Today I’m interviewing Gwen Davies, the translator of Caryl Lewis’s Welsh novel, The Jeweller. Now as I’m guilty of focussing more on literature in translation from mainland Europe, and of ignoring that translated from British indigenous languages, I thought I’d extend the scope of the interview to Welsh literature in general. As Gwen is also editor of the New Welsh Review, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.
Photo credit: Jessica Raby
1) How did you become a literary translator?
My translation taste-buds started tingling as I grew up within a Welsh-speaking family in Yorkshire. But then they developed through working as a creative editor. A major revision was needed of a rough translation, by the author Robin Llywelyn, of his novel, Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn. The publisher (Parthian, for whom I was working at the time as editor), asked me to revise that basic translation of this pan-Celtic take on The Pilgrim’s Progress. I did it (in office hours), with the author’s approval, so de-facto, what appeared as White Star was a co-translation, although I was too much of an innocent to fight for copyright or credit. I just loved the process. It seemed like editing on a bigger canvas; a natural extension of those technical writing skills an editor employs daily. Although I was fairly timid in my approach to that translation, over the years, my editorial experience has led me to consider taking more risks with a text (for example compressing repetition or noticing and addressing minor inconsistencies) than a purely linguistic translator might do.
2) How did you become the translator of The Jeweller?
Around 2005–06, I was commissioned, by what became the Wales Literature Exchange (WLE) to prepare a sample translation of Caryl Lewis’ bestselling and Wales Book of the Year-winning novel, Martha, Jac a Sianco (Y Lolfa, 2004). The same publishers, Parthian, for whom I’d stopped being employed at that stage, then commissioned me to translate the whole book, which came out in 2007 as Martha, Jack and Shanco. During 2007–08, around the time that Caryl’s next full-length novel for adults, Y Gemydd (Y Lolfa, 2007) was longlisted for the same award, WLE commissioned my sample translation for that. Having engaged with the first few chapters and enjoyed them, I thought I may as well carry on. This path is in danger of sounding a very smooth one, with publicly-funded organisations and agencies in support. In fact, the road was much rockier. However, I’m delighted with our new publisher, Honno, and how our female author-translation duo is being celebrated by a women’s press and their all-female team and publicist.
3) Describe the process of translating The Jeweller.
My earliest attempts were made around a decade ago, although I did that unforgiveable thing in an editor’s eyes – tinkering on the proof – so it only became totally complete at Easter. The details are a bit hazy! But it took at least a year, in four or five drafts. I had invaluable input and support from my local writer friends. A chapter was published by editor Kathryn Gray in New Welsh Review. Caryl and I had a rather surreal week in Liguria at an Italian-English translation workshop, then called Mrs Carter. For a while, I optimistically carried in my purse the business card of a Rome-based translator we’d met there. I showed Caryl batches of the first draft of my translation, and flagged up sections that perhaps deviated from a traditional, line-by-line, literal translation. I also recall that those ‘deviations’ were fewer than had occurred during my adaptation of Martha, Jack and Shanco, for which I definitely remember discussing every detail with her.
I recall proposing to Caryl that the order of the final three chapters be switched for the translation of The Jeweller, and presented with an additional chapter break (the original has forty chapters but the translation, forty-one). I wanted to formally mark the cessation of protagonist Mari’s perspective, and the fact that she moves offstage altogether. Concerning one aspect of the re-structure, I wanted the action, of the emerald having been sold, to follow straight on with the positive outcome of what that money bought. A more important aspect affected the placing of the final chapter. The original concludes on a foreboding note, with the ‘sins’ of one generation repeating in a future one. The position of the new ending could be read as being equally fatalistic, as it could appear (with readers having read the ‘revisiting “sins”’ chapter) as though Mari, cosy and smiling within her beautiful doll’s house, is indifferent to the new generation’s troubles (which she did nothing to alleviate). But the new chapter line-up, emphasising a happy ending for Mari, offers the possibility of an alternative reading, in which Mari might well get the second chance her positive qualities deserve, and the novel’s theme of redemption is placed centre-stage as the curtain drops. Caryl did not object to this re-ordering. I hope that she doesn’t regret that!
4) How creative did you need to be when translating The Jeweller?
Creativity is essential in any translation, from epigraph to epilogue. I’ve written elsewhere that my concern is foremost for the reader, and about how I regard a book that has been read respectfully and honourably, to become part of that reader’s imagination. In my opinion, a translator is two steps on from being a reader (and one step on from being an editor). She is the author’s most pom-pom laden cheerleader, but – as one of the book’s deepest ever readers – she also becomes a foster mother of the translation, while remaining the original’s ambassador. I’m not one for theory, but I believe that this aligns with certain translation theories about authorship being more multifarious than the Romantic emphasis on singularity, originality and authenticity allows. The product that comes out of a translator’s imagination is in a new language. The translator is now working for that language, that culture, for those references, wordplay, alliteration, names and puns that will only work on a different tongue, in their new positions, on a fresh page. This is only to describe my working processes, and I hope they don’t seem too controversial or put any writer’s nose out of joint.
