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"Awen yn codi o'r cudd ac yn cydio'r cwbl"
- Waldo Williams
(Awen arising from hiding and everything binding)

Translating Gerallt Lloyd Owen

Translating poetry from one language into another is always a difficult undertaking. Clichés such as ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation’ and the observation that has been made that the Italian word for ‘translator’ is very close to the word for ‘traitor’ indicate some sort of consensus that it can never be a completely successful process.

Add to these considerations the problem of translating poetry written in forms such as cynghanedd in Welsh, where these reflect the deep life of a particular language, and the prospects look even less good if both form and meaning are to be conveyed in the new language. The poet and accomplished translator Tony Conran undertook a translation of the whole of the work of the Welsh poet Waldo Williams. His volume The Peacemakers is a testament to the success of the venture. But he pronounced himself unable to translate the long awdl ‘Tŷ Ddewi’and the volume contains instead a prose translation by Dafydd Johnson.

Having myself had a go at translating some of the shorter poems of Gerallt Lloyd Owen, I have recently been trying my hand at his celebrated awdl ‘Cilmeri’ with which he won a chair at the National Eisteddfod. My translation of an earlier short poem with the same title appears

Below I consider the initial difficulties of approaching the longer poem and report on ‘work in progress’. The first full stop of the poem comes at the end of the second stanza so the first two need to be taken together:

Yn fraw agos ar frigyn
Gwelaf leuad llygadwyn
Mor oer â marw ei hun

A diddiffodd ddioddef
Y byw yn ei wyneb ef
Yn felynllwyd fel hunllef.

The seven syllable lines are tightly packed with imagery locked into the patterning of cynghanedd. The main verb or the first stanza ‘Gwelaf’ (‘I see’) is delayed until the second line and is preceded by a hanging adverbial phrase: ‘Braw’ means ‘terror’ , ‘agos’ mean ‘close’. ‘ar frigyn’ literally means ‘on a twig’ but perhaps should be expanded to ‘tree’. The ‘I see a white-eyed moon’ of the second line is straight forward enough as is the third line ‘as cold as death itself’. In the second stanza the meanings are ‘And suffering was unextinguished/The life in his face/Yellow-grey like a nightmare.’

Should a translation attempt to maintain the syllabic form of the original, make any attempt at cynghanedd, and keep the rhyme scheme whereby each of the opening five stanzas of the poem maintain a common rhyme, only one of the three in each stanza being a single stressed syllable? To do all of these scarcely seems possible while also maintaining meaning and making a poem that works in English. Keeping just to getting something that might work in English I came up with :

I see, close, light
Of a white-eyed moon
Death-cold on a twig

Re-awakening pain
The life in his face
Yellow-grey like a nightmare.

But that’s not quite right. And I really would like to get some of the verse structure of the original in there. So how about

Terrified, so near, I see
As cold as death, in a tree
White eye of a moon, bleakly

Re-awakening the pain
Of life in his face again
Yellow-grey like a bad dream.

This perhaps gets formally closer, but am I trying to get closer to the feel of the Welsh or working on something that will be effective in English? It’s a balancing act. Because the original was driven by the patterning and soundscape of cynghanedd, and that meaning in Welsh is woven tightly into it, this a daunting task as the difficulty of attempting anything like cynghanedd makes an effective reflection of it in English seem impossible. Here are the next three stanzas of the opening followed by a draft translation:

Wyneb y diwedd unig,
Druan rhwth, uwch dyrnau’r wig
Yn geudod dirmygedig.

Hyd eithaf y ffurfafen
Y teimlaf ei anaf hen
A’i wae ym mhob gwythïen.

Er bod bysedd y beddau
Yn deilwriaid doluriau,
Cnawd yn y co’ nid yw’n cau.

* * *

Looking with a wretched gape
Over the forest landscape
Hollow, despised, no escape.

To the sky’s limit I feel
That old wound open, unseal
Woe in my veins to reveal

Even though the grave’s fingers
Can stitch flesh back together
Mind opens it forever.

These stanzas still need some work on them. The rhyme word ‘reveal’ needs further consideration. Attempting to follow the formal pattern of the original has wrenched the natural flow of English out of its course, but has this resulted in something nearer to Welsh? And what of the subject matter? Anyone reading this in Welsh would not need to be told that the subject of the poem is Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last native Prince of Wales, who was killed by English soldiers in 1282. This poem looks back to other poems including the Marwnad by Llywelyn’s bard Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Coch. What is transparent in Welsh may not be to the reader of the translation. And what about that last stanza? The original has the line ‘Yn deilwriaid doluriau’. This literally means ‘tailors of wounds’ and utilises the effect of cynghanedd to present what is a startling image: ‘the fingers of the graves are tailors of wounds but, in memory, the flesh does not close’. Does ‘mind’ instead of ‘memory’ (to keep the seven syllable line) work? Much still needs to be done.

And this is only the start. The next section of the poem moves to a series of four-line englynion, and beyond that there are different structural principles employed to make up the series of recognised forms of the ‘strict metres’ over the poem’s 250 or so lines. It could be a long journey to the end and I have not yet completed the beginning.


  1. This is a cracking attempt---you have a quite astounding gift for this kind of thing, which I envy.

    I wonder if 'sallow' would do for 'melynllwyd'.

  2. Diolch!

    Yes 'sallow' will do very well for 'melynllwyd'. It will then need something else in that line. Or maybe rework the stanza:

    Re-newing the suffering
    In his sallow face, dreaming
    Painfully of life again.

    H'm, the problem here is whether the experience should be projected back onto to subject or whether it should remain in the mind of the poet.

  3. I admire your attempt, not so much in its end result but in the journey that you are taking to try and understand and appreciate the mastery of the great craftsman that Gerallt certainly is.

    Keep up the good work and you might get across to fellow poets how special Cynghanedd in all its forms is.

    Well worth fighting to keep it alive and thriving; something truly unique and exceptionally beautiful, communicative, emotional, sophisticated, complex & simple in the hands of the great poets. The old adage when you are good at something it seems simple.

    Please keep up the process.

    You might have read the book by Mererid Hopwood, Singing in Chains where she starts to define the basic rules and types of cynghanedd.

  4. Thank you Bria

    Yes I have Mererid Hopwood's book, which I agree is a useful guide.

    Parts of that attempt at translation have since sparked off an original poem too!


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