The dynamism of switching between languages

Jon Gower reflects on the growing number of Welsh authors who operate bilingually

When Fflur Dafydd was named Oxfam Emerging Artist in 2009 it marked a turning point. Here was an author who’d adapted her own Eisteddfod prize-winning novel Atyniad as Twenty Thousand Saints. It marked a confident moment of bilingualism. Subsequently other authors such as Llwyd Owen have followed suit. His 2007 Wales Book of the Year Ffydd, Gobaith, Cariad has just been published in the author’s own translation. It’s little wonder that one monoglot English language author recently complained to me that this gave people two bites of the cherry. Often the act of translation can be one of adaptation, a chance to revise, winnow, or expand.

In her Paris flat Sian Melangell Dafydd is currently translating Y Trydydd Peth, a novel about 90 year old George, who swims entire rivers, which won the Prose Medal at the Bala National Eisteddfod. She suggests that, “One special aspect of translating a creative text from Welsh is that my characters speak English too. In translating to English you have to translate the words of a character who already uses English in his life, and that bilingualism is part of his or her makeup, something that shouldn’t be sacrificed.”

The reason I started to write in Welsh in earnest was my wife’s interest in a job in Berkeley. That made me question whether I knew my own language sufficiently well to take it with me to California. One way of answering the question was to write something substantial in it.

Then the island known as serendipity came into view, or rather a chain of islands, all caressed by winds of good fortune. I was invited to join a band of writers on a British Council tour of Argentina, which took me to Buenos Aires. I’d been to many Latin American cities but this one enthralled me more than most. When I returned I couldn’t quench an incendiary need to write about the place and the following year’s Prose Medal competition demanded an urban setting. Marrying the two, and writing at a lick, I composed Dala’r Llanw, a novel set in Buenos Aires, Oakland, California and Cardiff which mythologizes an Argentinean woman’s journeys around the world. My work lost out to Mererid Hopwood’s pellucidly written O Ran but gained good reviews and enthusiastic readers so I set about adapting it, but not before I’d studied what the Eisteddfod judges had said about it, addressing the weaknesses as they saw them.

I started translating with an arrogance that, looking back, astonishes me. Believing myself to have a richer vocabulary in English than I did in Welsh I blithely started to “translate” at a lick, like they do at the United Nations. But even as I bashed away I was still looking for a different musicality. It was only when my editor Francesca Rhydderch pointed out how how many times I’d switched tense mid passage that I saw the domino effect of one mistranslated verb. That punctured the balloon of arrogance, at least. But there was a different music, too…

Uncharted is now published and with a certain diffidence I sent the first hard copy to Jan Morris, a true test of the translation’s quality. Within a few days Jan sent me a postcard I shall most certainly put up on the wall, describing it as an “astonishing read” and continuing in the same vein. One happy reader is all it takes. If that reader is Jan Morris, then head for the frame shop.

Northumbrian Tony Bianchi, who has just published his first English novel Bumping, reminded me of the ‘imagined community’ in which each writer lives, sharing with his readers a bank of experiences, memories, dreams and myths. He suggests moving from community to another offers an opportunity to look at the familiar in a fresh way, and challenge assumptions. Bianchi has described writing in a language other than your own as being akin to wearing a mask. In his forthcoming short stories Cyffesion Geordie Oddi Cartref (Confessions of a Geordie Away From Home) he says that the switching from one community to another is fundamental to the work, the masked face looking at one of flesh and blood.

Switching languages has its own dynamism, its pleasures and pitfalls. Taken together the bilingual talents of writers such as Tony Bianchi and Fflur Dafydd pixillate to form a confident face that can proudly greet the literary world.

This article appears in the current issue of A470 – What’s on in literary Wales, the magazine of the Welsh writers’ organisation Academi. Photo of Jon Gower: Emyr Jenkins

Jon Gower is a freelance writer and television producer.

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