Welsh-English translator and editor of New Welsh Review, Gwen Davies, speaks to us about indigeneity, place, migration and translating contemporary Wales.
I’ve been told you feel some affinity with that wonderful Said quote: ‘Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions’. You grew up in a Welsh-speaking family in West Yorkshire. How has that affected your long relationship with Welsh literature and languages?
Edward Said sums up the positives and the negatives of living in exile. My family was living in a very benign form of economic exile from Wales. Both my parents were translators. My upbringing was internationalist, and Welsh was central to that: my mother and father spoke Welsh to each other and to my brother; my father spoke Welsh to all his children, but my two sisters and I replied to him in English. My mother spoke English to us after we were toddlers but then (in my case) we switched language to Welsh when I was about twenty, having matured enough to stop using language as a psychological weapon.
I have a memory from the Seventies (possibly wishful thinking), of my father speaking in Welsh to an Asian Bradford petrol-pump attendant. A bilingual childhood leads to a feeling of constantly translating in your head. More recently, living in a household affected by autism, I feel I am translating different modes of thinking in order to express myself and empathise with others’ worldviews. So the legacy of exile is much deeper than a relationship with any single language or literature. Yet, once in Wales full-time at eighteen, I knew I needed to catch up. It was Welsh writing in English, initially, that opened a window onto a very rich, multicultural world.
We’re drawing towards the end of the International Year of Indigenous Languages. And yet, a now-significant public figure recently said that ‘too often there are parts of our country […] where English is not spoken by some people as their first language and that needs to be changed’. On one frequency, this attacks migrant communities and cultures; on another, it attacks the indigenous languages of the UK, and their ties to community, land and culture. What relationship do you see indigeneity having with the Welsh language, and, in turn, what ethics are at stake in translating between Welsh and English?
My first reaction would be to ignore such neo-imperialistic nonsense. For Welsh-speakers, the knowledge that such talk pushes a reactionary agenda is bolstered by the feeling that, yet again, our existence is being ignored. The obsession with some sort of fake ‘Anglo-Saxon’ heritage is a myth created for political purposes. And yet, that is how a perilous majority of white British people regard themselves: of one language, one culture, one heritage, and all of it built on lies. This anglocentrism persists because there are so many people concentrated in England – and the whole Brexit story is about that, to a degree (with opposition to the backstop arising from a wilful denial of the Irish postcolonial situation). The majority experience prevails: English speaking; post-industrial; struggling, and therefore looking for a scapegoat.
A story of Caryl Lewis’s that I translated as ‘Against the Current’ (‘Y Llif’, broadcast here with English subtitles) explores potential tensions between indigenous Welsh identity and migrants. It’s about a young Polish abattoir worker who wades into a river in spate, intending to save an elderly, bankrupted Welsh farmer. The title’s literal translation would be ‘The Flood’. But I felt that – in a wider UK context, for a story published immediately after the EU referendum – any nuanced evocation (unintended by the Remain-voting author) of Farage’s incendiary use of the word ‘flood’ to defend his campaign’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster should be avoided. In its Welsh-language context, the title and theme of a flooding river might recall English-speaking migrants who have undermined the language in heartland areas. In the context of Caryl’s broader oeuvre, it speaks to her themes of the conservation of land, language, place. In this story, the Polish man decides to return home, choosing his daughter and heritage over the slaughterhouse. You could say that my shift of emphasis in the title attempted to neutralise, at this time of heightened rhetoric around immigration, the risk of some readers interpreting the story as an apparently Leave-leaning one (which I wished to reduce, as a Remain-voting translator) .
Regarding ethics, there are some writers – for example Twm Morus – who have refused to translate or have their work translated, in solidarity with a beleaguered culture. But I’ve come home to Wales, and writing in the medium of English helped me get here. You could even regard Twm’s refusal as an inadvertent running-dog for the anglocentric narrative of ignoring Wales. We shouldn’t help the process by choosing ourselves to be invisible when there might be readers out there who may eventually, like I did, return to the Welsh language.
I mention ties to the land, in part, because the non-human world is fundamental to Caryl Lewis’s The Jeweller, as well as her other works you have translated. The Jeweller is very much about human relationships, but it’s also very much about relationships with place, and the temporal and cultural links tied to it. Are you particularly drawn to literature of the land, and the legacies of The Country and the City that are always nearby for Welsh literature?
Place is the notion that defines my magazine (New Welsh Review/Reader), and Wales is a strong part of my identity. Our current e-edition shows a preoccupation with ‘personal geography’ and ‘the archaeology of place’. Being outdoors was a huge part of my childhood so I was tapping into those sensual feelings while translating Caryl’s fiction. I love rural novels such as those by Tom Bullough, Cynan Jones, Ross Raisin and Bruce Chatwin, and Fiona Mozley’s Elmet. But the Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin collaboration, Remains of Elmet, was a different sort of childhood influence. Above all, it is my visual impulse that connects to Caryl’s imagination, rather than nature per se. As for legacies from Welsh-language literature, I’m still an apprentice. When I translate into English, I’m drawing on traditions of English-language literature and Welsh writing in English, because it is within those that I’m most fluent.
