There was no question of getting through to the kernel and throwing away the shell: no question of a gilded pill. The pill was gold all through. The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live.

C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald

Why do fairy tales and imaginative stories speak to our soul? The simple words weave together and stay with us long after the book is shelved. The fiction and fantasy penned by a humble and brilliant man, Scotsman George MacDonald, changed the direction of C.S. Lewis’s faith life. Lewis included the oft’ quoted experience in the preface of his book George MacDonald: An Anthology. This text was a collection of extracts taken from MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons and additional works of his fiction. In the preface, Lewis tells the reader about the moment he purchased a copy of Everyman’s Edition – Phantastes. He writes, “A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier …What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize my imagination.”[1] The glory of MacDonald’s writing inspires many readers today, but a basic challenge to the modern reader is understanding his unique style of prose, especially when it is infused with old Scots dialogue.

George began to write in 1853, resigning from a position as Minister at a chapel in Arundel in Sussex, England and “embarked on the career of lecturing, tutoring, occasional preaching, writing, and ‘odd jobs’ which was his lot almost to the end.”[2]  About half of his original texts were written either in part or whole in the old Scots tongue known as Doric.[3] While readers of the 19th and turn of the 20th century, or anyone living in proximity to Scotland, could readily understand MacDonald’s writing, the modern reader might be a bit vexed. Dialog is particularly difficult because in order to truly understand the characters, you need to comprehend their words and the meaning in them. Fortunately, for anyone who wants to dig deep and enjoy his fiction and fairy tales, we have a handful of translators who are actively bringing George MacDonald’s long list of literary works to new generations of readers. His fantasy works including The Curdie tales and The Light Princess do not contain any Scots, as they were all written in English; however, Sir Gibbie and Donal Grant offer a wealth of goodness and beauty worthy of a thorough translation, allowing his beautiful prose to inspire new generations of readers.

Over time, MacDonald’s literature has slowly faded from popularity, but his novels continue to resonate with a small sphere of loyal fans; oftentimes, they are also readers of Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien. MacDonald was a foundational influence to these writers of fiction, fantasy, and myth, blending theology and imagination into transformative tales with characters who stayed in the heart of the reader. Great mythmakers and storytellers like Lewis and Tolkien were avid and lifelong admirers of his work — George is regarded as one of the chief inspirers of the Inklings — but many readers are just discovering his wide-reaching influence and want to enjoy more than George’s more popular texts that are currently published.

Who better than a true Scotsman to understand the nuances of the Scots language? David Jack, MacDonald translator, currently lives in Perth, central Scotland. His formative years were spent in the North East, where he attended school at Lossiemouth and the University at Aberdeen, which is the same University that George MacDonald attended in 1840.

David began reading George MacDonald in his mid-twenties. He admits, “It’s hard to believe how much he’s neglected here in his homeland.” (We are usually unaware of the treasure that can be found in our own backyard.) He grew up a mere fifty miles from MacDonald’s birthplace, but “had no early exposure to him or his works, and had to discover him in the old familiar way: that is, through the writings of C.S. Lewis. I read him in the first instance out of curiosity, and a general interest in Scottish literature as a whole, and have remained with him because of his matchless ability to combine compelling narratives with the revelation of profound spiritual truths.”

Jack read the MacDonald texts in the original Scottish. He states that “I don’t think I was aware, when I first read MacDonald, that there were modern editions of his books which toned down the broad Scots. I understand that the language is problematic for many, and downright indecipherable for some, but as one of his fellow countrymen, I’m glad he felt at liberty to employ his ‘mither tongue’ so freely in his books. The dilution of the Scots was a necessary sacrifice in the past, though undoubtedly a heavy one too, as it allowed these tales to reach beyond his homeland and to impact the wider world.”

