A modern translation of Burns’ “To a Mouse”
On the 25th of January, Scotland celebrates Burns Night, an annual commemoration of Robert Burns (1759–1796), widely regarded as the National Poet of Scotland. Though written in archaic looking language, many of the themes in his poetry are still relevant to us today.
To celebrate Burn’s night this year, I present a modern translation of one of my favorite Burns poems, commonly called “To a Mouse” or “Tae a moose”. I didn’t try to make a word-for-word translation—there are many of those around—instead, I’ve taken some liberties both to make sure the original meaning is well understood by modern readers, and to make it rhyme, using the original rhyming scheme as far as I could.
This poem is written to address a mouse that the poet encounters while he is plowing a field. He starts by apologizing for mans’ encroachment in the mouse’s life, and how it spoiled the mouse’s sensible plans for the winter, and ends lamenting that since often plans don’t work out, the mouse is actually lucky in comparison to himself, since it does not dwell in the past or worry about the future.
The American author John Steinbeck named one of his novels after a line in this poem — see if you can spot it!
Get the original text as Burns wrote it at the Scottish Poetry Library.
Tae a Moose (On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough)
Robert Burns, 1785 — modern translation by Stewart Everett
Sleek, timid, cowering little guy,
Oh, what panic is in your eye!
You need not run away so hasty,
With a protesting squeal!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murderous zeal.
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
That makes you startle
At me, your poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!
I’m sure, sometimes, you steal some wheat;
So what? Poor thing, you’ve got to eat!
Bits and scraps from a field of grains,
Is a small request;
I will be blessed with what remains,
It won’t be missed.
And your little house, it’s ruined too!
Its walls dispersed as wind blows through,
And nothing left to build anew,
With plow’s upturn.
And bleak December’s winds ensue,
With icy burn!
You saw bare fields and harvest passed,
And weary winter coming fast.
And cozy here beneath the blast,
You thought to rest,
Till crash! the cruel plow did smash,
Right through your nest.
That little heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble.
Now you’re turned out, for all your trouble
Your house is lost,
To suffer winter’s sleety dribble,
And bitter frost.
But little mouse, you’re not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid plans of mice and men
Go oft awry,
And leave us only grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Still compared to me, you are but blessed!
About just today, you’ve ever stressed:
Alas I think of long ago,
On fortune drear!
And forward, though I cannot know,
I guess and fear!
If you liked this, let me know in the comments!