Some Remarks on My unHealed Poems
from Poetry Wales, Summer 2008
The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing the language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.
The poems of mine which follow owe their existence to the Canu Heledd ('Songs of Heledd'). As many readers of Poetry Wales will know, this is a collection of some 115 englynion, perhaps the residue of a mixed verse-and-prose saga, perhaps a now-incomplete composition in verse alone. The Canu Heledd is not a narrative, but deals with the aftermath of an English incursion into the Welsh kingdom of Powys in the 650s—distant history when it was written in the late-eighth/mid-ninth-century. (1)
My sequence of poems is not a translation of the Canu Heledd. (I'm going to say this again later.) As to the relation it does bear, the usual model—drawing on Dryden— is curiously inadequate. I have not simply employed metaphrase, 'turning [...] word by word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another'. Nor have I used paraphrase, 'where the words are not so strictly follow'd as [the] sense'. Which leaves only imitation, 'where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sence, but to forsake them both....' (2) I have, rather, muddled together all three modes; unHealed is—like its title—a partial misreading of Canu Heledd. I might be said, in Louis Zukofsky's elegant phrase, to be trying to read the Welsh poet's lips.(3) This has ruled out producing a conventional translation, endeavouring to be true to formal features of the original. Rather, I took the episodic nature of the text as we have it as rationale for using assorted methodologies. I took heart from Bunting's description of Aneirin and Taliesin,
for whom it is never altogether dark, crying
before the rules made poetry a pedant's game. (4)
My family background is in part Welsh, though I was raised monoglot by monoglot parents. This suffices to explain my interest in matters Welsh, 'The Matter of Britain' as it used to be called; and I was reading the Cynfeirdd, the old Welsh bards, way back in my teens. I must make it clear that I no more think my Welsh ancestry confers legitimacy on this interest any more than my non-Welshness disqualifies it. (Poetry is not a genetically-transmitted disease.) The poets I've read with an interest in this material are mostly Welsh by distant ancestry, if that; and there are too few of them for passport checks, wonderful writers though they all are: David Jones, Basil Bunting, Louis Zukofsky, Bill Griffiths (5) and Richard Caddel.(6)
As I remember it, the originating spark for unHealed was rereading part of the Canu Heledd on the train on the way to Richard Caddel's funeral. According to the usual reconstruction of events, the ruler, Cynddylan, has been killed and his citadel fired; his body was later collected by his sister, the 'Heledd' of the work's title, and taken for burial to a religious settlement, Eglwysseu Bassa (modern-day Baschurch, near Shrewsbury). When she gets there the churches too have been torched.
My eye fell on the phrase eglwysseu bassa collasant eu breint ('The churches at Bassa have lost their privileges'—after the death of the guarantor of the local law-code). As I read, the words morphed on the page; first 'the houses at Basra', the oil-refining town in the Persian Gulf, appeared before me, and next collasant became 'collapsed', breint turned to 'burnt'.
This, it seemed evident, was both mandate and methodology; to take an everyday tale of English soldiery invading a neighbouring country and behaving badly, and put it into this new context.
Obviously this couldn't be done by straight translation, even had my Welsh been a great deal better; that was not the task I'd been set.(7) I knew, even as I looked, that collasant was not 'collapsed', nor breint 'burnt'. But in a poem they could be; neither word was out of keeping with the Welsh original, which says 'crumbling', 'destroyed', 'reddened', 'glowing'.