Accurate translation that remains true to the author’s original intent and voice is difficult, but understanding the nuances of the spoken word used in common conversation adds another level of challenge. For example, here is an excerpt from George MacDonald’s novel, Donal Grant:

“But there’s jist ae question I maun sattle afore I gang farther, an’ that’s this: whether I’m gaein to be less or mair nor I was afore. It’s agreed I canna be the same. If I canna be the same, I maun aither be less or greater than I was afore; whilk of them is’t to be! I winna hae that question to speir mair nor ance! Gien it be possible I’ll be mair nor I was. To sink to less wad be to lowse grip o’ a’ my past as weel’s a’ my futur. Hoo wad I ever luik her i’ the face gien I grew less because o’ her! What would it be for a stoot chiel like me to lat the bonnie lassie think hersel’ to blame for what I was grown til! An’ there’s a greater nor the lass to be consider’t. ’Cause he disna see fit to gie me the ane I wad hae, am I to say he’s no to hae his wull o’ me? Na, na! It’s a gran’ thing to hae kent a lassie like yon, an’ a gran’er thing yet to hae been allooed to lo’e her; an’ to sit doon an’ greit ’cause I canna merry her, wad jist be to be an oongratefu’ fule.”

This passage is entirely spoken word and full of emotion. Unfortunately, the average reader would spend more time on analysis of the text than entering into the beauty of the passage.  David Jack’s translation of the same passage follows:

“But there’s just one question I must settle before I go farther and that’s this: whether I’m going to be less or more than I was before. It’s agreed I can’t be the same. In that case, I must either be less or greater than I was; which of them shall it be? I must put that question to rest at once! If it be possible I’ll be more than I was. To sink to less would be to lose grip of all my past as well as all my future. How would I ever look her in the face if I grew less because of her! What would it be for a strong man like me to let the bonnie lassie think herself to blame for my growing worse! And there’s a greater than the lass to be considered. If he doesn’t see fit to give me the one I would have, is that any reason to shrink from giving him my all? Na, na! It’s a grand thing to have known such a lass, and a grander thing yet to have been allowed to love her; and to sit down and cry because I can’t marry her would just be to be an ungrateful fool.”

The passion of the character is revealed in the translation, inviting the reader into the scene and story.

Jack has now translated five of MacDonald’s Scottish novels: Robert Falconer, Castle Warlock, Sir Gibbie, and Donal Grant, with Malcolm due to be released at the end of 2020. Next up is the sequel to Malcolm, The Marquis of Lossie followed by Alec Forbes of Howglen with five more after that.

When asked why he acted on this monumental call, David replied, “Ever since I first stumbled upon Robert Falconer (my MacDonald “baptism”), I had begun to dream about ways I could turn my knowledge of Aberdeenshire, its language, and all the specifically Scottish aspects of MacDonald’s works to account, but I don’t think I ever got beyond a general idea of acting as the Scots ‘tour guide’ for his devoted American fans. Fortunately, Jess Lederman, creator of The Works of MacDonald website, had a clearer vision. He commissioned me, back in 2016 to translate all twelve of the original Scottish novels into English, thus making them fully accessible at long last to the majority of non-Scots who have previously struggled with them in their original unabridged format.”

The novels include the languages of Scots and English, which can be just as problematic to read. The flow of the story suffers when the text is a combination of each language. Here is an excerpt from the novel Sir Gibbie showing the difficulty of reading two narrative languages in one passage:

“Gien ye binna quaiet, ye s’ taste the dog’s teeth,” said Robert. — Angus reflected that he would have a better chance when he was left alone with Janet, and yielded. — “Troth!” Robert went on, as he continued his task, “I hae no pity left for ye, Angus MacPholp; an’ gien ye tyauve ony mair, I’ll lat at ye. I wad care no more to caw oot yer harns nor I wad to kill a tod. To be hangt for’t, I wad be but prood. It’s a fine thing to be hangt for a guid cause, but ye’ll be hangt for an ill ane. — Noo, Janet, fess a bun’le o’ brackens frae the byre, an’ lay aneth’s heid. We maunna be sairer upo’ him, nor the needcessity laid upo’ hiz. I s’ jist trail him aff o’ the door, an’ a bit on to the fire, for he’ll be cauld whan he’s quaitet doon, an’ syne I’ll awa’ an’ get word o’ the shirra’. Scotlan’s come till a pretty pass, whan they shot men wi’ guns, as gien they war wull craturs to be peelt an’ aiten. Care what set him! He may weel be a keeper o’ ghem, for he’s as ill a keeper o’ ’s brither as auld Cain himsel’. But,” he concluded, tying the last knot hard, “we’ll e’en dee what we can to keep the keeper.”