5) Which translating solution did you find particularly pleasing?
My phrase, ‘keeping mum’. This adapted what would have been the literal lines ‘quiet as the grave’ to underscore Caryl’s dramatic soundscape of booming waves alternating with silence to create a scene (depicted on the cover) of maternal dysfunction and misappropriation.
Also my policy decision, faced with the huge challenge of Caryl’s gorgeous and intricate adoption into prose of the ancient strict metre form, cynghanedd. My approach aimed for similar richness of sound and alliteration in the English, but allowed it to occur roughly on the same page rather than correspond to the exact same word-sequence of the Welsh. If that meant a diversion from a literal translation, then so be it. My first loyalties are always to the power of dramatic and visual imagery in a source title; the aural interplay of vowels, consonants, echoes and half-rhymes; its style, voice, themes and meaning. For me, the concept of producing any single, ‘true’, literal, final translation (while that may be useful as an early draft), is arid.
6) I confess The Jeweller is the first novel translated from Welsh that I have read. Is it typical of Welsh-language literature?
Well, that’s a very broad question. Welsh-language literature pre-exists the English one by many years, dating as it does to the sixth century AD with Y Gododdin, written in the ancient British tongue – and still understandable to Welsh-readers – of the Old North (now Cumbria). Your question also begs another, of whether such an English-language translation should seek to be read within the context of Welsh-language literature. I would be hoping to aim, with this book, for a much broader, English-language and international readership. In its own right, in English, this novel should be enjoyed, as a set of dramatic circumstances, beautiful phrasing, gorgeous settings, cyclical patterns and startlingly original imagery, about lost and stolen objects and relationships.
The Jeweller’s themes are universal: envy; misappropriation; poverty; friendship; depression and displacement. Its sense of place – so palpable – could only be the west Wales coastline, to those who know it, and yet it could be any western-facing coastline for potential readers around the world. It may be that its themes of loss and possession relate in places such as the Deep South, so that Welsh Gothic might in future be lapped up by readers reared on Southern Gothic.
To accept a narrower field of reference, however (that of contemporary Welsh-language fiction), the gothic themes of the original, Y Gemydd, on its publication in 2007 contributed to a dark stream of rural noir which, a decade on, has resonated with international and especially European audiences, joined the wave of Scandi Noir, and then, late in the day, was picked up by Welsh and UK audiences to create the runaway successful TV rural crime drama, Hinterland (on which Caryl worked on the Welsh-language scripts) and Craith/Hidden (for which Caryl also wrote and was associate producer). The association of gothic tropes (such as claustrophobia, death, isolation, dysfunction) with Welsh landscapes and small towns (that was firmly established by Hinterland) was certainly presaged by Caryl’s earlier novels. Her uncovering of the underbelly of rural life here also predates similar themes in the English-language novels of Tom Bullough (Addlands) and Cynan Jones (The Long Dry, The Dig). Additionally, a knowledge of, and playfulness with, lesser-known dialect and local agricultural terms, was being demonstrated in Martha, Jac a Sianco in 2004, long before wider interest in such language emerged around the promotion of Addlands, published in 2016. While I’m very pleased for the success of Tom and Cynan, it can be galling when the power of our Welsh-language writers, the richness of our traditions and the beauty of our landscapes only become visible when they are depicted in the English language or when certain cultural settings and genres – such as the idea of marginalised areas, the emergence of rural noir or new nature writing – become fashionable.
7) Can you tell me more about the Welsh-language literary scene. Is it thriving? Is there sufficient funding for translation to English?
Well, I have as good as admitted that I watch Welsh-language TV more often than I read Welsh literature…. But I would recommend the novels (and TV!) of Fflur Dafydd (her dystopian detective pastiche, Y Llyfrgell, with shades of The Shadow of the Wind, was made into a major film with the English title The Library Suicides). And the poetry of Gwyneth Lewis, another author who is as good in English as she is in Welsh. Also Alys Conran; her Wales Book of the Year-winning Pigeon came out in a brilliant Welsh-language translation (Pijin, by Siân Northey) at the same time as the English. The whole scene, in Welsh and English, is thriving, and women are in the vanguard. London agents and publishers need only expend a tiny bit of effort (for example subscribing to the English magazines of Wales) to discover an Aladdin’s cave right on their doorstep. They would find a culture with an ancient tradition, huge talent nurtured by bilingual brains, often recent working-class roots and an entirely different notion of what constitutes ‘middle class’. Right here is a cure for the ills of an industry that persistently lacks diversity (see Hannah Austin’s hilarious piece on this subject.)
