The Peculiar case of Pigeon and Pijin

Lleucu Siencyn reviews two versions of the same book and assesses the implications of a Welsh literary first

To mark Alys Conran’s win of Wales Book of the Year, we are republishing this review which originally featured in the Welsh Agenda, Autumn 2016

Pigeon, the debut novel by Alys Conran, was published by Parthian Books in May this year. Pijin, by Sian Northey, was published on exactly the same day. You needn’t be a fluent Welsh-speaker to work out that the latter is a translation of the former.

There will always be debates and discussions on the relative value and importance of literary translations. Although (one would hope) it’s fairly easy to understand the importance of translating Welsh-language books into English – the ability to introduce our excellent literature to the wider world – traffic the other way round can sometimes, frustratingly, cause confusion. ‘If all Welsh-speakers can also speak English fluently, what is the point of translating Under Milk Wood into Welsh?’ Even the word ‘translation’ can be misleading. Many authors, including T James Jones, who turned Under Milk Wood into Dan y Wenallt, preferred the word ’adaptation’.

Literary translation is not always an easy subject to broach, particularly in Wales. It can open a can of worms full of misunderstandings and prejudices. Which makes that day in May, when Pigeon and Pijin came out simultaneously, even more peculiar.  Parthian Books were justifiably proud of the literary first when they said ahead of the launch:

This month, for what we believe to be the first time ever in Wales, we will launch one novel in both Welsh and English on the same day.

Translation itself isn’t unusual, nor is translating from English to Welsh. However, releasing the two versions simultaneously, and co-promoting both, had never been done before. There would be risks involved, of course. What if the translated version sold better than the original? Or what if it didn’t sell at all, because we can all read the English version anyway?

The dual publication in two languages prompted some interesting discussions during the book’s promotional tour. And rather than detract attention from the novel itself, I think it added a valuable dimension to its main themes and characters. The blurb describes the novel as a ‘tragic, occasionally hilarious and ultimately intense story of a childhood friendship and how it’s torn apart, a story of guilt, silence and the loss of innocence, and a story about the kind of love which may survive it all.’

It’s also a book about language, memory, and the tragic consequences of forgetting. The eponymous hero is a young boy called Pigeon, whose life is a disaster. He lives in a damp shed, his mother is mentally unwell, his stepfather is abusive, and the respectable middle-class Welsh-speaking community shuns him. The only good things in his life are his best friend Iola, who looks up to him, and his strange obsession with words.

Both Iola and Pigeon are fluent Welsh-speakers, as are most of the cast of characters, which of course is common in many small towns in north Wales. Much of the dialogue includes words or phrases in Welsh, and they are not necessarily explained in English. When I read the English version first, I wondered how these words might appear to a non-Welsh speaker – was I able to understand the book a little better than them? Then I read Sian Northey’s translation, and I became even more fascinated. How could Sian convey these potentially alien-sounding words back to Welsh? What happens when a dialogue appears in the language it was meant to be originally – does it lose the impact and subtlety of the English version?

Sian Northey has managed to remain true to the central theme of dual language by including a number of English words and phrases in her translation. She inverted the text, so that the flow of Welsh on the page is occasionally disturbed, just as the Welsh words disrupts the original English version.

Where the two versions get interesting is towards the end, when Pigeon returns after spending a considerable stretch in a prison in England. This experience has caused him to forget his Welsh, and he now speaks English to Iola, although she still tries to speak Welsh to him. This is very cleverly conveyed in both languages, each one offering a different type of poignancy: more direct in Welsh, and more opaque in English. The ’hiraeth’ of losing your language is immediately understood by most Welsh-speakers. However, these feelings sometimes go unacknowledged in English.

This, for me, is the central theme of the novel, which succeeds in exploring the decline of the language without glorifying its status or speakers. I found the loss of Pigeon’s Welsh utterly heart-breaking, but very truthful. It’s not so much that he has rejected Welsh, but that Welsh – and the well-behaved chapel culture as portrayed in the novel – has rejected him, and was unwilling to offer a hand of friendship or hope.

In an interview in the New Welsh Review, Alys Conran explained how she chose the unusual name of the main character:

‘Look up pigeon in your good field guide, if you have one’, says Simon Barnes in The Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion. ‘You will probably find that the pigeon does not exist’. I felt that about many of the children I knew growing up. Their stories pecked around in the background, unheard. The child whose mother left his hair uncombed every time after the nit treatment, little black bugs paralysed in his mousy locks. The girl who regularly had cigarette burns on her china-white hands. The faltering teenager who told what was done to her at youth club, and was disbelieved. There are a lot of pigeons in Wales.

Growing up in rural Welsh-speaking west Wales, I also knew a lot of pigeons – and they were also left out on the fringes of the more ‘respectable’ society. These pigeons don’t often appear in Welsh-language literature. But thanks to Alys Conran’s excellent debut, and Sian Northey’s remarkable translation, they do now. I would recommend this book to anyone, whatever language they choose to read. 
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Lleucu Siencyn is Chief Executive of Literature Wales

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