Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic tale of crofter life in the Mearns, Sunset Song, has been published in German for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The novel, translated by Esther Kinsky, has been published under the title Lied vom Abendrot by Guggolz Verlag in Berlin, who specialise in underappreciated works from the first half of the 20th century by authors from northern and eastern Europe.
Gibbon was born James Leslie Mitchell in Auchterless in 1901. He was raised in Arbuthnott in the Mearns and attended Mackie Academy in Stonehaven, which was at what is now Arduthdie Primary School, before becoming a journalist in Aberdeen and Glasgow.
In 1919 he joined the Royal Army Service Corps, and in 1920 the RAF as a clerk. During this time he served in Iran, India, and Egypt; locations which inspired his first works of fiction. In 1925 he settled in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire, and lived there with his wife until his death in 1935.
In 1991, the Grassic Gibbon Centre was established in Arbuthnott to commemorate his life and work. There is a memorial to him and his wife, and other members of the Mitchell family, in the western corner of the Arbuthnott village churchyard.
His most famous work, Sunset Song, is a classic in Scotland and was voted Scotland’s favourite in a 2016 BBC poll, ahead of Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, and John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps.
At the time of the BBC poll, the First Minister Nicola Strugeon told the BBC about her appreciation and affection for the novel.
Despite Gibbon’s massive popularity in Scotland, he has been somewhat neglected in Germany.
In the 1970s a publishing house in East Berlin began the mammoth task of translating Gibbon’s entire A Scots Quair trilogy, of which Sunset Song is the first part.
Between 1970 and 1986 three editions were published in East Germany but after the fall of the Berlin Wall the books were never reprinted.
Thirty years later, Guggolz Verlag and Esther Kinsky made their first foray into the works of Lewis Grassic Gibbon in 2016, publishing a translation of Gibbon’s Scottish Scene, a collection of stories and essays originally published in 1934 alongside the doyen of Scottish literature, Hugh MacDiarmid.
Encouraged by the success of that publication, they decided to take on Sunset Song.
In the process of translating the novel, Esther Kinsky spent time in Stonehaven and the Mearns to get a feel for the land and language of the novel.
Reviews of the translated novel have been good. The reviewer in the German daily, Frankfurter Rundshau, commented: “Esther Kinsky’s words could be named honorary Scots, because they are plump and round and full of life… You can taste them on the tongue; they let you immerse yourself in a past described by Lewis Grassic Gibbon with a keen, modern vision.”
Regina Erich, a German translator based in Stonehaven, said: “The result is a brilliant, authentic translation.
“It doesn’t only do justice to the original but also conveys the nature of the landscape, the characters and the general flavour of the story.
“It also puts north-east Scotland and the Mearns firmly on the map of an international readership.״