Dispatch #3 I am not an elf

Christopher Meredith, Awdur Preswyl Tŷ Cyfieithu/HALMA, yn Novo Mesto, Slofenia

I was in a pub in Brecon once when four Dutch tourists came up to me and said: Excuse us. We have been told you speak Welsh. Could you please sing us one of your famous Welsh songs?

I probably was the only person in the bar that night who could speak Welsh, though there are more Welsh speakers in Brecon than you might think. I’d been under cover but somebody had grassed me up. I had to think quick.

I said, Tell you what. You sing me one of your famous Dutch songs first and then I’ll sing you one of our famous Welsh ones.

The four Dutch tourists looked at one another and then went into a huddle. Luckily for me and civilisation, between them they couldn’t think of a single Dutch song they could remember all the words for. They did start one or two half-heartedly but they trailed off like a slow school hymn on a rainy Tuesday.

In the end one of them turned to me and said: We can do the Beatles.

I sang them something anyway, and then they really were embarrassed and squirmed interestingly. I noticed the barman smirking. So he was the one who’d ratted on me.

It wasn’t long after I got to Slovenia when somebody said: Say something in Welsh.

Even though the über-politeness of these people and their skill in language meant I’d heard a lot of English, they’d also given me many free samples of speech in Slovene, so this time, I supposed, I couldn’t quibble. I had to oblige. Not feeling very inventive, I recited a short poem. Not one by me.

Oh my God! They said. It’s Elvish!

People around the table in the little courtyard shivered, smoked furiously, and discussed my Elvishness.

Tolkien is big among the young here. Peter Jackson has a lot to answer for. When he meets his namesake outside the gates of heaven I hope this Slovene-Welsh affair will be on the chargesheet.

Regularly since then I’ve been asked to Say Something in Welsh.

I know an elf! somebody said.

My brother’s going to the fancy dress evening as a Hobbit, somebody said. He already looks like one. He’s just growing his hair.

I am not a Hobbit, I said.

No, you’re not a Hobbit, somebody else said. You’re an elf.

Luckily for me, people over the age of about thirty seem Tolkien-proof, but the question recurs.

Here’s the thing. These people know about languages. This is the meeting place of four major language groups. The dialects of Slovene, I’m told, reflect the influences of Italian, German and Hungarian on the fringes of this small country. Most people are attuned to the overlaps and differences between Slovene and the other south Slavic languages, and they’re good at listening to shades of difference in emphasis and pronunciation. Some people I’ve met are pretty scathing about fellow-Slovenes who speak merely one language. Also there are only two million Slovene speakers inside the borders of the country. They know about living inside a ‘small’ language. That is something recognisable.

So the request to perform doesn’t as it sometimes does, make me feel like a strange specimen in a jar being reached down from a shelf in a biology department. I don’t get the feeling of curious eyes staring into the aspic not realising that I’m actually staring back. There is, instead, connection. I’ve done a couple of radio interviews here in English, one for the VAL 202 station and one for the Slovenian Third Programme. In each the interviewer had prepared painstakingly and in each they asked me to say or read something in Welsh. The thoughtfulness of the discussion leading up to that both times made the sense of connection and the valuing of language clear. In each case the interviewer would have to translate my English words to be voiced for broadcast. The pains of language were at the centre.

The highpoint came when I was asked by the poet Barbara Pogačnik to read a Welsh translation, by Angharad Price and Tina Mahkota, of a poem by Maruša Krese at an evening celebrating recently dead poets at the Cankarjev dom, a big cultural centre in Ljubljana. The evening was of course in Slovene, with a writer and two leading actors reading and me tagging along, the uncomprehending toddler. I was cued in to do my bit. I had no idea how this big production, with mics, sound-effects, music, and back-projection was going down at first. Then the effortless authority of the actors became clear as they read. The applause at the end was huge. Babel can be a place of connections.

The low point was in a third radio interview, to be broadcast in English and conducted by an Englishman. Somehow I felt we were back in the biology department. Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps it didn’t help that he started by calling me ‘boyo’ and trying to do a Welsh accent. That made the Say Something in Welsh Moment less comfortable. You expect this stuff with these gigs occasionally, but it was disappointing to get the here-we-go-again feeling. It’s nice to be back in England, I told him. Still this was to be broadcast mainly for Slovenes. Essentially I could be making the same connection.

At the big anti-government demonstration in Ljubljana last week I happened to see a placard with VRAN among its words. I asked Luka, who’d been present at the first Elvish event in that shivering courtyard, what it meant.

A black sort of bird. He didn’t know in English, he said.

A crow?

Yes, a crow.

I don’t remember now what the rest of the placard said. This extraordinary link seized me.

I told him that it was exactly the same word in Welsh, pronounced the same way, with a long ‘a’.

So listen, you young Slovene Hobbit-fanciers. I am not an elf. Or if I am, you are too.

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