I surfed the internet for clues. Who had undertaken the monumental task of translating Grassic Gibbon’s epic novel?

German versions of A Scots Quair.

German versions of A Scots Quair.

When were the German books published, and by whom?

It was the start of a quest that would take me as far as Berlin.

In 1961, a renowned publisher in East Berlin (Verlag Volk und Welt – Volk & Welt P ublishing) made a first enquiry at Jarrolds Publishers in London about the German language rights for ‘A Scots Quair.’

Soon negotiations were taken over by the literary agent who represented Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s legal successor, his widow Rebecca (Ray) Mitchell.

In 1962, a contract was signed by Rebecca Mitchell and Volk & Welt Publishing. The publisher’s editor for English language literature, Dr Hans Petersen, was assigned as translator.

Owing to the extensive use of dialect, translating Grassic Gibbon’s work turned out to be far more challenging than expected, and publication was postponed. In the process, Dr Petersen was advised by David D. Murison, editor of the Scottish National dictionary. Rebecca Mitchell assisted with the editing.

In his translation, Dr Petersen wisely avoided any form of dialect and he strictly kept to High German. Yet his skill ensured that the atmosphere of the story is authentically conveyed to German readers.

In 1970, a first edition of the German rendition of A Scots Quair went to print, and 8000 copies were published under the author’s real name, James Leslie Mitchell.

They sold so well that more editions were printed in 1977 and 1986.

The books attracted a lot of press attention. About 30 newspaper reviews are still extant, and praise Gibbon’s writing as well as Dr Petersen’s work.

Despite its success in the former GDR, the German version of A Scots Quair was never published in the Federal Republic of Germany, neither before nor after re-unification.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Volk & Welt Publishing was privatised, but went into liquidisation in 2001.

Its archive is now managed by the Akademie der Kunste (Academy of Arts) in Berlin which supports German arts and cultural heritage.

During a visit, I was allowed to browse the extensive documentation of this ambitious publishing project. It includes the original contract, written in English and bearing Rebecca Mitchell’s signature.

There is also a black and white photo of Lewis Grassic Gibbon which appears on the dust-jackets of the German books.

Present-day Germany has left the GDR era behind and, with it, the German rendition of Grassic Gibbon’s work.

But if Sunset Song is screened in Germany, it will make a second appearance in front of a German audience, and perhaps some of the reviewers will remember the books they read so long ago.