Should we translate Welsh literature into English?

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Jen Llywelyn
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Jen Llywelyn

When I began learning Welsh in 2002 I also tried to find out everything about the nation’s culture, in all its forms. I noticed people banging on about Kate Roberts, so I bought ‘Feet in Chains’ to have a go at… and I couldn’t see why she was popular! Such a ‘correct’ and heavy translation. It wasn’t until I did Safon Uwch that I could read ‘Te yn y Grug’ – and then I understood. Translation is so difficult to get right. A few years ago I read ‘Anna Karenina’, translated into English by a Russian woman and her English-speaking… Read more »

Sibrydionmwar
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Sibrydionmwar

A very interesting and thoughtful essay. I have read quite a few Welsh novels, and a firm favourite of mine is Mihangel Morgan, though I have also extensively read the works of Kate Roberts. I’ve not read much Welsh language literature in translation, only having once read Traed Mewn Cyffion in English once, to compare it to the Welsh original before passing the novella on to a non-Welsh speaking friend. I was brought up to respect the integrity of the original works in their original language. my father being firmly of the belief that a language itself is part of… Read more »

Geraint Talfan Davies
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Geraint Talfan Davies

This is a really interesting conversation. Adam has set out a comprehensive reasoned case for translation. Personally, I think the existence of the big bear next door is not an argument against translation into English. Far more important is the need to alert the non-welsh speaking majority within Wales to the totality of their nation’s culture

Myfanwy Alexander
Guest

Exactly! My Welsh speaking detective is a vehicle for exploring the nature of the society in which I live, as well as, hopefully, providing a good laugh and a strong story. The translation of the first novel ‘A Oes Heddwas’ has sold well in the translation ‘Bloody Eisteddfod’ and I hope, in due course, the other novels in the series will come out in English as well.

Michael Colley Hales
Guest
Michael Colley Hales

Of course it should be translated into English as well as into any other language where there may be interest.

Robert Williams
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Robert Williams

I agree with Geraint Talfan – an interesting conversation, which touches on a number of important issues for those of us who care about the Welsh language and its culture. I would emphasise Adam’s caveat that translation should not be too immediate – let the original have the field to itself for a decent length of time. Thank you Adam – I look forward to further contributions.

Benjiman L. Angwin
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Benjiman L. Angwin

Mr. Pearce speaks Cymraeg, so a basic English translation below y Gymraeg. Uchafiaeth/Blaenoriaeth (primacy) yw’r gair allweddol. Dwi’n mwynhau diwylliant nad ydy cyfieithu neu ymnewid ffurf ar gyfer diwylliant arall, Saesneg yn yr achos ’ma, gan mai anghyfieithedd naws a chraidd yw hanfod diwylliant iach. Dwi’n meddwl fod pobl yn rhy eiddgar ystyried beth mae siaradwyr Saesneg yn meddwl am y Gymraeg. Does dim ots beth mae siaradwyr Saesneg yn meddwl, does dim angen esbonio eich hunan ar gyfer diwylliant arall. Os daw cyfieithiad ag arian i’r Gymraeg, mae’n dda, ac mae’n dda allforio’r Gymraeg i wledydd tramor. Ond mae… Read more »

JD
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JD

Ultimately, languages don’t translate.

I have read the English version of ‘Un Nos Ola Leuad’ and it is a mess. It wouldn’t even work if it was written in southern Welsh dialect.

The same applies to Welsh translations of English books.

Take Roald Dahl, for example. The delight of his work is his mastery of the English language and invented words like snozzcumbers and dandyprats. I bought the Welsh version of the ‘Twits’ for my niece and found it sterile.

Jason Morgan
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Jason Morgan

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth in this – and I say that as a translator! I haven’t read the translation of ‘Un Nos Ola Leuad’ in full but have read a few pages of it. It could be a completely different book – although to be fair to whoever translated it, they had an impossible task in UNOL’s case. I imagine ‘Traed Mewn Cyffion’ (also mentioned above) is in the same vein. I had a book – years back – of Welsh poems that had also been translated into English, I can’t remember the name of the book now,… Read more »

Adam Pearce
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Adam Pearce

I both agree and disagree. There are some things it must be very hard indeed to translate, and I think Jason lists some good examples. But just because something is difficult does not mean it is impossible. A lot too depends on what one expects and what one is used to. As readers familiar with the originals we may well be disappointed with any translations simply because they have that uncanny valley effect of being similar to something we know and love, whilst simultaneously being “wrong” in some clear but undefinable way. On the other hand, the audience for translations… Read more »

martinowen
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martinowen

What’s the issue? I am an avid reader of Marquez, Borges, Murakami, Simenon and no end of Scandi/Italo/Hispano crime fiction writers. ‘Un Nos Ola Leuad’ may be a mess but the Welsh text adjacent to the English was a smart move.

Daniel Cavanagh
Guest
Daniel Cavanagh

Definitely a smart move!

