Translating The Gruffalo into Orcadian

I began an Orkney translation of Julia Donaldson’s children’s classic The Gruffalo last December, just for pure fun. I love the original text, and used to read it with both of my bairns when they were peedie. I also love James Robertson’s version, The Gruffalo in Scots. This Gruffalo is much closer to Orkney language than the original is, but there are words and soonds in the Scots version that somehow just aren’t right for Orkney. We certainly speak Scots in Orkney, but it’s a pretty distinct variety. ‘A moose took a dauner through the deep, mirk widd/ A tod saw the moose and the moose looked guid’ is pure Scots poetry, but we don’t say ‘guid’ in Orkney, and we wouldn’t say ‘tod’ for ‘fox’ either, so these lines had to change completely. In the end, The Orkney Gruffalo began ‘A moose teuk a dander through the grimly trees/ A fox saa the moose, an thowt You’ll feed me!‘ 

The translation goes deep intae wur community and history, but it hid tae remain contemporary.

Working through the text posed a number of challenges, and began to show me what Orkney language is capable of when you really push it. The moose is peedie, the gruffalo is muckle – already we’re in the realms of Viking language. When we say moose, it’s the same as Norwegian mus – the older northern form of the word that became corrupted in the sooth. The Gruffalo can only be described as a baest – one of the words we use in Orkney for a ku – because Orkney has more kye per hectare than anywhere else in Europe. Playing with contemporary idiom is great fun, too, so the moose says 'Beuy, dae ye no ken?' And isn’t ken the same in Orkney, Norway and Germany?

The grammar is different, too. In Orkney, it’s grammatically correct to say ‘His eyes is orange’. The verb ‘is’ agrees correctly with the noun ‘eyes’. Orkney language has its own consistent grammar and follows its own rules. Likewise, the first person possessive pronoun in Orkney is ‘me’, as in 'me puggie is rummlan'. How many folk have been told off over the years for using ‘incorrect’ language like this? It’s good to celebrate diversity, and to recognise the historical pedigree of this stuff. Wur language is rare, and unique.

And whar dis aal this language come fae? I don’t tend tae use the owld Orkney pronoun ‘hid’ much mesel, but I ken folk who say it aal the time, and it felt right at places in the translation. And when the moose sterts tae get hungry, it wis a bairn in the Shapinsay school who reminded me o the word puggie. Then I minded on a story me grannie telt me aboot a boy fae Copinsay who described a previous night’s thunder tae her wan day – Hid rummled an rummled – hence me puggie is rummlan. So the translation goes deep intae wur community and history, but it hid tae remain contemporary. 

Hou faer could I push the translation waeoot it becoman a heritage piece? Weel, there’s no words in it that I hivna heard used in Orkney in the last year. An that includes slightly rarer words like neb, grimly, splet or baelan, words that are a bit less common these days, but are still very much alive. There’s also contemporary stuff here, too. This cool moose eats good maet. An aal kinds o things are made intae tasty nuggets these days; fae chicken tae alligator, so why no Gruffalo?

Anyway, I hope you’ll enjoy The Orkney Gruffalo, and that ye’ll enjoy readin it tae your bairns or grandbairns. It’s published by Itchy Coo on October 21st. Copies – signed by the translator – are available from Robert M. Hall’s shop in Willowburn Road, Kirkwall.

Find out more about reading Scots to children, and variations of the Scots tongue with our 5 Books with Scots Regional Dialects booklists.

Simon Hall

Simon Hall is the author of the award-winning The History of Orkney Literature, and a leading advocate for the Scots language, writing on the subject for The Herald, TESS and many other publications. Head over to Simon’s blog to find out more, including a hugely popular recording of Simon reading The Orkney Gruffalo.