Let’s hear Madam Ramotswe speaking Welsh

Rhys David questions why Welsh language print and broadcast media make so little use of material from outside Wales

Browsing on holiday in the librairie of a French town it is striking to see just how many translated books are on offer. In a brief stop in one of these bookshops I came across works by among others Ruth Rendell, Robert Ludlum and even Cardiff’s own Ken Follett. By contrast, on a similar wander through the many book stalls at the Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale I am not sure I found a single work translated from another language.

Now if anyone is going to be resistant to the onward march of Anglo-Saxon culture, it will be the French. Yet, whatever the Academie Francaise might think or wish, French publishers clearly recognise that their readers are as interested in a good American thriller or British detective story as the next man or woman.

France with a population of nearly 60m is always going to have a significant literary output, supplemented indeed by the writings of other Francophones around the world. It cannot hope, however, to compete with the quantity or variety of writing that pours out from not just the UK and America (combined population of more than 350m) plus Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Caribbean, the Indian sub-Continent and other English-speaking territories. Indeed, some of the most acclaimed writing – if the Booker prize shortlists and winners of recent years are a guide – has been coming from Commonwealth writers.

Hence, if they want to read some of the best world literature alongside their own, the French have to read works in English, or probably much more comfortably in translation into their own language. Even in the world of newspapers the French accept the need for wider non-French input. Le Figaro, the mid-market French daily, reproduces in translation an eight page insert of articles that have appeared in The New York Times.

Which makes it all the more surprising so little is translated from other languages into Welsh. I would not claim to be an expert on modern Welsh literature but it clearly does not cover anything like the same canvas as literature in English. How could it when there are only 600,000 Welsh speakers and by no means all of those claim the ability to write (or read) in the language as well as understand it when spoken?

Much Welsh literature, judged again by what was on offer in the Eisteddfod, deals rather narrowly with what might be termed the Welsh condition – themes of loss, often of language, of religion, familiar patterns and places of work or of rural life and innocence. A Welsh Stieg Larssen has yet to make an appearance, leave alone an Ian McEwan, a Martin Amis, or a Hilary Mantel.

Why bother to translate popular works from outside Wales, it might be asked, when all the country’s residents can speak English? Surely it would be better to go on producing original books by Welsh authors. Sadly, if this continues to be the approach, the number of people who read in Welsh is destined to remain very small, given the limited range of genres and titles on offer. If we want more people to read books in Welsh for enjoyment – or even simply to have a wider choice of publications they can read in their first language – it is essential to tap into other writing. Only in this way will Welsh people be fully introduced to a world outside Wales, as seen through the eyes of other than Welsh language speakers. And only in this way will Welsh be seen as a way into this wide and varied world.

The same thought occurs across other media. Flicking through television channels  where we were staying, the first thing I saw was Peggy sparring sparkily – in perfect French – with Don Draper, who also seemed to be able to speak fluently the language of Victor Hugo. Now it strikes me as no more ridiculous that people in the American series Mad Men about the advertising industry in New York in the 1950s and 1960s should speak in Welsh than in French. And, this raises the question why there is (as far as I can tell) no dubbed non-Welsh material on S4C.

If the French, the Finnish, the Dutch and just about every other non-English broadcaster accepts that to offer the full range of broadcasting it is necessary not just to buy formats such as Big Brother or Strictly Come Dancing and adapt them but also to use programmes made elsewhere and add the local language, why does it not happen in Wales?

S4C as we all know is going through difficult times for reasons largely not of its own making. In particular, since digital switchover it has lost its Channel 4 programming and has simultaneously experienced a huge increase in competition from the access the viewer now gets on Freeview (not to mention Sky) from scores of new English language channels. On top of  losing audiences and audience share, it now faces further uncertainty as a result of the decision to impose on the BBC the responsibility previously carried by the Department of Culture Media and Sport for its funding, a figure that at present stands at £100m a year.

As in the case of the written word Welsh language television output reflects the small size of the producing population, and to be frank much of it is both rather worthy and limited. Though attempts have been made to appeal to a less traditional audience with racy drama series such as Caerdydd, much of the peak time output still relies heavily on a small number of presenters and on older more traditional themes and formats that are appealing to a middle class and middle aged audience.

