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The Adulterer's Tongue: An Anthology of…

The Adulterer's Tongue: An Anthology of Welsh Poetry

by Robert Minhinnick

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Presented here are translations of the works of six of the most able contemporary Welsh-language poets, writing in styles varying from vers libre to the ancient strict metres. These poets include Bobi Jones, Menna Elfyn, Emyr Lewis, Iwan Llwyd, Gwyneth Lewis, and Elin ap Hywel. In an introductory essay, Minhinnick questions whether modern writers working in an imperiled language might consider English translation of their poems as a form of adultery.… (more)



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Promiscuous Parallels

In his introduction to these translations, Robert Minhinnick says, “I would never claim to be a ‘faithful’ translator. I’m not interested in the mimetic, and, to this writer faithfulness has a dogged, indeed doggish, quality.” Taken on those terms these English versions of Welsh poems can hardly be faulted. If Minhinnick’s primary concern is to write poems into English, and it is a secondary consideration that they happen to be poems from Welsh, then it would only be necessary to review half of this book. But the originals are here too, facing the English text, saying ‘we haven’t gone away you know’. That is as it should be. Minhinnick goes on to say “Yet I would be disappointed not to have captured in some degree the spirit, the colours, and, yes, the meaning, of the Welsh.”

For the most part the spirit and colours of the originals survive the avoidance of dogged mimesis. Meaning, though, is more elusive and Minhinnick’s project inevitably subordinates it to other considerations. The extent to which this is so varies with the individual poets. The three men and three women chosen are presented as a “significant glimpse” rather than a representative selection of the current Welsh-language scene. Of the six, it’s likely that Bobi Jones and Emyr Lewis provided the greatest challenge, and an initial look at how he handles these two poets will best illustrate his “risk-taking” approach to translation. Here is Bobi Jones’ response to Vermeer:

Dal d’anadl wrth edrych:
does yno ond adenydd pluog
heulwen. (…)
(literally: ‘Hold your breath as you look:/there’s nothing there but feathered wings/of sunlight.)
Minhinnick offers:

Look and hold your breath;
there’s nothing here but the fletchings
of sunlight.

Formally the response bears comparison stanza by stanza with the original. But what is interesting is where he deviates from literal equivalence. His translation of ‘adenydd pluog’ as ‘fletchings’ might be seen by advocates of ‘dogged/doggish’ translation as perverse. After all there is no particular problem with supplying the literal ‘feathered wings’ here. But ‘fletchings’ is, in its way, inspired. The word suggests arrows of sunlight, echoes the sound pattern of ‘feathered wings’ and, most importantly, stands on its own as a resonant coining in English. In the rest of the stanza Bobi Jones refers to these feathered wings as redeeming (iacháu) the violence that is not allowed by the inaudible music of the colours. Minhinnick has:

But like the inaudible
music of colour
they are velvet on the wound.

Again there is a leap of the imagination here; ‘velvet on the wound’ for ‘redeem the violence’ suggests Minhinnick inhabiting the Vermeer painting as much as Bobi Jones’ poem. At the end of the poem the Welsh text refers to the peace won by the painter against adversities
ac arno
hongia, fel y grawnwin, ymatal
(and on him hangs, like the grapes, self-restraint)

That last bit is clearly difficult to render in English. Minhinnick instead has:

his signature in paint luscious as
grapeskin that he leaves here.

It’s in handling lines like that that the translator ‘doggedly’ labouring to render them adequately is in danger of ending up with something banal and awkward. Minhinnick instead creates his own response to the original idea and in the process theological themes of redemption and moral arguments about the value of self-restraint are jettisoned.

In ‘M4’, a poem in cynghanedd by Emyr Lewis about being stuck in freezing fog on the motorway, the original

‘Roedd hedd heb ei ryfeddach
o droi’r byd yn fodur bach,
o wylio dawns y niwl dall
yn arwain at fyd arall.
(There was never a stranger peace/ turning the world to one small car,/ watching the dance of the blind mist/ leading to another world.)


Eerie peace in the shape-
shifter’s kingdom, the ghosts
outside, those sequestrators
of the light, clamouring over
this sanctuary.

There follows a long succession of random images. In Welsh we have “Oil dragons in green water/an empty pit, an occasional dog/grass by canals” opposite Minhinnick’s “it’s the pissedup proletariat/laughing in the ha-ha/and hooded teens standing in clumps”. Are we getting Minhinnick or Lewis here? To readers with no Welsh it might not matter. What they will get is an undeniably vivid poem that cannot help but supply a positive impression of the Welsh original. Those who read Welsh fluently will be able to look across and note the differences. Less fluent readers, who may employ parallel text translations as a way of approaching an initially opaque poem in Welsh, would soon get lost here. Clearly Minhinnick is not offering a crib, nor English poems purporting to be mirror images of Welsh originals.

The other poets translated here offer challenges that could more easily be accommodated. Gwyneth Lewis’s narrative verse from the Llofrudd Iaith collection comes over more or less line by line into English as does the free verse of Iwan Llwyd, though in both cases with some intensification of the imagery. Formally constructed poems seem to elicit the more innovative responses, as in Iwan Llwyd’s ‘Y Corryn’ (The Spider), where“treuliodd oes yn nyddu’r heulwen / yn gylch o wlith” (he spent an age [or a lifetime] spinning the sunshine / [into] a circle of dew”) becomes “It had spent an age pleating sunlight in the dewzone”. In ‘Rhodd’ (‘Gift’ but translated as ‘The Watch’) where Gwyneth Lewis offers an extended ticking bomb analogy he has
I don’t think I’m disposed to trust cog-logic
as it counts the days down

to the moment love leaves with its whimper.

A villanelle by Menna Elfyn becomes a villanelle in English, though literal equivalence is eschewed in favour of poetic effectiveness: “Cotwm tylwyth teg, gwawn yn pefrio’n glir” (‘fairy cotton, gossamer sparkling clear’) becomes “We’re scarcely a cobweb, a rumour of ghosts”. The deft fragilities of Elin ap Hywel’s study of the effects of light in a Gwen John painting:
Gw^yr y bydd gwallt y ferch sy’n plygu tua’r golau
yr un lliw â diferyn o waed sy’n araf sychu.
(She knows that the girl’s hair which bends towards the light / will be the same colour as a drop of blood slow to dry),
transfer rather differently as:
While the girl with bloodblack hair
raises her head from her hands.

So should we regard these poems as alternative versions rather than translations? Minhinnick clearly thinks translation is important. He sees poems in Welsh as essential points of departure for welsh poets writing in English, and also acknowledges Gwyneth Lewis’s point that translation from a minority language into English can be a form of murder. It is, he concludes, “a sobering thought”. But poets are not expected to be sober in their approach to language and Minhinnick certainly isn’t.
  GregsBookCell | Dec 8, 2008 |
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