Next, read Jack’s translation below, which helps the reader remain in the emotion and depth of the story without getting snagged on the author’s meaning of “bun’le o’ brackens frae the byre” or other Scot terms. These comparisons demonstrate the value of a good translation.

“If you don’t hold your noise, you’ll taste the dog’s teeth,” said Robert. — Angus reflected that he would have a better chance when he was left alone with Janet, and yielded. “Indeed!” Robert went on, as he continued his task, “I have no pity left for you, Angus MacPholp; and if you struggle any more, I’ll let at you. I would care no more to bash out your brains than I would to kill a fox. To be hanged for it, I would be but proud. It’s a fine thing to be hanged for a good cause, but you’ll be hanged for a bad one. Now, Janet, fetch a bundle of bracken from the byre, to put under his head. We mustn’t be harder upon him than the necessity laid on us. I’ll just trail him off from the door, and towards the fire a bit, for he’ll be cold when he’s quietened down, and then I’ll go and have a word with the sheriff. Scotland’s come to a pretty pass, when they shoot men with guns, as if they were wild creatures to be peeled and eaten. Away with him! He may well be a keeper of game, for he’s as poor a keeper of his brother as old Cain himself. But,” he concluded, tying the last knot hard, “we’ll just do what we can to keep the keeper.”

David Jack’s love and admiration of MacDonald’s writing and life, as well as his shared heritage, lend a genuine authenticness to the translations.  When asked about particulars in George’s life, Jack tells us that “there are certainly a couple of overlooked facts that are worth drawing to people’s attention. As regards the man himself, there was his love of finery, and of theatricals, which I have always found endearing. He and his family would put on regular productions of The Pilgrim’s Progress, with MacDonald playing the role of Great-heart: and as G K Chesterton astutely observed, he was one of the few figures of his time who could have done this without absurdity, since he was ‘like a character in one of his own fairy tales’, and ‘an elemental figure, unconnected with any particular age’.”

Additionally, we may only know George MacDonald via Lewis, leaving the association between the two as a sidebar; however, many readers do not know about his friendship with Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll. Jack goes on to comment that “it’s interesting (if somewhat melancholic, given their relative abandonment in our day), to reflect upon how well received they [his novels] were both by critics of the time, and by certain famous fellow-writers. I am talking here about his specifically Scottish fiction, since later praise of his fantasy works may already be quite well known to us. Lewis Carroll, for instance, called Annie Anderson, from Alec Forbes of Howglen, ‘one of the most delightful [characters] I have ever met with in fiction’, and Mark Twain was enraptured with the first half of Robert Falconer — even if the overt spirituality of its conclusion seemed to have been rather wasted on him.” The current work on translations is good news and could increase the popularity for MacDonald to that of his literary peers.

With this wealth of novels and fairy tales, which book is the best reflection of MacDonald’s faith and writing, and which book would David recommend first to a new reader? “I think that from an artistic and a faith perspective combined, Robert Falconer may well be his masterpiece; though a strong claim could also be made for Alec Forbes, Malcolm, Sir Gibbie, and What’s Mine’s Mine. The best entry-point for new readers probably varies according to tastes and timing, but it’s hard to go wrong with Sir Gibbie.”

C.S. Lewis notes that George’s father “advised him ‘to give over the fruitless game of poetry’.”[4]  But we should be thankful that George did not follow his father’s advice because we find lovely poetry tucked into his stories. David Jack’s translation transforms a challenging poem to a melodic work that retains the beauty and rhyme of the original, making it a joy to read.

This is a poem from the novel Malcolm, written in original Scots.

The water ran doon frae the heich hope-heid,

Wi’ a Rin, burnie, rin;

It wimpled, an’ waggled, an’ sang a screed

O’ nonsense, an’ wadna blin,

Wi’ its Rin, burnie, rin.