Now I'm aware that there will be those who object to the rejigging of one set of events to speak of another; but this is so common a poetical act that objecting to it seems like fretting over modern-dress Shakespeare. (And the answer is the same; the original is still there, and maybe someone might go and look at it who otherwise wouldn't.) There is even a fine Welsh precedent—Peter Finch's Falklands-inspired prose-poem 'The Death of King Arthur Seen As A Recent War', which contains passages like this: 'I counted them out—Ban of Banoic, Lionel, Bors, Sons of Bors, Sons of Gaunes—and I counted them back.' And 'Galahad flickers, sand in his wounds. At sea dark helicopters make themselves huge, stream stripped aluminium in elongated clouds. Nobleness turns to hauteur, hubris, leery smiles.'(8)
There will also be those worried by the betrayal of the 'task of the translator'.(9) When Ezra Pound first published his 'Homage to Sextus Propertius' a Professor of Latin was moved by lines like this—'Nor is it equipped with a frigidaire patent'—to write complaining of Pound's competence. The reply, beginning 'Cat-piss and porcupines!!', seems mild in the circumstances.(10) I promise to respond in like vein to critics who manage to notice all by themselves that there were no tanks in Powys in the 850s. What is at issue is what Hugh Kenner called 'cultural subject-rhyme'—and, if it can be carried off, the topological transformation, as it were, of the 'co-ordinates' of the original poem. (11) In any case, better mendacities than the classics in paraphrase. Yesterday cannot be today, for 'Wales cannot endlessly remain / chasing sheep into the twilight'. (12)
Of course, I cannot rebut the assertion that I am no Welsh scholar.(13) There are (too few) translations of the Canu Heledd; it pains me that no complete one is affordably in print, and if my not doing a translation manages to goad someone else into doing one, so very much the better.
That said, I think I've sometimes caught things a conventional translation would have difficulty doing. Consider stanza 83:
LIas vym brodyr ar vnweith.
kynan kynddylan kynwreith.
yn amwyn tren tref diffeith. (14)
Law views better are vital,
conquest, coalition, campaign,
is assure true, troops destruction. (15)
is not a translation (it is not even imitation, in Dryden's sense). Every word comes from Tony Blair's 'Open Letter to the Iraqi People' of April 2003, transposed as phonetically closely as was manageable. This quite intentionally preserves the alliterative structure of the aptly-named 'soldier's englyn', englyn milwr, preferred stanza-form for a third of the Canu Heledd. (16) It also catches, spookily, the carefully ungrammatical syntax of Blair's speeches, their employment of verbal incompetence to evidence sincerity.
The sections from my poem that appear in this issue of Poetry Wales were not chosen to make any editorial or polemical point; they were simply available. I have supplied the Welsh text (after Rowland) because there will be readers for whom it is entirely useful, and all readers will be able to see where there is evidently no kinship between texts (stanzas 67 or 90, for example), or where some transformative process has been employed (eg stanza 76). Ironically, what may be invisible for the monoglot is straight translation (as in stanza 87).
For the sake of those interested in pedants' games, a few remarks:
Stanzas 67-68 substitute, on very rough phonetic lines, Iraqi for the original Welsh rivers.
Stanza 76 replaces (metaphrastically, but not literally, word by word) by alliterative selection vocabulary from an official British Government policy paper, found on the Foreign Office website; the senses are just as dulled by repetitive blandness in this homeopathic sample. Hediw is translated literally.
Stanzas 78-79 use vocabulary from The Sun circa April 2003. Any truth-claims therein are as fractured as the language.
Stanza 82, a 'fragment' as Rowland entitles it, is textually corrupt; I take only the word Caer and make my own substitution. The cited military intelligence expert was speaking of the public exposure of Saddam Hussein's dead sons rather than that of Cynddylan outside Pengwern.
Stanza 87 was called an 'epigram' by Rowland. Drawing on Tony Conran's comparison of the englyn to haiku (Welsh Verse, p. 302) I've translated (paraphrased?) this as one, adding 'spring' as the kigo or 'season-word'.
Stanzas 88-89 — I derived core vocabulary by putting the Welsh through assorted online translation engines and keeping a list of what 'worked'. This is doubtless morally and logically indefensible. I also used Y Geriadur Mawr, allowing glas to suggest 'glass' as well. Note the formal preservation of cymheriad geiriol.
Stanzas 102-103 As in stanza 67, diua suggested Dyala, an Iraqi river. Again I used an indefensible wordbook, Mathews Chinese-English Dictionary, and again it was helpful; tom led me to tun ('heap, mound'), maes to mai ('bury'), both apposite to early Celtic inhumation practices.
for Ian Davidson
* * *
Some stanzas from
Amhaual ar auaerwy.
Amhaual ar eluyden
Bei gwreic gyrthmwl. bydei gwan
Heled hwyedic ym gelwir.
Heled hwyedic am kyueirch. o duw
Marchawc o gaer ....... a danaw.
Teneu awel tew lletkynt
As clywo a duw a dyn.
