Translating Emyr Humphreys

I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.

William Faulkner, Paris Review Interview (1956

Last month we celebrated the 100th birthday of one of Wales’ most renowned and prolific authors, Emyr Humphreys. The occasion gave us here at Wales Literature Exchange the opportunity to review the author’s illustrious career and recommend him for further translation. He has published more than twenty novels, as well as collections of short stories and poetry, and has been described by the poet R.S. Thomas as “the supreme interpreter of Welsh life in English”. Humphreys has been awarded The Somerset Maugham Prize, The Hawthornden Prize, and the Welsh Book of the Year Award. According to The Observer he is ‘The sort of writer who would be in the running for a Nobel Prize if Wales had lobbyists in Stockholm’. Humphreys has always been  interested in experimental techniques (sometimes drawing on his experience in film) and his sophisticated style is often likened to the modernist writers James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Today he is the longest-serving member of the Society of Authors, having joined in 1948 upon the advice of his first publisher, Graham Greene.

In his fiction, Humphreys acts as both chronicler and cartographer of Welsh cultural identity, with a sensitive understanding of the history and linguistic boundaries that define modern Wales. . The “cradle to grave” arc of individual lives, and intergenerational relationships in particular chart the changes in society and the accelerating modernity and political maturity of Wales as a nation. Two examples of this are Outside the House of Baal (1965) and his Land of the Living series, a saga spanning seven novels. Baal follows the arc of two families, from the beginning of the twentieth century through to the 1960s. Humphreys reimagines the history of Wales by portraying it in its personal and familial dimensions.

I was brought up in a broad valley in one of the four corners of Wales

Emyr Humphreys, A Toy Epic (1958)

Not only does Humphreys reconfigure Welsh history in his writing, he also establishes the geographical space of his childhood in Flintshire in the literary imagination of Wales. Growing up in Flintshire near the English border, Humphreys occupied what is considered a culturally liminal space between Wales and England. In his Afterword to A Toy Epic, M.Wynn Thomas claims that the North-East of Wales has “never captured the public or the literary imagination. It remains an unknown quantity, an unexplored locality the character of whose Welshness seems to be undecided, even problematic”. Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Humphreys’ ‘corner’ was a blank canvas for an experimental expression of identity. As cartographer, Humphreys was able to discard its ‘problematic’ Welshness and instead incorporate the ambiguity in order to start anew with the depiction of the region.

“Ambiguous”, in its senses of “to have double meaning”, “shifting” or “changeable”, is a constructive way to describe this area and its bilingual and bi-cultural experience of Wales. As a Welsh learner himself, Humphreys’ writing not only incorporates this dual condition, but as Tristan Hughes wrote in his tribute in Wales Arts Review, “Humphreys turned that condition into an incredibly elastic and generous aesthetic of in-betweenness”. Hughes sees  Humphreys’ intuitive and discerning abilities as characteristic of border writers:

Border writers are good at translation – it is a constant and necessary act; it’s what they negotiate (internally and externally) all the time. They must be careful of possible confusions, of multiple allegiances, of people looking warily, and sometimes suspiciously, from both sides. They have to get used to being inside and outside at the same time. 

This duality – or Janus-like disposition – is often inferred in Humphreys’ writing, with untranslated utterances of Welsh dialogue and strong Welsh-language cultural references scattered in the English text.  His character Lisa, from the short story “Menna”, experiences a struggle for expression when she must choose her creative language:

Being bilingual they agreed, could be the very devil. Two languages were not necessarily better than one any more than schizophrenia was a guarantee of brighter visions. Unsympathetic colleagues hinted that if she had something of importance to say she should say it in a language everyone could understand. This deepened her agony. It was to Arnot particularly she confided the myriad insights that came and went in the older language like motes in a beam of indoor sunlight. […]  There was no end to the degrees and distinctions that lay between creative dualism and double vision.

This notion of schizophrenia, of an irreparable split or clash, is a frequent issue for bilingual postcolonial writers who must wrestle with the major/minor language paradigm. As part of his interview with M. Wynn Thomas, Humphreys discusses the “nightmarish conflict” and “inner tension” of writing in the language of the oppressor, commenting that “when you adopt the language of the oppressor, the imperial power or whatever it may be, you are taking part in the oppression. You yourself become guilty.” Of course, Humphreys possesses both the ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressor’ language: he spans both sides of the divide. While he exerts authority over this staged conflict, he nevertheless incorporates it into his work and lets the tension – between the two coexisting languages – play out.

Bilingualism and ‘creative dualism’ is a useful lens through which to view Humphreys’s writing; after all, his most famous novel was itself a work of translation. Although A Toy Epic was not published until 1958, Humphreys had begun writing the novel eighteen years earlier. When asked to write six half-hour scripts in Welsh for the BBC,  he turned back to that first draft of A Toy Epic, then called “Fathers of Men”, adding new sections that complemented the style of the Forties text, and the Welsh text was broadcast as Y Tri Llais (The Three Voices) as a Sunday serial in Wales in early 1958. The novel appeared in its final form in English, with the title A Toy Epic, later that year and to great acclaim. The novel won the Hawthornden Prize the following year.

We are all Europeans and we need to know more about each other’s languages and cultures.

Emyr Humphreys, Conversations and Reflections (2002)

During his time as Head of Radio Drama for the BBC in Cardiff, Humphreys commissioned the translation of many radio plays into Welsh, including Brecht and Beckett, and he himself  translated into English Saunders Lewis’ drama Siwan.  He perceived himself as a European writer who brought a multi-national and multilingual sensibility to bear on his subject – the corners of a small nation. Welsh concerns are placed in a wider context and form part of an extended literary network.

My material is basically drawn from the Welsh experience, and that experience becomes more intelligible, in my opinion, if it is viewed in a European context. If you’re concerned with Welsh-language culture, as in part I am, you’re not dealing with a great world language, like English; you’re dealing with a language under siege.

This ‘European dimension’ to his work was born out of his experiences in Europe carrying out relief work following the Second World War. As part of his duties with Save the Children, Humphreys worked in Egypt and Italy, and in the latter, ran a refugee camp in Florence with his lifelong friend Basil McTaggart – where up to 8,000 people took refuge, including Jews as they tried to journey to Palestine. In his last collection of short stories, The Woman in the Window, Humphreys returns to post-war Italy.

Many of his characters travel to Europe; some are post-war refugees, while some are Europeans who simply make Wales their home. In his collection Ghosts and Strangers, the characters are not anchored to particular places or defined by national identities, but instead they occupy liminal spaces such as departure lounges, railway stations and hotels. By now, the unfixed fictional environment reflects the increased mobility around Europe, enabled by the growing ease of travel enjoyed since the 1960s and the establishment of the EU – which Humphreys depicts positively.

Humphreys’ oeuvre loyally represents this extraordinary writer’s dedication to enriching the local, not by confining and guarding it for itself, but through sharing; his endeavour to address imbalances in representation and fill out the literary map renders his work extremely pertinent and arguably more valuable than ever.



Further reading: 

The inaugural Emyr Humphreys Prize 

A Toy Epic was nominated for the Greatest Welsh Novel competition in 2014 by Gary Raymond, editor of Wales Arts Review

Emyr Humphreys' interview with Society of Authors

"Emyr Humphreys at 100" Tristan Hughes for Wales Arts Review

Schwob website : “Wales’ Shining Example of Modernism

Profile of Emyr Humphreys on Schwob's website 

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