Siân Melangell Dafydd on translation

'Translating makes you read closer than ever. It forces this privilege on you. Sentences I read, loved and left, suddenly make me wonder if I ever really understood at all.' 

On the train, 5.30 a.m. start.  I’ve had a snooze, two raw brownies and a green juice. Now I’m ready to think about translation.

I started by reading Tony Bianchi’s translation of ‘Borshiloff’ by T. H. Parry-Williams alongside my own. This is the pattern of our mentorship so far. We’ve already done an extract of my own novel, Y Trydydd Peth, in this way. That was way back in January.

I’m grappling with this: how to create a first draft translation and then use it as a springboard rather than be strangled by its shape, to make it and then be completely free of it. What’s interesting about translating Y Trydydd Peth is that it’s more of an adaptation. Some scenes/sections are totally new. George takes it for granted that his reader knows a lot about Welsh social history and once that’s translated into any language, even if the voice is convincing, well the reader isn’t ‘with’ the Welsh reader, and misses too much. Little footnotes explaining the history of Capel Celyn etc are out of the question! So in my first drafts, this was the leading difficulty: what had to be omitted and added, what was distracting from the story now that it was in an English text. Deleting is harder than adding.

Tony and I will return to Y Trydydd Peth and various extracts of it during mentorship meetings and at least now I’m getting used to North Walian George speaking in a Geordie accent when Tony reads aloud! 

Moving on – we’re also discussing ‘Borshiloff’ by T. H. Parry-Williams next, as I was saying. The thing is, after reading Tony’s Borshiloff, I just want to eat another brownie.   

What I have here is a draft that still has layers of work to be done yet: translating is like working on a brass rubbing. I’m mid-way somewhere and struggling to see the relief. First, and frankly, I want to give up, run to the hills and keep goats. Secondly, in fact, I want to grapple with this challenge even more. I need to be more confident with the knife I think. From there, to have more fun with it. Less respect for T.H. Parry-Williams is needed, if that’s at all possible. I want to return to battle. Glutton for punishment. Do you think I could do the work from the top of the mountains while also looking after goats just in case I change my mind when I’m in the bogs of translating the next piece? Deep breath: next will be ‘Boddi Cath’ (Drowning a Cat).                                                           

In every case, but especially with T. H. Parry-Williams, translating makes you read closer than ever. It forces this privilege on you. Sentences I read, loved and left, suddenly make me wonder if I ever really understood at all. How would T. H. Parry-Williams speak in his prose if he spoke in English – that balance of direct address and the proud, educated and aware young man of the 1930s. I’ve tried to select pieces which don’t rely on a play on language as the main punch of the text.  But in ‘Borshiloff’, there are jokes with language play, T. H. Parry-Williams uses vocabulary from his true home of Caernarfon and then from Carmarthenshire which provides both poetry and plays a ‘border’ or ‘frontier’ in the language itself, not just between the author and Borshiloff. One line of his text happens to be in cynghanedd, Welsh strict metre.  And then there are those long, long sentences. I didn’t ever notice that this loved essay had sentences almost a hundred words long. Then, I have a dozen versions of the first sentence alone, let alone the 100-word one. Thank goodness for the meeting with Tony next week.

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