In relation to the idea of place, I wanted to ask about translating (for) near-neighbours. Often, linguistic translation means also interpreting a related gamut of non-linguistic touchstones, places, contexts, meanings. What are the different challenges of translating Welsh for the Welsh English-reading market, and at once for the broader English-reading market?
In answer to what you ask about the broader English-reading market, what I said above, about translating Caryl’s story as ‘Against the Current’, is relevant. The context and indeed concept of migrants, from both England and Europe, is different for a genuinely threatened indigenous culture like Welsh than the situation in England or America, where such a threat is manufactured for political ends wherein dominance masquerades as vulnerability. English readers in Wales, on the other hand, might enjoy the odd Dylan Thomas reference I throw in – like ‘the green fuse’ in The Jeweller. Caryl’s use of a form of cynghanedd (ancient strict-metre poetry) in prose was the major challenge. I recognised it, but wasn’t hung up about it, and knew it would be unproductive to try and replicate every sound’s position as it appeared in the original. My approach, instead, ensured that some rich gobbet – alliteration or heightened metaphor – compensated, on roughly the same page, for that impoverishment.
Some of the language that caught me in The Jeweller – alongside the rich use of figurative terms and visual imagery – was translated idiom. Stacked alongside each other we have ‘blood will out’, ‘the acorn never falls far from the tree’, ‘hackney mistress, hackney maid’. Overleaf, we encounter the phrase ‘for the time being, the echo was keeping mum’. In this latter phrase, which comes at a moment where both silence and the maternal are significant, the word ‘mum’ takes on a particularly rich meaning in the English. How do you approach translating proverb from Welsh into English?
Yes, ‘keeping mum’ wasn’t an idiom from the original but one I created, drawing on the maternal drama and Caryl’s emphasis on sound and silence. The original sounds gorgeous, but I wasn’t about to create an English cynghanedd like some corny latter-day Gerard Manley Hopkins. I needed to make up for that loss by other means. Hence a literal translation (‘as silent as the grave’) becomes, in my version, sonically richer. Having heightened the drama earlier by personifying the echo Caryl creates (‘Mari sobbed and the beach boomed back in longing’), that echo closes the chapter by ‘keeping mum’.
The ‘acorn’ proverb is very similar in the Welsh, with only its literal translation, ‘apple’ being different. A literal translation of ‘tebyg i ddyn fydd ei lwdwn’ would be ‘a man’s beast will be like him’, but that sounds dreadful, so ’blood will out’ works better. ‘Dim ond drwg ddaw o ddrygioni’ has a wonderful alliteration in Welsh but a literal translation such as ‘only bad comes from badness’ loses that altogether. So ‘hackney mistress, hackney maid’ preserves the repetition – of word as well as sound – whilst amplifying the gendered verbal abuse to which Mari’s father subjected her, linking back to that all-present maternal theme.
You have been Editor of the New Welsh Review since 2011. It feels like a particularly complex time for literature’s relationship to language, region and politics. As someone with a particularly broad vista on new Welsh writing, what shifts have you seen recently, and what shifts would you like to see soon?
Larger than the influence of an editor such as myself are the economic and political forces affecting writing and publishing. This is especially true in a place like Wales, so overshadowed by England as it is, for good or evil (and we do, especially those of us working in the English language, reap some of the benefits of bigger potential markets). Writers’ own interests play a part, as do the subjective choices of other players such as prize judges or publishers’ peccadilloes.
For me, fiction, especially, is about tolerance and empathy. That’s reflected in the calibre of both short- and long-form authors like Carys Davies and Alys Conran. Climate change and the aforementioned ‘personal geography’ feature in the eco-novels of Alison Layland and Helen Pendry. And we certainly have an ancient tradition for the public bardic role, alive in Welsh and healthy in English, particularly in a crossover from poetry to essay-writing and a passion for environment and place. This is typified in the work of Robert Minhinnick and John Barnie. There is also a huge rise in confidence of our female poets – people like Emily Blewitt and Jasmine Donahaye. The genial gregariousness and hopeful spotlight that the Costa-winning poet Jonathan Edwards shines on his Valleys community points to affection and belonging as a way forward. Some of our other poets such as Richard Gwyn and Patrick McGuinness, also experimenting with nonfiction, are doggedly cosmopolitan, both in settings and outlook. There is an interest in magic and fairytale, especially among female authors who cut their teeth on stories, such as Jo Mazelis, Kate Hamer and Mari Ellis Dunning. We have an exciting, powerful and creative literary world, in both languages, and I wouldn’t change it for anybody.
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.