This essay first appeared in the journal PLANET (The Welsh Internationalist) as part of their series entitled Keywords inspired by Raymond Williams' work of that name but dealing with significant words for cultural identity in the Welsh Language.
In the Introduction to his work Keywords, Raymond Williams defines two senses in which such words are significant. In Wales both 'translate' and 'cyfieithu' are certainly keywords in the first of his two senses: ‘significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation’. What I'd like to look at here is the sense in which they are, in his second sense, ‘significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought’. To do this I will look at the role of translation in Wales today and the significance of the word ‘cyfieithu’ as an indicator of cultural identity. There are in fact two words for 'translate' in Welsh. The one most commonly used is cyfieithu. The other is trosi, which equates more exactly with the English word 'translate' in the sense of a passing over from one language to another. Cyfieithu , due to the prefix ‘cyf’, which is suggestive of unity and togetherness, implies a bringing together of languages rather than a movement between them. The fact that cyfieithu is the more common word may therefore be regarded as a significant indicator of the importance of translation in the bilingual community that is Wales. This is so as much for those who do not need the translations as for those who do. But what can be regarded as a mutual association (cyfundeb) might also be regarded by others using the term cyfieithu as no more than a transaction, despite the unifying connotation of ‘cyf’ as opposed to ‘trans’. Certainly much of the formal translations found on signage and correspondence created by public bodies, businesses and other groups is in the latter category. Necessary as such transactions are, they are only productive of meaning in the context of a felt perception that the Welsh language is a necessary component of Welsh identity. Where it can be argued that translations are undertaken in order for something to be shared rather than simply text passed on for someone else to use, the full potential of the word in Welsh is realised. In this sense, cyfieithu can be regarded as a verb implying partnership rather than an indicator of difference.
I am mindful, in making such an analysis that the etymological development of words is not necessarily the same as the development of concepts, in spite of the apparently clear link between them. But whether the first element in cyfieithu signifies a conceptual commitment to togetherness or is an etymological co-incidence, when opposed to 'trans-', ‘cyf-’ has a suggestive power, contrasting a bringing together with a movement away. This contrast is deepened when considering the equivalent in other European languages such as ‘tradurre' in Italian, where the element 'trad-' carries a sense of betrayal - consider ‘traditore’ : (traitor) or English 'traduce'. Conversely, cyfieithu does seem to contain a potential for harmony that is fortuitous within a bilingual society and semantically distinctive in its positive connotations.
What is also etymologically interesting is the way that cyfieithu developed with cyfiaith (‘of the same language’). In the Middle Welsh text ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ there is a character who is 'cyfiaith' with birds and animals, that is he can communicate with them in their own languages. One development of this is that the word came to mean simply 'the vernacular' or common language spoken by all. To cyfieithu, then, was to bring something into the common tongue. Translating the Bible into Welsh was historically significant in this respect and would have underlined the value of translation as an important activity. Furthermore, cyfieithu can be used both for the direct conveyance of meaning and where, in English the word 'interpret' would be used. In one medieval religious text the angels 'cyfieithu' God's power, making it intelligible to the world, drawing it in to the earthly realm.
The use of cyfieithu to mean 'interpret' (for which the alternative word 'dehongli' is also available to convey the sense of the word as used in English) also feeds into developing senses which apart from such historical and religious contexts, are culturally significant in modern Wales. When linked as it is to the idea of translation as a bringing together, rather than a movement between, it suggests one language group explaining itself to another as the same community rather than a community of others. Not everyone sees it that way of course, and a further problem here is not so much that it doesn't work both ways as that it doesn't need to. If English-only speakers in Wales need Welsh-language expressions interpreted for them, Welsh speakers hardly need the same done for them in respect of expressions in English. This raises the thorny question of how identity may be culturally embodied in more than one language. Translation is clearly essential within a bilingual nation. But if the languages of that nation are not mutually incomprehensible but only incomprehensible in varying proportions in one direction, can we propose that not all citizens of the nation have the same access to the meaningful sense of cultural belonging that nationhood implies? Here 'interpretation', drawing threads together, rather than simple translation, becomes a crucial factor in the sense of being cyfiaith across two languages.
Seen in this way, 'to cyfieithu' is an essential activity for cultural cohesion. It implies a common access to concepts not only the communication of sentences and so implies a way of speaking meaningfully across a linguistic divide. It conceives translation in terms of what the philosopher J. R. Jones defined as the structural level within a culture, that which sustains it from within, rather than the functional level at which it operates on a day-to-day basis. Jones defines ‘functional’ for a people as ‘the bonds of their life’ from day to day, while ‘structural’ bonds are ‘the bonds of existence … which form their separate identity’. Jones' argument sought to establish a basis from which the Welsh language could be owned by all the inhabitants of Wales, even those who did not possess the ability to speak it. Functional bilingualism, he implies, is as likely to alienate non Welsh-speakers as involve them. The structural approach, by contrast, embodies the idea of Welsh as a common currency. So we might extend this analysis by concluding that simply to translate is to operate at the functional level, but to cyfieithu is to engage in an activity mediated through the word's etymological history which contains Jones' suggestion that Welsh should be seen as a structural rather than a functional agency promoting Welsh identity. How this might be possible in a society where English is so dominant is by no means easy to construe. How could a language that not everyone speaks structurally support a sense of identity for everyone? In his work Prydeindod, Jones portrayed those in Wales who could not speak Welsh as having a part of themselves missing, something that needed to be restored if they were to be made whole. There is no need to follow him in the negative implications of this emphasis to see how, nevertheless, individuals might regard themselves as more wholly Welsh (cyfan) by generating their own sense of the meaning of Welsh identity in terms of a language they might only be able to use to utter a few words or phrases in conversation, or simply to add resonance to spoken English by employing positive signifiers such as ‘cariad’, ‘cwtsh’ or 'croeso'.