There should be much more of these side-by-side translations. It would certainly help alleviate the worry that the translations are divorced from the original since the reader can see the original right in front of them and really feel the flavour of it (which can only entice them into learning the language, surely? It would me)

And also side-by-side books are really good for learning languages in their own right

Daniel Cavanagh
Guest
Daniel Cavanagh

‘Interlinear’ (ie. ‘between the lines’) is the technical term for these side-by-side translations, if anyone is curious. I couldn’t quite remember before

Davydh Trethewey (@MawKernewek)
Guest

The only caution I would raise is that as a learner it can be difficult to focus on the original language if that is what you are trying to do if the English translation is next to it. With a “parallel text” format where the original is on the left hand page and a translation on the right, sometimes it can help to cover the English with a piece of paper when reading the original language.

Daniel Cavanagh
Guest
Daniel Cavanagh

Thanks for the caution. I’ve had very little experience myself with this type of text, just heard good things from people I respect. ‘Parallel text’ (interpaginar?) sounds like a perfectly good solution since it could still be linked line by line

Adam Pearce
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Adam Pearce

The danger of these side to side translations if they become commonplace is that they end up being the standard expectation for Literature in the language. This has happened in Scots Gaelic for example where most things published in Gaelic are parallel-text versions, and so the Gaelic becomes “invisible” in a way, losing its primacy.

Daniel Cavanagh
Guest
Daniel Cavanagh

Good point. Does this mean there are none/very few Gaelic-only books? That would be a shame

Hmm. If your first rule of translation is enforced (hereby known as Pearce’s 1st rule of translation :D) then the originals losing their primacy shouldn’t be issue?

And if the translations are interlinear (or ‘interpaginar’ / ‘parallel text’ as Davydh suggests), when they are finally translated the original is still there alongside the translation and never goes away. That should theoretically maximise exposure to the Welsh original and thus maximise its primacy?

Adam Pearce
Guest
Adam Pearce

In all honesty I don’t know, I remember reading something to that effect but it may not be completely the case. The counter argument of course could be that, without the additional revenue gained by selling the parralel text editions to non Gaelic speakers, it wouldn’t be profitable to produce them at all.

Trailorboy
Guest
Trailorboy

Also going beyond translations, what about re-interpretations or having books in English that are unashamedly based on the Welsh original, but in the style of another author and maybe with different characters and settings, that appeal to a different audience. Throughout history tales and stories have been retold best, when they have been reinvented for other languages and cultures, by adapting and imposing new styles onto them. The same could and probably should be done more in moving storylines into Welsh as well, copyright rules permitting. I have read some books in Welsh where the style has been great and… Read more »

Ann Looker
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Ann Looker

I’ve read 4 different English translations of War and Peace. The earliest was 19th Century and the latest about 10/15 years old. It’s like reading 4 different novels. I don’t read Russian so I still haven’t read the real “War and Peace”. On the other hand, without the translations I would have missed out completely. A lot depends on the quality of the translation. I remember a time fairly recently when Amazon didn’t even bother to name the translator of the books they were selling. Things are better now.

Alwyn ap Huw
Guest

Having read many translations and adaptations of books from English to Welsh and from Welsh to English, I tend to agree with Trailorboy that adaptations work much better than proper translations. Many of the classic Welsh language books; Enoc Huws, Traed mewn Cyffion, Yn ôl i Leifior etc; work because their dialect helps give a sense of place and time which is lost in translation, but might be able to be recovered by sensitive adaption. A good example of an adaption done well is Jim Jones’ Tan y Wenallt, adapted from Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. Obviously it would be… Read more »

Tellyesin
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Tellyesin

Fferyllt? Homer? Llorca? Neruda? The Epic of Gilgamesh? Kallevalla? Three of those are in languages that no longer exist and I speak neither Spanish nor Portuguese. The works of the world are all made in first languages and shared via translations. The only issue that should prevent us from sharing our literature with the other 7,000,000,000 who don’t speak Welsh should be finding someone who can do a good translation that will sell the works. It’s not the translation that’s the worry but whether llyfrau yn y Gymraeg will disappear. There are two main things that govern that and they… Read more »

Eos Pengwern
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Eos Pengwern

I’m coming to this a bit late after being away on business for the last couple of days, but as the author of a recent translation myself it goes without saying that I agree with all four of Adam’s arguments in favour (although the third of them seems a bit shaky based on my experience) and all three of his caveats. My own motivation in translating Daniel Owen’s Rhys Lewis was partly personal, partly a desire to raise the profile of Welsh-language literature outside Wales, and in the particular case of Rhys Lewis to draw people’s attention to a critical… Read more »

Adam Pearce
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Adam Pearce

Roeddwn i’n ceisio gweithio allan pwy oeddat ti! Dyna ateb I mi felly!

