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One story, two languages: Yn y Tŷ Hwn / This House

27 May 2024 6 minute read
Yn y Tŷ Hwn by Sian Northey is published by Gomer Press, translated by Susan Walton as This House for 3TimesRebel Press

A translation into English of Sian Northey’s first novel Yn y Tŷ Hwn recently hit the shops.  It’s called This House and has been translated by Susan Walton. Here Sian and Sue give us their perspectives on how the translation came about, the process, and the difficulties and the pleasures of working together.

Sue

I read Yn y Tŷ Hwn when it came out in 2011 and absolutely loved it. It’s a gem. Although I translate Welsh/Cymraeg into English as part of my business, these are all commissioned jobs.

I didn’t know anything about ‘pitching’ books for translation. Most of what I’d done before This House had been novels for older children too. I’d never translated a literary novel for adults.

In 2019, I became aware that in 2020 a consortium consisting of Wales Literature Exchange, Literature Wales, and the National Centre for Writing was offering a menteeship to an emerging literary translator. I tried for it, and got it. I decided my project while being mentored would be Yn y Tŷ Hwn.

I figured it would be worth the unpaid time I’d have to devote to the project because if I’d been seen as good enough to be mentored; that would indicate to potential publishers the quality of my work.

During the translation itself Sian and I didn’t work closely. I worked more closely with my mentor than with her. However, we discussed things I wanted to change. For example, there’s a famous Welsh poem that serves a function in the story. What to do? Leave it in the original language? Translate it? Replace it? Cut it?

To cut it would have been to lose an important node of the story. Leaving it or translating it would have removed the significance for anyone not familiar with the poem. So I decided on a substitute.

To do its job properly, the replacement had to be something that links to stars, has a sense of fate and prefigures a calamity. And it had to be well known enough for the main character to have learned it off by heart at school. I ended up proposing part of ‘The Stolen Child’ by W. B. Yeats, which Sian consented to.

I also needed Sian to approve the title: ‘This House’ (rather than a literal translation, which would have been ‘In This House’).

Any difficulties were mostly a result of me trying to find a publisher when I had no experience of doing this. I did lots of research and attending seminars for new authors and the like online. I joined the Translators Association (part of the Society of Authors).

Sian was as helpful as she could be with trying to find a publisher, but her experience is mostly with publishers in Wales, and none of them were interested. I was approaching UK-wide publishers. After two years of trying, I managed to snag a contract with 3TimesRebel Press, It only publishes books written by women in minority languages.

Having just appeared at our first literary festival together – in Llandeilo – I can now say that one of the pleasures of working with Sian is going to be promoting the book as a double act.

Sian

When Sue told me that she was tackling the translation of my novel Yn y Tŷ Hwn as her project during her mentorship I think my main reaction was curiosity. I also translate books as well as writing them, working from English to Cymraeg on the whole (it’s better to translate into your stronger language).

I therefore knew that there would be decisions to be made, problems to be overcome, and hopefully fun to be had. I don’t think I realised until fairly late in the day how determined Sue was that the end of the process for her would be an actual book on bookshop shelves.

And it has been an exhilarating process, like all things that involve a degree of trust. When you bungee jump (haven’t, never will, but let’s use the metaphor) you trust the cord and the harness and the people who clip you in.

When your book is translated you trust the translator. I had to trust a press that was new to me, and that was a young publishing house. And now I have to trust English language readers.

But more than anything, what I must trust is my own book, especially my own characters. I must have faith that Anna –  the main character –  is strong enough to survive this. Mad or pretentious as it may sound, I’ve always thought of her as someone who really exists.

And I’m glad to report that she’s OK. When reading This House, I occasionally thought ‘That isn’t a word that Anna would use’, and then have to remind myself that this isn’t really my Anna now, she is also, at least partly, Sue’s Anna. But basically she’s still the same person, the small differences are no more than the difference between the Cymraeg-speaking Sian and the English-speaking Sian.

Sue was right – the thing that has brought this subtly different Anna into existence is an actual physical book, which will be read by actual flesh and blood readers. It would have been a shame had she remained as no more than a Word document that could be changed at any point, no more than a mentorship project.

Being the beautiful physical object produced by 3TimesRebel Press is oddly important. Far more than it’s ever been for me with my original novels.

And I can feel that Anna has developed slightly itchy feet. Cymraeg and English are the only two languages I can read, but she (and Emyr and Dora and Siôn and all the rest of them) can now leave me behind. Anna and Nant yr Aur, her house, can go on without me.

I’d love to be told sometime in the future that a Catalan Anna, or a Polish Anna, exists. I have had poems translated into Malayalam, and it was magical to believe that those marks on a page, that beautiful unfamiliar alphabet, were my words. It’s a matter of trust and of letting go.

Sian Northey’s This House is published by3TimesRebel Press and is available from all good bookshops.


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Adrian Meagher
Adrian Meagher
6 days ago

One has to wonder why none of the Welsh publishing houses were interested in this translation.

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