In this analysis, then, cyfieithu counts as a keyword because it has a meaning beyond the simple process of signification. Raymond Williams' term ‘structure of feeling’ also seems apposite here. The term was coined to describe ‘meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt’ and ‘specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships’. One reason for the coining was that he wished to find an alternative to descriptors which defined certain qualities as containing a fixed, unchanging essence. Rather he wanted to demonstrate that not only can the meaning of words change as society changes, but that the process of shaping meanings within words can actively strengthen and even radically transform values within society itself. In this context bilingualism can be seen as a process that may need to be argued for but is also increasingly felt to be a necessary part of our social arrangements.
Clearly there are contrary views from within each language community that would challenge such a suggestion. The attitudes of non-Welsh speakers may range from apathy to a pronounced view that bilingualism is a waste of time and resources because 'we all speak English anyway'. But there is an emerging sense that it is an active component of contemporary Welsh identity. Welsh speakers wishing to preserve the integrity of Welsh-speaking communities may argue more persuasively that bilingualism is a slippery slope towards English-only communities. This is clearly a danger. The practical implications of policies and procedures should, of course, be scrutinised.Williams speaks of degrees of assent, dissent and a subtle interplay between them as ‘structures of feeling’ develop and alter over time. He, at one point, considered the use of the alternative term ‘structures of experience’ but rejected it because one of its senses would include the past tense. Perhaps this most clearly separates his mode of understanding from that of J.R. Jones, which is rooted in historically embedded meanings while Williams insists on the predominant role of present experience as a transformational agent. Today the sense of the two language communities being cyfiaith with each other via the process of cyfieithu can contribute to the present experience of being Welsh inclusively across diverse communities.
How has this come about? When, nearly 50 years ago, J. R. Jones asked 'Need the Language Divide Us?’, the situation seemed different. He thought that the only solution would be something that came from the Welsh language itself that would persuade non-Welsh speakers that the language was an integral part of their identity as Welsh people. If by now this is increasingly the case, it does not necessarily mean that more people speak Welsh or that the language itself is stronger or more secure. Paradoxically this more positive attitude to Welsh may even mean that people feel less need to use it except for symbolic purposes such as singing the Anthem or naming their children. The sense of ownership of the language as part of ownership of identity would seem to imply certain responsibilities, but these may not always be fulfilled in practice. For J. R. Jones' solution to be fully realised would need people's sense of ownership to work in reverse as well, so that it is felt that the language also owns them. This indeed is implied by his analysis and though, as an argument, it might appear more essentialist than Raymond Williams would have liked, it can be subtly interwoven with his perception of cultural change in process, the result of the perceptions and decisions of individuals, but which are effectively ‘social experiences in solution’ emerging as personal priorities but not yet fully realised as meaningful in the wider culture. Out of such complexes of emerging social attitudes may come social change, and in this case an answer to J. R. Jones' question. Jones insisted on the need for individual action to maintain the historical and cultural life of communities. The language need not divide the Welsh people, but to ensure its survival the actions of individuals would need to become, as Raymond Williams puts it, ‘specific kinds of sociality’ so that the idea of being cyfiaith is enacted in the process of cyfieithu and so felt not only as a passive component of identity but also as an active imperative to live that identity and so realise it, in Raymond Williams' formulation, ‘in a living and interrelating continuity’.
Such a continuity would also realise the implicit etymological history of cyfiethu and the sense of different communities in Wales as being cyfiaith with each other. It would ensure a continuing presence for Welsh as a definer of Welshness. Whether it would ensure the increased use and vitality of the language into the future depends not only upon such positive attitudes but also the extent to which choices made socially, culturally, politically by growing numbers of individuals enact this sense of Welsh as an indicator of identity. Raymond Williams’ identification of the gradual development of ‘structures of feeling’ as ‘experiences not yet recognised as social but taken to be private’ acutely identifies the way individual experiences interact with and contribute to shifts in social consciousness. Such shifts are not easy to identify as they happen, but if the Welsh language is becoming part of the ‘structure of feeling’ which is involved in Welsh identity, for those who do not speak Welsh as well as for those who do, then it may also be fulfilling a structural role in J. R. Jones’ sense, so that cyfieithu signifies more than a transaction and achieves the full potential of its etymological resonance.
Raymond Williams Keywords (Fontana, 1983)
J.R Jones ‘A Rhaid I’r Iaith Ein Gwahanu?’ translated as ‘Need the Language Divide Us?’ by John Phillips in Planet 49/50 and reprinted in Compass Points (U.W.P. , 1993) pp. 143-158.
J. R. Jones Prydeindod (Llyfrau’r Dryw, 1966)
Raymond Williams Marxism and Literature (O.U.P., 1977). All quotations in the discussion of the term ‘structure of feeling’ are taken from this text.