No, there is definitely insufficient funding for Welsh-English translation. Even though my first translation of Caryl’s novels was very well received and I had a WLE-funded translation commission first time around, by the time The Jeweller came to the table, the offered advances were much smaller. I’m not saying that every Welsh-language Wales Book of the Year winner should appear in English (although that would go a long way towards bridging our language communities). But many projects are falling between stools at present, especially more literary ones and full-length books, because there is money to support adaptation for commercial titles, as well as more esoteric, shorter projects such as translations and anthologies between different European languages, English and Welsh.
I’m always stumped as to why increasing the potential of Welsh-language work to reach a vast international anglophone readership seems to be such a low Welsh Government priority. Is it partly the assumption that such translated books, and especially novels, should be able to tap into that as a matter of course? I do indeed hope that we manage such rights sales for The Jeweller. But it’s not an easy process. Wales has only recently started getting a modicum of attention, even within the UK, in the wake of guilty feelings within the media about nations and regions, following the EU referendum vote. Let’s hope that the momentum represented by Cynan Jones’ major Radio Four dramatisation, Stillicide and the happily ubiquitous appearances of comedian and actor Elis James on the same channel, is maintained and encourages producers to risk backing unfamiliar names.
8) Imagine you could obtain funding to produce your dream translation. What would it be and why?
All of Mihangel Morgan’s novels and short stories except Melog, which Chris Meredith translated handsomely. I would start with his novella of gender-fluidity, exclusion and language, Pan Oeddwn Fachgen. Morgan’s sly sardonicism – combined with empathy – gets me every time. I hope my sense of humour is a match for his! See below for the political and linguistic context of the novella’s exploration of identity.
9) Do the preoccupations of Welsh-language literature differ from Welsh literature written in English?
Language tends to crop up a bit more often as a theme in Welsh-language literature as compared to its English counterpart. In Pan Oeddwn Fachgen (noted above), for instance, the predicament of its main character reminded me of James in the TV drama, Derry Girls. The verbalised running joke is that he’s the only English person in the school. The true irony is that James is the only boy in an all-girls’ school. The protagonist of Mihangel Morgan’s novella is a similarly derided schoolboy, but it’s not because of his campness or apparent ‘effeminacy’. It’s because he speaks Welsh, in the south-east of Wales where Welsh has long been retreating. I have no idea yet how I would address that theme in the ‘dream translation’ project you propose, but that’s the challenge.
Language can also preoccupy our literature in English, and I was surprised and very pleased this summer to hand prizes and nominations to book-length English-language entries to a competition for the dystopian novella that had language as a central theme. There are additional political themes, in connection with nationhood, which are less central to the concerns of Welsh writers in English, although they are more often to bilingual authors of equal capacity in both literatures. Fflur Dafydd, for example, in the denouement of her English novel of 2009, Twenty Thousand Saints travels southwards, from Bardsey Island (Enlli) to the sparkling new Senedd building in Cardiff, to underline a character’s personal development. In the Nineties, the novels of Wiliam Owen Roberts and Robin Llywelyn were suggesting that Modernism and international influences such as magic realism were far more important than any ‘issue’ that a language-medium or nationhood evokes. Welsh does offer that luxury to writers of using a marginalised language that automatically evokes certain themes, and therefore leaves them (theoretically) free to ignore it and concentrate on story and style.
I would say that other themes established and emerging within both literatures are place, climate change (especially in poetry), dystopia, a yearning for belonging and a fear of dispossession. There is also a greater market in Wales (the legacy of a flourishing magazine culture) for the shorter forms, for example those advocated by the pioneering New Welsh Writing Awards which champion prose under 30,000 words, most especially the essay, novella and short story.
10) Let’s imagine that I am sent to a desert island. I’m allowed to take 3 pieces of Welsh literature with me. Which 3 titles would you pack in my survival kit and why?
The Welsh-medium 1961 novel, considered to be the mother of the contemporary novel in that language, Un Nos Ola Leuad, by Caradog Prichard, and its wonderful translation by Philip Mitchell (Canongate). Voice is always the draw for me in choosing what fiction to read or translate. The vulnerability and poetry of the boy as unreliable narrator; his colloquial dialogue and internal monologue, as well as the archetypal and yet physically realised lakeside village location, make this classic a title to salvage from any storm.
I should count the above as two books, in line with my comments above about a translator’s authorship. But cheekily, I’ll offer as a second book, All the Souls by Mary-Ann Constantine. This choice salutes the short form, as it contains both a novella – of the underworld and the Celtic periphery – and short stories of delicacy, style and properly realised place.
Finally, I would recommend our champion essay writer, Robert Minhinnick, and especially the Wales Book of the Year-winning To Babel and Back. All the global, far-seeing environmental, migrant-related and cultural concerns of this multi-award winning author are here, as well as his panache, voice, style, argument, hinterland, integrity and firmly rooted empathy.
A novel, a translation, an essay collection, a novella and short stories, all written from our poetic tradition: have a great read, and return to Blighty with the resolve to carry on your good work of helping others in the English-language book scene to recognise our literatures’ ancient roots and deeply talented descendants.