4. Nostalgic Ossian and the Transcreation of the Scottish Nation
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52 CHAPTER FOUR Nostalgic Ossian and the Transcreation of the Scottish Nation Cordula Lemke Transcreating a Nation It has often been noted that James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian have a distinct postcolonial agenda. They were published at a time when a body of opinion existed that there was a need to counter supposedly English traits of character with features that were perceived as being typically Scottish. The motivation for this assertion of identity was to fend off an English cultural hegemony that threatened to turn the Union of Parliaments of 1707 into a colonial enterprise. When Macpherson’s collection of Highland ballads attracted the attention of the intellectual scene in Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Literati saw the text as an opportunity to employ poetry for their nationalist, though not separatist, aims. Anything Scottish was deemed worth noticing, but they had the highest regard for the supposedly ur-Scottish phenomenon of Gaelic culture. Thus, James Macpherson, with a working knowledge of Gaelic and an antiquarian zeal for the collection of Gaelic ballads, was seen as an ideal mediator. As is well known, Macpherson’s Ossianic poetry was soon declared a fraud, yet it remained firmly in place as a European bestseller. Still, it triggered a debate about authenticity and forgery, which keeps researchers busy up until today. By now, an agreement has been reached that Macpherson’s poems cannot be wholly ascribed to either side. Macpherson did indeed translate ballads he discovered in the Highlands, but his claims of having found a complete epic poem of a bard called Ossian can only be attributed to his own ‘creativity’.1 In a manner typical of the Enlightenment thinkers’ obsession with unity, he created a harmonious entity out of the diverse ballads he encountered, and declared one of their characters, Ossian, to be their author.2 Although the accusation of forgery makes the question of national identity more problematic than 53 nostalgic ossian it might otherwise be, this chapter nevertheless takes a closer look at Macpherson’s act of translation in his epic poem Fingal and asks whether Macpherson’s creativity can be seen as a postcolonial act of rewriting.3 In recent years, Translation Studies have increasingly questioned the concept of translation as a linguistic challenge of transmitting authentic meaning, demonstrating that it involves more than just a desire to understand other people and to make their cultural achievements known to a wider public. As Tejaswini Niranjana states, translation is ‘tied up with context’.4 As such it is part of a power structure that can never be impartial or innocent. The attempt to translate meaning into another language necessarily entails a cultural enterprise, as meaning cannot be separated from context. Translators have to take into account the cultural background of a text in a foreign language and seek an equivalent in their own culture. As such, the act of translation is closely related to a feeling of inadequacy, of failure, as translators experience the impossibility of conveying an intended or authentic meaning.5 Any attempt at ‘truthful’ translation is doomed to fail; any claim for authenticity is unavoidably lost on the way. For Niranjana, however, this foregrounding of the subjectivity of the translator opens up a possible space of resistance.6 Translations no longer exhibit empirical knowledge, but can be questioned in relation to their motivations and aims. In the course of this development, the term ‘translation ’ is increasingly used metaphorically (or perhaps indeed literally) since the focus is not so much on the actual text, but on the cultural features it ‘carries across’. Thus ‘translation’ can be read as a ‘transmission of elements from one culture to another’.7 In addition, the rhetoric of translation has been used for acts of rewriting, a postcolonial strategy of countering the grand narratives of colonialism by adding a different perspective. Postcolonial writers have frequently practised the strategy of rewriting by employing the linguistic structure of a vernacular in English texts and have, thereby, both ‘thickened’ and defamiliarised the English language and challenged the role of English as a standard.8 The process of rewriting is of interest if it is interpreted not so much as a ‘writing back’, as an assertion of one’s own perspective against oppression, but as a narrative strategy. One case of rewriting arises when a translation fails to adhere to the ‘original’, but uses it as a starting point for its own literary creation. Here, the emphasis lies on the shaping influence of the text the translation is...