Gwen Parrott explains the ups and downs of translating her own novels from Welsh to English

Gwen Parrott

The one huge advantage of translating your own novels is that the perennial problem of trying to read the original author’s mind doesn’t exist. I say this having spent well over twenty years as a translator, puzzling over the intentions of thousands of writers on every topic under the sun as I struggle to understand what they meant to say, as opposed to what they actually said.

However, translating my own novels from Welsh into English has proved a salutary experience in other unforeseeable ways. Originally, I did it to provide an English copy for family and friends, once the Welsh novel was complete, but I found that the process was an unexpectedly useful form of editing and, since then, I’ve tried to translate before submitting to a publisher. Perhaps I’m just a poor editor, but when I translate I see things that my eye slides over and ignores if I’m merely reading through. I spot overused phrases and sentences that are badly expressed. Oddly, it also allows me to realise that I need to explain more (or less) at any given point. Is it simply a matter of going into translator mode? I suppose the difficulty is that immediately after writing a book, you are still too close to it, and the act of translation gives a sense of distance from the text.

On a practical level, especially when translating my series of novels set in 1947, the question is how to translate and explain the cultural and religious events which punctuate Della Arthur’s life. Can you assume that all English language readers know what a ‘Cymanfa Ganu’ is? I doubt it, but the choice is between providing an anodyne translation, namely ‘Singing Festival’ or burdening the reader with long-winded explanations. The same is true of first names and place names – by Anglicizing them, you effectively delete most of the local flavour of the book but don’t you need to give some clue as to pronunciation? To this end, I have provided a glossary for my Kindle editions, which has, apparently, been useful to those readers who care about such matters. It could be that there’s no easy way around this, although I am encouraged that translators of Scandinavian novels make no concessions to the fact that we don’t know how to say ‘Malmö’ correctly.

One thing I have noticed, because I’m engaged in the same sort of activity, is how translators of Scandi-noir novels have to skirt around the question of dialect and accent, with statements like ‘he said, in his thick Skåne accent’. The accent itself simply isn’t replicable in English, and it makes me wonder how much I’m missing by not speaking Swedish! In the same way, every time a character in a Welsh language novel says anything, readers know exactly where they come from. My novels are full of recognisably distinct dialects because they contain a range of people from all over Wales. Believe me, apart from characters from the Valleys, this is extremely hard to reproduce convincingly in English. Peppering the text with sibilant ‘s’ sounds, or dropping too many aitches and final ‘g’ sounds is inevitably going to be annoying.

It strikes me forcibly and guiltily, sometimes, that with the best will in the world, no translated novel can give a reader exactly the same experience as the original. Yet, without translations, we don’t even get a glimpse of these unfamiliar worlds.

Read more about Gwen Parrott

19th July 2019

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