Ym byw [hedyn] ehedyei
Ryuedaf dincleir na diw yn o
Maes maodyn neus cud rew.
Tom elwithan neus gwlych glaw.
[Signs and Trains]
Moving in parallel the Euphrates
Moving in parallel the two rivers Zab
Breach government government. Benefit
[Hell in Tactics, or In The Sun]
Hell hard tactic in glory day
Hell hard tactic in cauldron of dust
"It's kind of ..... ironic
Thin breeze, deep sadness.
[shards of glass]
A dark morning—young men drumming.
Present life not worth zip—
[In the Lair of the Boars]
Sargon Hammurabi Cyrus Antiochus
[The Graves of Dyala]
By the Dyala Bridge earth covers them
A heap of earth a weak shield
* * *
1. I follow the dating in Jenny Rowland's Early Welsh Saga Poetry (Cambridge: 1990), p. 389; it is compatible with Ifor Williams' suggested 'somewhere round 850' —see his 1944 Lectures on Early Welsh Poetry, II (Dublin, 1970), p. 48.
2. See Dryden's 'Preface' to Ovid's Epistles, translated by Several Hands... (London, 1680).
3. See Louis Zukofsky's Prepositions+ (Hanover, NH, 2000), p.225.
4. Basil Bunting, Complete Poems, ed. R. Caddel (Oxford, 1994): 'BriggfIatts' IV, p. 57.
5. Griffiths' Welsh translations include Taliesin in Cum Permissu (Pirate Press, 1973); The Gododdin (Pirate Press/Writers Forum, 1974); Llywarch Hen in Welsh/English (Writers Forum, 1978); and, undated, a poem-card, 'Coat (of) Dinogad', and The Grave Stanzas of Urien (Pirate Press).
6. Richard Caddel, 'The Feet of Dafydd ap Gwilym Tapping to the Triads of Dr Williams', in his Uncertain Time (Newcastle upon Tyne: Galloping Dog Press, 1990), pp. 49-50; 'Nine Englynion' in Larksong Signal (Plymouth: Shearsman Books, 1997), pp. 27-28, and For the Fallen: A Reading of Y Gododdin (Bray, Co. Wicklow, Eire: Wild Honey Press, 2000). On the last-listed see my essay 'Making a music out of language: Richard Caddel's "reading" of the Gododdin', in fragmente 7 (1997), which also discusses Louis Zukofsky's phonetic translations from Welsh poetry embedded in his 1970 novel Little.
7. That said, some of my early stanzas, not sampled here, are straightforwardly metaphrastic—eg no. 18:
Stauell gyndylan ys tywyll heno Dark and sad tonight -
heb dan heb wely. no fire, no bedding.
wylaf wers. tawef wedy. Weeping, then silence.
(published in Angel Exhaust no. 19.)
8. Peter Finch, Some Music And A Little War (Bradford: Rivelin Grapheme Press, 1984), pp. 20,21.
9. I echo the title of Walter Benjamin's 1921 essay, which disposes of banal notions of translation far more adroitly than I can.
10. See Personae: The Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound (New York, 1990), p. 207 (and p. 186); and Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London, 1975), pp. 285-6.
11. Pound Era, pp.168-70.
12. Peter Finch, Selected Poems (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1987), p. 16.
13. Not all Welsh scholars are, either—see endnote 28 on page 74 of Ifor Williams' Lectures on Early Welsh Poetry.
14. Rowland, pp. 50-51.
15. As published in ...further evidence of nerves... (Cambridge, 2005).
16. See Rowland, p. 327. Purists should note that, although there are traces of proto-cynghanedd here, the rules of Welsh prosody were not codified until the 1524 Caerwys eisteddfod, some 700 years after the Canu Heledd was written.
About the Author
Harry Gilonis is a poet, editor, publisher and occasional critic. He has read at Taigh Chearsabhagh on North Uist, An Lanntair on Lewis, and at the Pier Art Gallery in Orkney, as well as in Swansea, Cork, New York, Cambridge and London. He has been published widely, including on the lawn of the Serpentine Gallery. Recent publications include 'Three Misreadings of Horatian Odes' in the 'Anti-Imperialism' issue of QUID. He runs the semi-dormant Form Books poetry imprint.
Editor: Zoë Skoulding
Editorial Assistant: Penny Thomas