After introducing his Andalusian neighbours to haggis and whisky, Chris Stewart discovers the true spirit of the poetry of Robbie Burns when he hears it in Spanish
The poultry, having observed us leaving the house the previous evening dressed in full Highland regalia, were not altogether surprised to be confronted on Monday morning with the remains of a haggis; it had, after all, been Burns Night at the weekend.
We had been to the house of some Welsh friends to celebrate whatever it is that one celebrates on Burns Night, though for one reason and another much of the proceedings remain for me clouded in uncertainty. I had agreed to tag along on the expedition wearing my multiculturalism hat largely, I’ll admit, in order to see what the natives would make of Robbie Burns.
Call me a cultural black hole if you will, but hitherto I had looked upon him with something of a jaundiced eye – which is to say that I’ve never been able to make head nor tail of what your man was on about, although I’m happy to admit that he may have been a marvellous bard for a’ that.
Now this was a proper multicultural bash, with a strong contingent from the Motril Choral Society gracing the evening. Everyone read a poem. Mine was called Anna, thy Charms, which was a lucky break and stood me in good stead later on, as the wife’s name is Anna, give or take an ‘n’.
The whole thing was done properly, with a Master of Ceremonies to keep order and boss everyone around, and a very great quantity of whisky. There must have been some good brains among the choral society because they had managed to translate all the poems into Spanish, and Burns is not the easiest poet to translate. I was a little suspicious at first because my poem contained the lines: ‘But ah! How bootless to admire, When fated to despair!...’ which came out: ‘Mas ¡ay! ¡cuán inútil es admirar, cuando se está condenado a la desesperación!’
‘Bootless’ is a good word and certainly has it over ‘inútil’, although I can see the translator’s dilemma.
A person from the Highlands rose to perform his poem, burbling beery borborygms through his beard. I shook my head and sighed as if with emotion, in order to fool everybody that I knew what was going on, but the truth was that I understood not a word.
I could see that I was not the only one; most of the audience were wreathed in sighings and oohings and the sort of body language that comes on after great poetry, but bubbling beneath the surface I sensed an air of bafflement.
Then Macarena stood to deliver the Spanish version. Now Macarena is the sort of woman you’d dream of to interpret your Burns for you; she is long and willowy and morena (brunette) and dressed in a skin-tight, red boiler-suit, and as she surveyed the gathering through those almond eyes, and pursed her full red lips, you could have heard a wee mousie sigh. The man himself would have been hard put to exercise a modest restraint.
But the beauty of it was that from Macarena’s version you understood exactly what the bard was on about. It was clear as a bell and sweetly musical in Castellano, and it brought the house down. As the evening progressed even the true Highlanders were hanging upon her words.
Now a Burns Night is a structured thing; it’s not your usual ill-disciplined bash, and there’s a lot to be said for this way of holding a party.
The haggis (a McSween flown in for the occasion) was properly piped in and presented to the appropriate people, and the unforgettable Address to the Haggis was duly performed.
The idea behind a Burns Night, apart from the conviviality, is to encourage those who know nothing of Robbie Burns to go home and get to know him. This I did, and now I’ve come awa’ with a boiling enthusiasm for his poetry. And armed as I am with my little knowledge, I’ve come to prefer the originals to the Spanish versions.
‘Suerte a su rostro honrado y vivaz, Gran cacique de la raza de los postres!’ ... can’t really hold a candle to: ‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race!’ ... can it?
As a footnote, you’ll be interested and pleased to know that world haggis consumption is on the up. Our poultry are crazy for the stuff.
Main image: Haggis on tartan (Shutterstock)