Eos Pengwern
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Eos Pengwern

Mae’n ddrwg gen i, roeddwn i’n bwriadu danfon e-bost atat ti yn bersonol i ddweud, ond rhywsut fe esgeulusais i wneud hynny. Erbyn hyn mae pawb arall yn gallu gweithio allan yn rhwydd, trwy dreulio tair munud ar Google!

sianiflewog
Guest
sianiflewog

Englihs below: Nid hynny ydy’r pwynt: iawn mi allech chi gyfieithu rhai o’r ‘mawrion’ i’r iaith saesneg. A fyddai’r sais cyffredin yn werthfawrogi? Os am gyfieithu, yn fy marn i byddai’n well wneud i ieithoedd eraill lle mae mwy o ddiddordeb a lle o gydymdeimlad at ein pethau ni. Y gwir gyfeiriad i gyfieithu ydy o’r Ss i’r Gymraeg. Yn anffodus, mae llawer o bobl yn glywed am lyfrau saesneg ac yn gofyn amdanynt. Mi fyddai’n beth iach i bobl darllen y llyfr newydd, am dymor byr, enwog mewn gyfieithiad. Mae hyn yn digwydd yn aml efo llyfrau enwog o’r… Read more »

Brian John
Guest

Interesting discussion! But one gets the impression from many of the comments that Welsh writing and publishing exists in a commercial vacuum, designed for the delectation of a small academic community. There seems to be a presumption that it does not actually matter whether anybody out there on the high street WANTS what is written, published and translated. Sorry to be a party pooper, but we in Wales need to embrace the fact that novels are products in a highly competitive market place. If they are good, people will want to read them and will pay good money to buy… Read more »

Adam Pearce
Guest
Adam Pearce

You are correct of course, but one does come across an ambivalence or even outright hostility towards the principle of translating Welsh literature into English – as if this is some kind of betrayal or compromise. I wanted to put forward the argument that this is not the case.

Bendigedig
Guest
Bendigedig

“Y gwir gyfeiriad i gyfieithu ydy o’r Ss i’r Gymraeg.” / “The true direction for translation is from English to Cymraeg.”

I completely disagree. Welsh speakers are bilingual so why would we want to read English books in Welsh when we can read the original? This is already done too much with children’s books in my opinion. We need more original children’s books in Welsh and books translated from other languages than English (even if English has to be used as a pivot language because of the lack of Welsh translators able to understand other languages).

Adam Pearce
Guest
Adam Pearce

Cytuno / agree. Translating from English into Welsh has that inherent issue in that readers might well ask themselves why they are not reading the original instead. There is n reason however to prefer English to Welsh for reading any other work though!

Bendigedig
Guest
Bendigedig

“one gets the impression from many of the comments that Welsh writing and publishing exists in a commercial vacuum, designed for the delectation of a small academic community”

Not true. There are plenty of Welsh books read by ordinary people, biographies and the like. I would actually argue that we don’t have that many ‘academic’ books in Welsh.

brianjohn891
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brianjohn891

Bendigedig — of course I agree with you that lots of books of all sorts are read — in Welsh — by “ordinary” people. But the point I was making is this. How large are the numbers? If a book — in any language — sells only around 500 copies, it is not commercially viable, even if the literary establishment and the academics love it and extol its virtues. Welsh publishers will continue to produce non-viable books so long as the commercial risk is carried by somebody else — namely the taxpayer, through the subsidy system. We need to keep… Read more »

Bendigedig
Guest
Bendigedig

“Wythnos Yng Nghymru Fydd needs doing within the next 15 years before we reach the time that Islwyn Ffowc Elis was writing about.”

Hasn’t it already been done as A Week in Future Wales?

As regards Un Nos Ola Leuad / One Moonlit Night, I saw a play in English about 20 years ago and it didn’t jar with me at all. They’d left some Welsh words and syntax in.

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

I’ve searched diligently for a translation of Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd into English, under either “A Week in Future Wales” or “A Week in the Wales of the Future”, and drawn a blank. There is no mention of one on the book’s Wikipedia page, for example. However, it is known about outside Wales, as this American comic testifies, but I have no idea how Randall Munroe (who has no links with Wales as far as I know) got wind of it.

Bendigedig
Guest
Bendigedig

I must admit I haven’t seen a translation, but just assumed there was one because the English name is so familiar.

Bendigedig
Guest
Bendigedig

“By all means make Welsh language literature available in English and other languages, but through sensitive adaptation rather than stiff translation.” I’m not sure I agree here. Of course a translation shouldn’t be too literal and any good literary translator would know that, but an adaptation usually means changing the names and place names etc. to suit the target culture e.g. Begw going to chapel would become Jane going to church. I wouldn’t want that to happen to Welsh novels and would rather a foreignised translation rather than a domesticised one with some words maybe left in Welsh to give… Read more »

Adam Pearce
Guest
Adam Pearce

What is a translation, and what is an adaptation? There is a tendency for Welsh language publishers to market translations as “addasiad” as if “cyfieithiad” suggests inferiority in some way.

Arwyn Jones
Guest
Arwyn Jones

As a bilingual Welsh–English speaker, I was delighted with Philip Mitchell’s translation of “Un Nos Ola Leuad”. For me, it captured just about as much of the original work as could possibly be hoped for. I doubt that many people could have done a better job given the colossal complexity of the original work. As translations go, it was a Herculean task and even Caradoc Prichard (who spoke and wrote commendably fluent English for a living!) readily admitted his own inability to translate his masterpiece into English. Regardless of any objections anybody may have against the translating of Welsh literature… Read more »