How much more appealing S4C would be if it could offer say CSI Miami, or Desperate Housewives or better still Alexander McColl Smith’s creation, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (run of course by Madam Ramotswe) in Welsh. This might not be what the more intellectual viewer who is currently catered for might want but it may well be just what many ordinary Welsh speakers and young people in particular might be interested in. Nor need it be the most recent series of these programmes – there must be programmes going back to earlier in the present decade and further that would attract audiences and which could be acquired at no greater cost than producing original programmes. Who knows S4C might even be able to introduce to British viewers programmes from our Continental neighbours, largely absent from the main UK channels.

Again it may be argued that everyone speaks English so why bother to translate programmes that have already appeared on other channels. The plain fact, however, is that given a choice between Silent Witness on BBC and Rasus on S4C most people who could watch both will probably choose the former unless they are very committed to Welsh language broadcasting. A broader international choice of programmes from mainly UK and US sources could make Welsh people much more likely to watch Welsh language television – and discuss them the next day in their native language.

Yet the very idea is seen as anathema by Welsh producers as if something that is considered perfectly natural in other countries with small (and sometimes quite large) language populations is somehow unacceptable in Wales.

I could go on. Good as Barn or Golwg are in their different ways, the Welsh language magazine sector in Wales is extremely small and very serious. Yet, as part of a globalised world Welsh people are going to be interested not just in Welsh issues or even Welsh personalities. Currently, however, unless I am very much mistaken there is no way in which Welsh people can access news in Welsh about popular television programmes such as East Enders, Coronation Street, X Factor, and Britain’s Got Talent or about Kylie, Simon Cowell, Lady Gaga, Dizzie Rascal, Wayne and Coleen, Cheryl Cole, Pete Doherty, Kate Moss or any other individuals who make up the staple content of many conversations and much newsprint and other media.

The attempt at setting up a Welsh newspaper, Y Byd, failed for lack of Welsh Assembly Government support but it probably was the wrong project anyway, given the intended seriousness of its content. It would then and indeed now have made much more sense if a licence were taken out to produce a Welsh language version of Hello, OK, Now or Glamour magazines or a composite of some of them. This would make it possible for Welsh speakers to maintain an interest in the wider world in which we all now live, whether we want to or not, through what one hopes is their language of choice.

We live in a globalised world and people have much wider interests than their home town or native country. Unless Welsh media in all their forms reflect this – as do much more powerful media in countries with considerably larger numbers of domestic language speakers – only a minority of a minority will make Welsh  their choice. The prism through which the Welsh language user must view the world is frankly too small, and greater use of translation is needed to widen this.

Rhys David is a trustee of the IWA and writes on economic and business affairs

9 thoughts on “Let’s hear Madam Ramotswe speaking Welsh

  1. Agreed- I see no reason why world culture shouldn’t be apprehended through the medium of Welsh. There seems no logical reason why access for Welsh-speakers to (for instance) Kafka or Gabriel Garcia Marquez (or Stieg Larsson for that matter) should be mediated by English, neither being English in the original. It would broaden the scope of Welsh-language culture immeasurably and locate it in a context beyond the Anglosphere. Don’t see so much value in translating English material into Welsh however, since we are in a position to enjoy such works in the original.

    The same arguably goes for audiovisual content- I don’t see a lot of point in a dubbed version of Eastenders or CSI Miami etc (and dubbing is awful)- but one direction I would like to see S4C go (and not as a means of dealing with budget cuts) is to include a range of non-English content with Welsh subtitles (and the option of English through the red button). S4C could potentially carve out quite a niche for itself in this regard.

  2. The main drawback would be the cost of translation, proofing and printing, compared to the sales. However, a very interesting proposition.
    The S4C proposal is also an interesting one, in relation to Welsh subtitles for non-English productions. The only word of caution I would give here, is that spoken Welsh is a lot stronger than read Welsh.

