A scene from a Scottish production of The Guid Sisters, a Scots translation of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belle-Soeurs.


How Michel Tremblay became a Scottish sensation

Playwright Michel Tremblay is one of Quebec’s most revered artists, but his works have also been celebrated in Scotland, thanks to the Scots translations of his plays by Martin Bowman, BA’67, MA’69, and Bill Findlay. Those translations were recently collected in the two-volume Michel Tremblay: Plays in Scots.

Story by Maeve Haldane

April 2024

Few writers are as beloved in Quebec as Michel Tremblay. His plays and books focus on the intimate lives of the people who populate Plateau Mont-Royal, in the vernacular French of working-class Montreal.

Thanks to the efforts of Martin Bowman, BA’67, MA’69, and Bill Findlay, Tremblay found a second, very enthusiastic audience across the Atlantic Ocean. Bowman and Findlay collaborated on several of Tremblay’s plays, translating them into Scots.

Those translated plays had an impact. The work led The Guardian to describe Tremblay as “the greatest playwright Scotland never had.” When Theatre Scotland magazine published a list of 100 plays that could serve as “the foundation of a Scottish national theatre,” three of Tremblay’s plays, translated by Bowman and Findlay, made the list.

The duo’s eight translations of works by Tremblay are considered so vital to Scotland’s cultural and linguistic heritage that the Association for Scottish Literature recently compiled them into Michel Tremblay: Plays in Scots, a two-volume set edited by Bowman.

Bowman grew up in Verdun to Scottish parents. He lived up the street from the First Presbyterian Church, the focal point of the Scottish immigrant community.

Every Saturday night during his childhood he’d accompany his family to a house party, play with his cars on the floor, and overhear the rich Scots language as spoken by his parents and their friends. His father, a blacksmith, subscribed to The Scots Magazine and would quiz wee Martin on the word of the month.

Bowman attended McGill on a J.W. McConnell Scholarship. His professors, knowing how desperately he wanted to go to Scotland, revived a moribund scholarship for an exchange with Glasgow University (Bowman is still deeply touched by that act of kindness). At the age of 21, Bowman experienced the land of his ancestors for the first time.

Later, he began doing research at the University of Edinburgh on Scottish novelist John Galt. His supervisor urged him to meet another Galt scholar, to ensure that their work wouldn’t step on each other’s toes.

That other Galt scholar was Bill Findlay, whose parents were from Fife, the county to the south of Angus where Bowman’s parents came from.

“Bill was very well spoken, had a lovely Scottish accent and a great sense of humour,” recalls Bowman. A good pub meal and a few drinks later, Findlay posed a question. Was there a Quebec play they could translate?

Tremblay’s classic Les Belles-Sœurs came to mind for Bowman, eventually resulting in a Scots version they dubbed The Guid Sisters (with the same double meaning of “in-laws”) and so began a partnership that spanned years, across which they’d send letters, cassette tapes, and manuscripts. Bowman, who taught at Champlain College from 1972 to 2005, would frequently travel to Scotland for rehearsals and conferences.

Their efforts didn’t meet with immediate success. It took years to get The Guid Sisters produced. Early rejection slips decried the script and its salty language. Surely the female characters in Tremblay’s original weren’t so coarse! But when the Scots version was finally staged at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in 1989, the play was a hit. Bowman and Findlay translated more of Tremblay’s plays. For a decade or so, Michel Tremblay was possibly (and improbably) the most produced playwright in Scotland.

There’s a resonance between Quebec and Scotland, Bowman explains. Parallel experiences include industrial-era migration from the country to the city, and a nationalist streak fuelled by a protectiveness for their distinct cultures.

“I, as a Montrealer, categorically refuse to erase Montreal from these plays.”

Martin Bowman

Bowman and Findlay had a clear priority in how they approached their work. For them it was vitally important that Tremblay’s plays not be adapted to Scotland, unlike prior theatre translations.

“If they’d done [Molière’s] The Misanthrope in Scots, the character would be named Fraser and living in the Highlands,” Bowman says. He and Findlay believed the Scots language was strong enough to be a vehicle for a foreign reality. We see English plays set in Paris, why not Scots plays set in Quebec? “I, as a Montrealer, categorically refuse to erase Montreal from these plays,” says Bowman.

“People could recognize that the one language they knew in their hearts, Scots, could tell a story about a place that wasn’t in their hearts, and bring it in there. This is the great gift of theatre, the universality.”

What did Tremblay himself think of Bowman and Findlay’s work? The playwright was certainly intrigued, attending a production of The Guid Sisters at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, and travelling to Scotland to see The House among the Stars (a translation of his La maison suspendue).

Bowman says Tremblay was supportive of his and Findlay’s efforts and “not possessive at all.

“He was delighted [the Scots versions of his plays] were being published. I think he has a soft spot for the Scottish translations, because he became a Scottish playwright.”

In The Scotsman’s review of a 1998 production of Albertine, in Five Times (a Scots translation of Tremblay’s Albertine, en cinq temps), the publication’s theatre critic wrote, “Tremblay is contemporary theatre’s great melancholy realist; he fits Scotland like a glove and it was a stroke of luck that we had the translators with the vision to see this.”

Bill Findlay’s death in 2005 at the age of 57, put an end to his productive partnership with Bowman. The duo had many more plays that they had hoped to translate.

When he wrote the introductions to each play in the recently published two-volume collection, Bowman quoted extensively from the letters he’d received from his good friend, so Findlay’s voice could be heard discussing the complexities and hitches of translation, the rehearsal processes, and critical responses.

Bowman also included excerpts from his own diary at the time, which gives the texts a rich immediacy. “We had a wonderful time. So, I really wanted it to be a monument to a great friendship.”

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