TRANSLATION Josephine Murray on translating The Gruffalo into Scots

Translator Josephine Murray takes a look at translations into a language close to home: Scots.

Which famous children’s picture book begins with a moose taking a dander...or a dauner

The answer might become apparent when you read the rest of the opening line, which in James Robertson’s version of the book is A moose took a dauner through the deep mirk widd.


The Gruffalo has been translated into over 80 different languages

If you’re still in the dark (wood), the second line from Elaine C. Smith’s version should shed some light: A fox clocked the moose an the moose looked good.

If you recognise these lines, you’ve probably worked out that here a moose is not a large animal with antlers. In James and Elaine’s books, it is in fact the size of a mouse, because moose is the Scots word for ‘mouse’, and these books are translations into Scots and Glaswegian, respectively, of Julia Donaldson’s 1999 book The Gruffalo. 

The Glasgow Gruffalo, 2016

James’ 2012 best-seller The Gruffalo in Scots, and Smith’s The Glasgow Gruffalo in 2016, were followed by versions in Doric (the North-East Scots dialect), and the dialects of Dundee ('Dundonian Scots'), Orkney (sometimes called 'Orcadian' in English) and Shetland (Shetlandic). Then came translations of The Gruffalo’s Child:The Gruffalo’s Wean in Scots and Glaswegian, The Gruffalo’s Bairn in the other dialects, all published by Scottish imprint Itchy Coo. You can read the opening lines of all the translations, and hear James and Elaine reading theirs, on the Itchy Coo website. 

The Orkney version of The Gruffalotranslated by Simon W. Hall

So what is Scots? Alongside Gaelic it’s one of the main minority languages of Scotland, spoken at home by only 1.1% of Scottish adults, compared with the 92.6% who use only English at home, according to the most recently published Scottish Government census. 

A prominent European language in the time of the medieval makars (poets), Scots began to decline in use and status after Protestant Reformers chose English for their religious texts; the Scottish Royal court moved to London in 1603, and the Scottish and English parliaments merged in 1707. Over the following centuries English replaced Scots in politics, business and education. Scots became widely considered a low-status slang, banned in Scottish schools until the mid-twentieth century, and still viewed negatively within educational and other institutions in the early twenty-first century.

In 2002 James Robertson, who will discuss Scots at a SCWBI online event on 7 December, and Matthew Fitt founded Itchy Coo, a publishing imprint and education project, to develop pupils’ and teachers’ Scots reading and writing skills and promote the language through work with the public and the Scottish government. 

Twenty years on, Itchy Coo can be credited with playing a major role in the current revival of Scots, not least through publishing original Scots children’s and YA books and translations into Scots, including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane, Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, Astérix graphic novels and Roald Dahl titles.

'The Princess and the Pea' in Scots

Scots, the collective name for Scotland’s several regional dialects, has no one standard orthography. Phonological spelling is common and there are variations in vocabulary and spelling within each dialect. Thus dander in Orkney and Doric is spelt daandir in Dundee and dauner in Scots and Glasgow. 

Some words, like tod (fox), broon (brown), moose or moosie (mouse), hoose or hoosie (house), and muckle (big or much), are common to many of the dialects. Others are particular to one, such as peedie (small in Orkney dialect) or fantin (famished in Shetland dialect.) Other linguistic shibboleths, or markers, seen in these translations are ‘f’ for ‘wh’ in the Doric version; far (where), fit (what), and ‘d’ for ‘th’ in Shetland; da (the) and dat (that).

While doing my MA dissertation on translation into Scots, I contacted Doric translator Sheena Blackhall, Shetland translator Christine De Luca, and Orkney translator Simon Hall. They all emphasised that they write in the authentic dialect they speak and hear spoken, and the other translations seem to echo this desire. Add in the book’s rhyme scheme and you get some interesting translation challenges. For example, ‘know’ in Scots is ken, so instead of ‘doesn’t he know’, to rhyme with ‘Gruffalo’, the Scots translators have to find a word to rhyme with ken, such as ‘then’. Matthew Fitt uses 

Whut’s a Gruffalo whin it’s at hem 
 Yi mean yi dinnae ken? 

Simon Hall’s Orkney Gruffalo features some linguistic experimentation alongside authenticity. His moose strolls through the grimly trees, grimly being an adjectival version of the Orkney noun grimleens (twilight) that he heard used by a neighbour. Near the end of the book he makes innovative use of the US slang term ‘split’ (left), pronounced splet in Orkney dialect, to rhyme with gret, the past participle of greet (to cry), because the original book’s ‘fled’ isn’t an Orkney word. Reader comprehension is guaranteed by the accompanying illustration showing the Gruffalo running away in fear.

….the Gruffalo gret 
And quick as the wind through the trees he splet.

The Gruffalo translations are a brilliant introduction for young Scots speakers to their dialect as it is written — and for adults too, as literacy in Scottish schools has long been and continues to be taught in English, although some Scots texts are now studied. They’re also a great resource for anyone interested in finding out more about the UK’s minority languages, particularly as they can be compared and contrasted with one another and with the original English version, with the help of online dictionaries such as the Dictionaries of the Scots language  and one on the ShetlandForWirds website. 

Picture credits

*Header image by Jess Stockham

Art for The Gruffalo (all editions) by Axel Scheffler

The Orcadian Gruffalo, photo by Simon W. Hall on his blog at Brisk Northerly

Art for The Itchy Coo Book o' Grimms' Fairy Tales in Scots by Emma Chichester Clark


Josephine Murray is a French-to-English literary translator who recently completed the University of East Anglia's MA course in Literary Translation. She wrote her dissertation on Scots, as she knew a little Doric from her Aberdeenshire-born grandparents and great-aunt, who died while she was a child, and from LP records of the 1970's and 80's Aberdeen comic sketch show Scotland the What? which her father inherited from his father. Studying Doric as part of her dissertation enabled her to explore her linguistic heritage – and understand the LPs.

She is also an award-nominated journalist and teacher of foreign languages and creative writing. A Cordon Bleu qualified cook, she particularly enjoys translating books about food, and children’s literature. She lives with her husband and daughter in Gloucestershire. 

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