  3. I think the author is unaware that ‘Caerdydd’ was a ‘translation’ or localised adaptation of a series originally called ‘Dublin’.

    But then that’s the sign of a good ‘translation’ – you don’t realise that the work is an original.

    Is he not also aware of the projects or commissions going back decades there have been for translating some international literature into Welsh. I have a copy of Storiau’r Ffinneg, Niclas Walker, Gwasg Gomer 1979.

    But of course, it would be good to have more, especially of the best of world classic literature. As a parent, I’d love to see Welsh language versions of Winne the Pooh and Moomins (in all or most media formats).

  4. Sort of off topic, you might be shocked how little Welsh literature is available on audio. This is both English and Welsh. Personally I believe that there would be a market for it.

  5. Whilst there’s certainly a place for more translation of high quality output from languages from beyond these shores into Welsh, the author scuppers most of his arguments by concentrating on translation from English, and by using the case of French as an example for Wales to follow .

    France is a largely monolingual country, with French is the functioning language of the state. This has little in common with the situation in Wales, where the vast majority of Welsh-speakers face no language or distribution barrier to seemingly all-pervasive English-language creative content.

    Here, there’s English-language content coming at you from all directions. In truth, I think that swamping effect is more of an issue for Welsh content than any lack of translation into Welsh.

    Translating from English seems pointless; most Welsh-speakers wouldn’t want to wait for a translation when the completely understandable original is on the telly or in the shop *right now*, especially when you take into account that something of the original will doubtlessly have been lost in translation (Kafka’s ambiguity, for instance).

    When I’m reading (for instance), the decision is between, say, an original in Welsh , an original in English, or perhaps if I want something more culturally exotic, something in translation from a language that I don’t understand. I did read the Welsh translation of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Thief of Time’, but it was a rather pointless (if interesting) exercise – I’d read the original years earlier.

    Granted it would be nice to have more variety in terms of themes and genres in Welsh, but surely it would be better if original works were encouraged in these genres by Welsh institutions such as the Eisteddfod, S4C and the Welsh Book Council, rather than on calling for examples to be translated from English?

    Having said that, there *are* a number of modern Welsh-language authors such as Llwyd Owen and Ifan Morgan Jones whose work would appeal to many Welsh-speakers, if only they had the marketing machine of their English counterparts. Perhaps if authors such as these were more visible outside traditional Welsh channels, people wouldn’t be tempted to wax lyrically about their perceived failures of the Welsh literary canon whilst simultaneously saying “I would not claim to be an expert on modern Welsh literature”… ?

    As for television, things are complicated by budget and the fact that there is only one Welsh-language channel attempting to cater for the various interests of all Welsh-speaking viewers. However, does the author seriously believe that given the choice, anyone who could understand English fluently would rather watch a dubbed Silent Witness rather than the original (other than for esoteric purposes, of course)?

    If so, I fear he is detached from the reality of living as a bilingual Welsh-speaker in Wales.

  6. The points made by Gruff are excellent. I’d like to add to his comments by saying that as a bilingual Welsh-English speaker, I find this article very patronizing. “The prism through which the Welsh language user must view the world is frankly too small, and greater use of translation is needed to widen this.” The prism of the Welsh speaker, I might remind you, is larger than that of the monolingual English speaker or monolingual French speaker, given that we have two prisms from which we view the world – we access information through the medium of English, as an English monolingual would, however we also access Welsh information which is not available to the monolingual English speaker.

    As for the author’s sweeping comments on the lack of translation into Welsh from other languages, had he carried out even the most basic of research prior to writing this article, he would have discovered that Welsh literature includes recent translations from Spanish, Basque, Irish, Scots Gaelic, Catalan, Arabic, Estonian and Polish.

  7. Needed saying. I am staggered that some of BBC Alba’s material hasn’t been revoiced and/or subtitled.
    “Fraochy Bay” is a cult cartoon, the doco “Tormod” is an amazing portrait of an alcoholic and many of the music shows are excellent.
    Truth to tell Alba is more connected with its target and wider audience because it has to constantly justify itself and its meagre budget.

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