Parallel voyages: Publishing The Journey Is Home in two languages simultaneously
This month sees the publication of John Sam Jones’ memoir The Journey is Home in both English and Welsh, courtesy of a translation by the award-winning author Sian Northey. From a boyhood on the coast of Wales to a traumatic period studying at Aberystwyth, to a scholarship at Berkley in California as the AIDS epidemic began to take hold before returning to Liverpool and north Wales to work in community engagement and sexual health.
Here John talks to his translator about the rewards and the rationale of publishing the same book in two languages simultaneously.
John: Throughout the months of sweat and tears writing my memoir The Journey is Home, I had a constant earworm whispering ‘this should be in Welsh’. Perhaps it’s my age – I’ve certainly become more reflective in my sixties … perhaps it’s that I’m now a Welshman living abroad and very occasionally attacked by hiraeth … or perhaps it’s the disappointment I’ve often felt in myself when I’ve explained at author Q&As that I can’t write in Welsh despite being a fluent (if grammatically inaccurate) speaker. And perhaps it’s all of these – or maybe just the somewhat self-important wish to ‘leave something behind’ in Welsh!
When my attempts to write yn Gymraeg failed I thought about translation – indeed, I’d already discussed the possibility of a German translation with my husband (not so much for publication but for friends and family who would struggle with an English text) and I happened, at the time to be reading Perthyn by Sian Northey – a writer whom I admired. In 2015 she translated Alys Conran’s novel Pigeon into Welsh – Parthian’s first venture into publishing a Welsh and English version of a book at the same time. Which suggested my first question to her.
Is there much translation of literature from English into Welsh?
Sian: There’s not much call for the translation of adult fiction and creative non-fiction, but more factual books and children’s books are translated. This is mainly because, apart from a handful of people in Patagonia, all adult Welsh readers could read any book in the original English. That fact alone reduces the call for translations from English into Welsh. Translations, from whatever language, into English, have a large monolingual audience who have no other way of accessing the work, but the fact that Welsh-language publishing can offer the reader examples, good examples, of most genres as original Welsh-language books also reduces the need for English to Welsh translations.
John: Who will read Y Daith ydi Adra – and will there be readers of the Welsh edition who would not have chosen to read this work in English?
Sian: Since you’re from Wales, a Welsh speaker and known to the Welsh speaking community, I’d guess that the readers of the translation will be very similar to the ones who would have read your memoir had it been written by you in Welsh, and who read similar biographies. And yes, I don’t doubt that there will be some people who would not have chosen to read the English version – because they prefer to read Welsh … because publicity for Welsh-language books reaches them … because they wish to support Welsh-language publishing – a whole host of varied reasons. Publishing both versions at the same time will, I believe, increase the number of people who will read the Welsh language version because they have the choice of either; a later publication date for the translation may have led to fewer sales in Welsh because people who know you would probably have read the English version and then not bothered to read the translation when it appeared. However, one thing that surprised me with Alys Conran’s Pigeon was that a small group of people did read both – I didn’t expect anyone to do that!
John: Putting aside any financial aspects for choosing to translate this memoir – what merit does The Journey is Home have that persuaded you it was worthy to have your name on the cover of a Welsh language version?
Sian: Good writing is the first criterion, and that box is obviously ticked! I also felt that you tell a story that needed to be told in Welsh. To slightly misquote you the point still needs to be made that it was ‘Welsh-speaking boys too’ who lived those experiences, and not so very long ago.
John: Were there any aspects of this memoir that proved problematic in the translation process? If so – how did you meet the challenge?
Sian: My main worry was that I had to create a ‘Welsh-writing John Sam’ when a ‘Welsh-speaking John Sam’ already exists. I didn’t know you well, but we had spoken together a few times, so had some idea of your voice. But on the other hand your writing voice would not be the same as your conversational voice. I really wanted you to feel ‘if I was writing in Welsh this is what it would be like’. And all this of course intensified because you’ve written a memoir. The Welsh language, whilst it may have a smaller vocabulary than English – and now I’m quoting something Tony Bianchi said in an event we did together at the Hay Festival – ‘Welsh has a wider range of registers’, and getting that right was the challenge. Other more minor challenges were religious terminology and references (Siôn Aled Owen’s help here was invaluable) and the language of the gay-subculture.
John: What does Y Daith ydi Adra bring to Welsh-speaking readers?
Sian: Hopefully it will bring all that it will bring to English-speaking readers, with the added bonus of feeling that this is part of our story in Welsh-speaking Wales.
John: How did you, as the translator, feel you developed your relationship with me, the author?
Sian: You were very easy to work with – thank you! And since you do read Welsh there was some discussion backwards and forwards, which we have, I believe, managed well. I think, too, that it was ideal that I did know you to some degree, but not very well. My job was to translate the book, not present my version of John Sam Jones.
John: Will there still be a readership for Y Daith ydi Adra in five/ten years’ time – and if so, why?
Sian: I hope so, climate change permitting. I’m confident that the change in attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community and Brexit are both big enough social and political phenomena for people to be interested in the story of a man whose life was so affected by them.
John: The Journey is Home is a very honest, frank memoir – were you at any point distressed by aspects of the story, and if so, how did you become reconciled?
Sian: Spoiler alert! Chapter 6, Electricity, was hard right from the beginning because I knew (through a TV programme I think) of your experiences in the old asylum in Denbigh. So even before you drew the parallels I was dreading what was coming and how it would affect you. You were of course brave and tough! Actually, the fact that I did know you helped with any distressing bits – I know that you’ve come out the other end a positive and life-affirming person. But I did often find myself angry on your behalf – before getting on with my job of finding the right word, idiom, sentence structure.
John: Y Daith Ydy Adra and The Journey is Home will be launched during an online event hosted by Awen Meirion, Bala on the 21st May at 7 p.m.
You can buy copies of the books here…
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Thank you for discussing the translator’s challenge. I am getting my courage up to learn Cymraeg beyond Diolch, Cymru am Beth and hiraeth.