Robert Louis Stevenson's "Thrawn Janet" in Modern English, Translated from the Scots
"Thrawn Janet" is one of the most ghoulish and twisted (pun) horror stories to come from a Victorian pen. It is one of Stevenson's best supernatural stories, and it is an underrated classic, forged in a deeply Hawthornian tradition of social responsibility, fear of the unconventional, and the battle waging between nature and civilization, reason and impulse, discipline and indulgence. There is only one problem: most 21st century English-speaking readers can only infer most of the plot through context clues, homophones, and detective work. This is because Stevenson wrote all but two paragraphs in the beautiful Scots dialect. Those who understand, or can at least pick around Scots will testify to its charm, and will support the decision of most editors' to preserve it in the original Scots (I have not yet found one who didn't). And yet, those who speak this rich and robust Germanic dialect only total about 2 million, including a mere 110,000 native speakers.
While we hope to preserve the eloquent beauty of this dialect, it behooves us to understand it better by having a reference point: just as Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser benefit dramatically from the inclusion of a gloss, so too will this story be more deeply appreciated by having an English language translation. And so, as I continue to work on our upcoming volume of Stevenson's best horror, that is what I have done.
My background in Scots is not formal, but it is passionate. In middle school I cut my teeth on the gorgeous poetry of Robert Burns and Robert Fergusson, the Romances of Sir Walter Scott and Stevenson, and the Scottish stories of Mrs Oliphant and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which were peppered with the vernacular. Scots seemed to pop up in many of the historical fiction I read, and I found myself growing comfortable and familiar with the sound of it in my head, eventually requiring a gloss less and less.
Having a combined five years of German study under my belt, the Scots vocabulary and grammer was familiar and easy to pick out (here are some homophones in English, German, and Scots respectively: night/Nacht/nicht, church/Kirche/kirk, light/Licht/lecht, old/alt/aulde, people/Volk/fowk, daughter/Tochter/dochter, etc.), and this was helpful in graduate school when I wrote my thesis on the Scottish Enlightment, and the dialectics of nationhood generated by the Edinburgh school during the 18th century. In translating the following tale I used a good deal of personal knowledge, consulting with a brace of dictionaries when in doubt: Charles Mackay's The Auld Scots Dictionary of Lowland Scots, and Crorbett and McClure's The Edinburgh Companion to Scots. It is absolutely recommended that you read the original text in full, referencing the English translation when necessary, so I have constructed a side-by-side reading of the Scots narrative with the English in italics to the left. If you read the translation below and enjoy it, please click this link to read Stevenson's delicious Scots prose.
And now, without further ado, "Twisted Janet," by Robert Louis Stevenson:
Translated from the Scots
by M. Grant Kellermeyer
Excerpted from Oldstyle Tales Press'
DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE AND OTHER HORRORS:
The Best Weird Fiction and Ghost Stories of
THE Reverend Murdoch Soulis was long minister of the moorland parish of Balweary, in the vale of Dule. A severe, bleak-faced old man, dreadful to his hearers, he dwelt in the last years of his life, without relative or servant or any human company, in the small and lonely manse under the Hanging Shaw. In spite of the iron composure of his features, his eye was wild, scared, and uncertain; and when he dwelt, in private admonitions, on the future of the impenitent, it seemed as if his eye pierced through the storms of time to the terrors of eternity. Many young persons, coming to prepare themselves against the season of the holy communion, were dreadfully affected by his talk. He had a sermon on I Pet. V. 8, "The devil as a roaring lion," on the Sunday after every 17th of August, and he was accustomed to surpass himself upon that text both by the appalling nature of the matter and the terror of his bearing in the pulpit. The children were frightened into fits, and the old looked more than usually oracular, and were, all that day, full of those hints that Hamlet deprecated. The manse itself, where it stood by the water of Dule among some thick trees, with the Shaw overhanging it on the one side, and on the other many cold, moorish hilltops rising toward the sky, had begun, at a very early period of Mr. Soulis's ministry, to be avoided in the dusk hours by all who valued themselves upon their prudence; and guidmen sitting at the clachan alehouse shook their heads together at the thought of passing late by that uncanny neighbourhood. There was one spot, to be more particular, which was regarded with especial awe. The manse stood between the highroad and the water of Dule, with a gable to each; its bank was toward the kirktown of Balweary, nearly half a mile away; in front of it, a bare garden, hedged with thorn, occupied the land between the river and the road. The house was two stories high, with two large rooms on each. It opened not directly on the garden, but on a causewayed path, or passage, giving on the road on the one hand, and closed on the other by the tall willows and elders that bordered on the stream. And it was this strip of causeway that enjoyed among the young parishioners of Balweary so infamous a reputation. The minister walked there often after dark, sometimes groaning aloud in the instancy of his unspoken prayers; and when he was from home, and the manse door was locked, the more daring school- boys ventured, with beating hearts, to "follow my leader" across that legendary spot.
