Sophie Powell is the author of the novel The Mushroom Man, which has been translated into several languages, as well as several short stories and essays. Raised in London and on a sheep farm in Wales, she is a graduate of Cambridge University (BA Classics) and New York University (MFA Creative Writing, Fiction). She now teaches creative writing at Boston College and is assistant director of Abroad Writers Conferences (http://www.abroad-crwf.com). You can find more of Sophie’s writing at her website: http://www.meetsophiepowell.com. In her first blog for WWB, Sophie talks about The Mabinogi a classic of Medieval Welsh literature.—Editors
Wales has a vast and vibrant literary heritage, though among Americans this rich tradition remains a bit in the shadows. One of the most seminal Medieval Welsh texts is The Mabinogi, also a great classic of European literature. The Mabinogi, also known as The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, is a set of four tales written in Wales in the late eleventh century, by an unknown master of Welsh prose. John K. Bollard, an American, has recently produced a superb translation, published by Gomer Press, Wales’ largest independent publisher. He presents to the reader an accurate and close rendering, reflecting with elegance and energy the original Medieval Welsh text in a modern English idiom. My parents bought me Bollard’s new translation for Christmas. I was deeply impressed by the way Bollard managed to preserve the original storyteller’s voice in the Welsh original whilst still making the verses sound natural and accessible. Previous, older translations I had read sounded too archaic and stiff. In addition, Bollard’s translation is accompanied by evocative photographs of the places mentioned in it, allowing the reader a glimpse of the magical landscape of Wales where the tales are set. Bollard is an academic with a unique and diverse background. I emailed him out of the blue and he wrote back a very warm email, answering my questions with enthusiasm and patience. I’m sharing parts of our email exchange here:
SOPHIE: Why should people read The Mabinogi?
BOLLARD: The Mabinogi is the jewel in the crown of Welsh literature. It is a written work derived from traditional oral sources with their roots in Celtic myth, and it is a masterpiece of the storyteller’s art. It is also a work that explores the nature of our humanity, providing a moral view of life and human interaction without being dogmatic. While the origins of these tales lie in a mythic Celtic past, the tales and characters have been skillfully woven together to deal with such important questions as “What is friendship?”, “How should we respond to hostile or unfriendly words or actions?”, “What is the role of marriage as a social bond?”, “What is the role of women”, “How should women be treated?”, and perhaps most importantly — “How do we stop this seemingly endless round of feuds and wars, destruction and death?” Any work that addresses such themes with understanding is worth reading in any age.
SOPHIE: How did you, an American native, become interested in Medieval Welsh?
BOLLARD: I was an English major at the University of Rochester (some years ago), concentrating in medieval and especially Arthurian literature. Frequent references and footnotes to the Welsh sources suggested to me that it would be good to find out first hand what these sources were like in the original. Before I knew it I was setting out to do graduate work at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth. There I got increasingly fascinated with medieval Welsh language, literature and history and have remained so ever since.
SOPHIE: When translating The Mabinogi, did you look at previous translations? How did you want to make your translation different/unique?
BOLLARD:I didn’t set out to make my translation “different” or “unique;” I just started translating as best I could, staying as close to the meaning and intent of the Welsh as I could manage without becoming too stilted or archaic in my English, recognizing that the result would be distinct from other translations. I was, of course, familiar with other translations, and I was undoubtedly influenced by them through that long familiarity, but I made no particular attempt either to agree or to disagree with them. My greatest hope was to capture some of the author’s tone, some of the liveliness and spirit of the medieval storyteller’s art, so that the reader might hear at least an echo of his voice. Whether I have succeeded is up to the reader to judge.
SOPHIE: What is the linguistic origin of Medieval Welsh? How far does Medieval Welsh deviate from modern Welsh?
BOLLARD: Medieval Welsh is the descendant of the Brythonic language that was spoken in much of Britain before the Romans arrived in the 1st century BCE—and after they left in the fifth century. Thus, it is a Celtic language most closely related to Cornish, spoken in Cornwall into the 18th century, and to Breton, still spoken in Brittany / Bretagne in northwestern France, and somewhat more distantly related to Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, and Manx. The spelling of Medieval Welsh is different from that of Modern Welsh, but the language has not changed as much as English has in the past thousand years. To a native Welsh speaker, reading Middle Welsh (as it is called) might be analogous to an English speaker reading something between the language of Shakespeare (Early Modern English) and that of Chaucer (Middle English). Comprehensible, if somewhat archaic in vocabulary and structure.
SOPHIE: Are there any other books in the original Welsh that you think non-Welsh readers should be aware of?
BOLLARD: There are many Welsh books that should get a wide audience. For those interested in early literature, I recommend The Gododdin, a fascinating elegiac poem celebrating the heroes who fell in the battle of Catraeth around the year 600 CE. (I did say ‘early’, mind!) There is an excellent facing translation by A.O.H. Jarman. A bit later and on a lighter note, I highly recommend the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym. Dafydd, an older contemporary of Chaucer, was the greatest Welsh poet and one of the greatest of European love poets from any age. His poetry ranges from the lyrical to the satirical, and his self-effacing persona is at times hilarious. There are several translations; I recommend those by Rachel Bromwich, with a facing Welsh text that will give a visual sense of the poetry of the language even if you can’t read it.
Among modern works I particularly recommend two important novels of Islwyn Ffowc Elis—Cysgod y Cryman “Shadow of the Sickle” and Yn Ol i Leifior “Return to Lleifior”—which have been translated by Meic Stephens. The stories of Kate Roberts are also available in English.
I’ll be discussing the work of Islwyn Ffowc Elis and Kate Roberts in later blogs. For the next couple of months, I’d like to focus on modern Welsh authors writing in the original Welsh. Wales and its literature are much neglected despite its incredibly rich historical and cultural value.
Gomer has also issued a companion edition to The Mabinogi, Companion Tales To The Mabinogi, translated by Bollard which is equally engaging and beautifully presented with photographs. Bollard said he’d be pleased to send signed copies of his books to anyone who would like to get one from him directly, as stated on his book website: http://themabinogi.googlepages.com. For more information on Bollard also see the link http://jkbollard.googlepages.com.
Pop hwl! (Welsh for Ciao) for the time being,