Frae the hert o’ the warl’, wi’ a swirl an’ a sway,

An’ a Rin, burnie, rin,

That water lap clear frae the dark till the day,

An’ singin’ awa’ did spin,

Wi’ its Rin, burnie, rin

Ae wee bit mile frae the heich hope-heid,

Wi’ a Rin, burnie, rin,

’Mang her yows an’ her lambs the herd lassie stude

An’ she loot a tear fa’ in,

Wi’ a Rin, burnie, rin.

Frae the hert o’ the maiden that tear-drap rase,

Wi’ a Rin, burnie rin;

Wearily clim’in’ up narrow ways,

There was but a drap to fa’ in,

Sae slow did that burnie rin.

Twa wee bit miles frae the heich hope-heid,

Wi’ a Rin, burnie, rin,

Doon creepit a cowerin’ streakie o’ reid,

An’ meltit awa’ within,

Wi’ a Rin, burnie, rin.

Frae the hert o’ a youth cam the tricklin’ reid,

Wi’ a Rin, burnie, rin;

It ran an’ ran till it left him deid,

An’ syne it dried up i’ the win’,

An’ that burnie nae mair did rin.

Whan the wimplin’ burn that frae three herts gaed

Wi’ a Rin, burnie, rin,

Cam to the lip o’ the sea sae braid,

It curled an’ grued wi’ pain o’ sin—

But it took that burnie in.

The following is the same poem, translated into English. This is a non-literal translation in order to keep the rhyme intact.

The water ran down from the high hope-head, (head of the valley)

With a Run, river, run;

And it sang as it flowed o’er its stony bed

Such nonsense as never was sung,

With its Run, river run.

From the heart of the world, with a swirl and a sway,

And a Run, river, run,

That water leaped clear from the dark to the day,

Its revel anew begun,

With its Run, river, run.

Just one short mile from the high hope-head,

With a Run, river, run,

And a single tear which a shepherdess shed

Mixed with the rippling water dun,

With a Run, river, run.

From the heart of the maiden that tear-drop rose,

With a Run, river, run;

Wearily climbing like one who goes

Toiling uphill in the burning sun,

So slow did that river run.

Just two short miles from the high hope-head,

With a Run, river, run,

Down crept a cowering streak of red,

And became with the water one,

With a Run, river, run.

From the heart of a youth came the trickling red,

With a run, river, run;

It ran and ran till it left him dead,

And then its thread was outspun,

And that river no more did run.

When the river was forth from those three hearts sent

With a Win, river, win,

And at last with its parent-sea was blent,

The sea-waves curled with the pain of sin—

But they took that river in.

George MacDonald’s writings influenced some of the greatest authors in the last 150+ years. In 1905, the year of MacDonald’s death, G. K. Chesterton noted that “if we test the matter by strict originality of outlook, George MacDonald was one of the three or four greatest men of 19th century Britain.”[5] There is a challenge in reading older books because the language is richer and the vocabulary is extensive, but the wealth of beauty, spiritual truth, imagination, and encouragement in the texts rewards us in the challenge. With these true-to-MacDonald translations, we can continue to delight in these timeless stories.

Anyone interested in purchasing a matching set of the Scots/English translations should be aware that Malcolm will mark a turning point for the translation series, as it will feature a unique new spine. You can find updates on pending translations on the Facebook group George MacDonald Society. David Jack’s translations and many other books, including vintage editions, can be found at . The translations are also available through Amazon.

Citation Information

Annie Nardone, “The Richness of Plain Talk: Interview with David Jack on Translating the Beauty of George MacDonald,” An Unexpected Journal: George MacDonald 3, no. 4. (Advent 2020), 89-106.

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[1] C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), XXXVIII.

[2] Ibid., XXVII.

[3] Kirsten Jeffrey Johnson. “Did You Know?” Christian History Magazine, 2005, issue 86, accessed October 2, 2020. .

[4] Lewis, XXIV.

[5] Johnson, “Did You Know?”.