This atmosphere of terror, surrounding, as it did, a man of God of spotless character and orthodoxy, was a common cause of wonder and subject of inquiry among the few strangers who were led by chance or business into that unknown, outlying country. But many even of the people of the parish were ignorant of the strange events which had marked the first year of Mr. Soulis's ministrations; and among those who were better informed, some were naturally reticent, and others shy of that particular topic. Now and again, only, one of the older folk would warm into courage over his third tumbler, and recount the cause of the minister's strange looks and solitary life.
FIFTY years ago, when Mr Soulis first came into Balweary, he was still a young man – just a kid, the people said – full of book learning and wonderful at exposition, but, as was natural in so young a man, with no life experience in religion. The younger sort were greatly taken with his gifts and his eloquence; but the older, concerned, serious men and women were moved even to prayer for the young man, whom they took to be a self-deciever, and the parish that was like to be so ill supplied. It was before the days of the Moderates – dismal for them; but bad things are like the good – they both come bit by bit, a small bit at a time; and there were people even then that said the Lord had left the college professors to their own devices, and the lads that went to study with them would have done more and better sitting in a peat-bog, like their forebears of the persecution, with a Bible under their armpit and a spirit of prayer in their heart. There was no doubt, anyway, but that Mr Soulis had been at the college for far too long. We was careful and troubled for many things besides the one thing needful. He had a load of books with him – more than had ever been seen before in all the parish; and a miserable chore the carrier had with them, for they were likely to have crushed the Devil’s ox between this and Kilmackerlie. They were books of divinity, to be sure, or so they called them; but the serious were of the opinion that there was little need for so many when the whole of God’s Word would fit in the crease of a plaid cloak. Then he would sit half the day and half the night as well, which was hardly decent – writing no less; and first they were afraid he would read his sermons; and since then it proved he was writing a book himself, which was surely not proper for anyone of his years and slight experience…
Anyway, it behooved him to get and old, decent biddy to order the parsonage for him and to cook his small dinners; and he was recommended to an old hussy – Janet McClour, they called her – and so far left to himself as to be over-persuaded. There were many who advised him against it, for Janet was more than suspected by the best citizens in Balweary. Long ago she had given birth to a dragoon’s brat; she hadn’t taken communion for maybe thirty years; and children had seen her mumbling to herself up on Key’s Loan in the twilit hollow was an uncouth time and place for a God-fearing woman. Howsoever, it was the squire himself that had first told the minister of Janet; and in those days he would have gone far out of his way to please the squire. When the people told him that Janet was kin to the devil, he wrote it all off as superstition; and when they showed him the Bible, and the Witch of Endor, he would argue it back down their throats – that those days were all bygone, and that God had bound the devil.
Well, when word got out to the village that Janet McClour was to be the parsonage servant, the people were very cross with her and him both, and some of the ladies had nothing better to do than get around her doorposts and accuse her of all that was known against her, from the soldier’s bastard to John Tamson’s two cows. She was no great speaker; people usually let her go her own pace and she let them go theirs, with neither a kind “good evening,” nor a kind “good day;” but when she opened up, she had a tongue that would deafen a miller. Up she got, and there wasn’t an old story in Balweary but she would force someone to listen to that day; they couldn’t say a thing but she could say two in response; till, at the end of the day, the ladies up and caught hold of her, and clawed the coats off her back, and pulled her down the town to the water of Dule, to see if she was a witch or not – swim or drown. The crone shrieked till you could hear her at the Hanging Wood, and she fought like ten; there was a good many ladies who wore bruises the next day, and many for longer, and just at the fiercest of the fighting, who should come up (for his sins) but the new minister.
“Women,” said he (and he had a grand voice), “I tell you in the Lord’s name to let her go.”
Janet ran to him – she was totally wild with terror – and clung him and begged him, for Christ’s sake, save her from the bitches; and they, for their part, told him all that was known, and maybe more.