More time in this world: Gwen Davies on translating Caryl Lewis

Llŷr Gwyn Lewis asks writer, editor and translator Gwen Davies about her experiences translating Caryl Lewis’s bestselling fiction into English; what it’s like to balance the role of translator with her usual role of editor; and what it is that makes Gwen Davies want to spend more time in the ‘world’ of a particular book.

Gwen Davies has been the editor of New Welsh Review since 2011. She has worked as a creative editor at publishers including Parthian, and founded the imprints Alcemi and New Welsh Rarebyte. She has also been a writers’ mentor. As a literary translator, her titles include Robin Llywelyn’s White Star (Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn) and two of bestseller Caryl Lewis’s novels, Martha, Jack & Shanco (Martha, Jac a Sianco, Parthian, 2007) and The Jeweller (Y Gemydd, Honno, 2019). She grew up in a Welsh-speaking family in West Yorkshire and now lives in Aberystwyth with her family.

Llŷr Gwyn Lewis is a Welsh-language writer and poet. His previous publications include Fabula (2017), a collection of short stories, and poetry in Storm ar wyneb yr haul (2014) and rhwng dwy lein drên (2020). In 2017 he was selected as one of LAF’s Ten New Voices from Europe for 2017.

Martha, Jack & Shanco by Caryl Lewis (Parthian, 2007)

L: What first attracted you to the work of Caryl Lewis and made you want to bring her work to a wider readership? What do you think is the lasting appeal of Martha, Jack & Shanco in particular, often regarded by now as a classic?

G: Having bought my copy as a parent at a school fair, I recognised – on first picking it up – that quality in fiction which makes you want to shut your world away and step into the book. I didn’t think about translation at that point; that was suggested later by Sioned Puw Rowlands of the Wales Literature Exchange, who was seeking a sample for rights sales abroad, and persuaded me that I could do it. I tend to be someone who reacts to opportunities so it would be untrue to say that, at any point, I surveyed the whole of Welsh-language literature and married that with my ambitions as a translator. I’m just not that systematic. But Caryl’s was a quiet, beautiful, emotionally true and evocative world. All that, I knew, on reading the opening scene with Shanco, his terrier shoved up his jumper. That vulnerable moment set against the dark folklore feel of the cow eating its own udders. I could see Graig Ddu straight away, in all its detail and potential.

So you have that vulnerability built into the characters’ relationships; the folk motifs and the author’s readiness to go to dark places. You have the beauty of nature (and the dark, or should I say red, side of that). But you also have humour, and the dysfunctional love-hate triangle of Martha, Jack and Shanco, who are trapped by the power relationship created in part by their mother not having allowed any of them to directly inherit her farm. That triangle works almost like a great sitcom would – if there were more jokes and fewer references to the landscape – but however it works, it does, and this was a place in which I wanted to spend more time. Presumably, all those other readers of this classic feel much the same.

I recognised – on first picking it up – that quality in fiction which makes you want to shut your world away and step into the book.

What can you remember of the translation process for Martha, Jack & Shanco? Was the initial process a solitary one? Did you discuss or consult with others – with Lewis herself or an editor – as you worked, or did you prefer to draft alone first and to share the work later?

I wonder whether I go into some sort of dis-associative state when translating; perhaps writers do generally? In any case, amnesia goes with that; plus it was a long time ago, so I’ve forgotten much of the details of word and sentence selection.

However, I do remember the process in relation to working with the author. I felt very privileged and probably over-awed by working with her at that early stage. I would keep a note of any difficulties I was having or changes that I felt needed to be made (after drafting each section alone), that perhaps placed a different emphasis to the original Welsh, or a section where the language was heightened in a different place to the Welsh because the target language lent itself to that choice. We met up perhaps three or four times during the first draft, and she was extremely encouraging and generous. Then it was up to me to polish the remaining drafts and iron out any other problems. I also consulted with my mother, Caryl Davies, who was a translator before me, from French, Russian and Welsh. She performed a sort-of editing role on sections of my second draft. So I had two safety nets.

I do remember one change, which Caryl Lewis agreed to, which may have been a mistake on my part. That involved cutting a very short scene at the end of one chapter, which presented Jack’s tent, camped outside, as being like a green blister. I didn’t like the image and thought it had been used too often. But that was probably me overstepping the mark in my editor’s shoes.

I remember being struck by that change of image – from the ‘pothell’ of the Welsh to the tent as ‘some old carcass worried by wild animals’. That made me think of R. S. Thomas, the ‘impotent people’ ‘worrying the carcase of an old song’. Similarly, in The Jeweller, there is a description of Mari’s emerald with ‘the green fuse driving within it’. Reading these it struck me more clearly than it had before that Caryl Lewis’s world is very closely related to R. S. Thomas’s – and to Dylan Thomas’s too, in a way. Were such references, a sort of sidelong glance perhaps, intentional on your part, or something more subconscious?

They were intentional; I hope they worked. That’s the context of Welsh literature, so it was a way of positioning Welsh literature in English at the same level as Welsh-language literature, and vice versa.

I didn’t feel that I was reading a translation, let alone a particularly ‘close’ or ‘faithful’ one. Yet, were I to pick the Welsh up and compare, I could almost follow sentence for sentence. How did you balance that faithfulness with ensuring that the English translation stood entirely on its own two feet? Is it the translator’s job to become ‘invisible’, or should there be an awareness of the other language’s presence behind the translation?

I think that if a translator’s work is invisible, it is less likely to include source language references or place-names (those things which create that stronger presence of the place behind the language). That is, it creates its own world in the target language which has moved away from the source language and lives in its own right, cut free of the original references and place.

Those are not the sort of translations that I make, so far, at least. I do remember conversations with my parents (both translators, my father being Gareth Alban Davies, who translated from Spanish and French) about Martha, Jack & Shanco. Gareth suggested that the novel could be relocated to somewhere like Yorkshire, where I grew up. These discussions influenced my decision to give the dialogue of Judy (Jack’s lover) a fairly strong Yorkshire accent, in order to address the problem of differentiating her English speech within my English narrative (Judy’s dialogues in the original are English set within a Welsh-language narrative).

But that’s as far as such radical decisions went. The sense of place within the novel is so strong, what would have been the point of inventing some Yorkshire field names? I have since worked as a translator’s mentor, for a translator who was toying with the idea of moving the setting of a novel set near Penrhyndeudraeth to northern England. She had mapped out all the different permutations and the various problems created and addressed by different landscapes, dialogue and cultural references. She had effectively created at least two works, one for the London market and one for publishers in Wales. But when we were working on her pitch letter to the London agents, we faced the problem of how to present the original author, a woman from north-west Wales, as somebody who was the author of this book now set in northern England. Trying to marry the two seemed to me to be unnecessarily convoluted, just as a means of solving a few specific references in the text that non-Welsh speakers would miss.

And I suppose, yes, my sense of loyalty to the Welsh language and to Wales is very strong. There is a bit of a mission to promote our authors and our literature on the world stage, and to avoid creating something – more universal, perhaps – but that has lost its soul along the way.

I’m eager to learn more about the minutiae of some of the choices you had to make with Martha, Jack & Shanco. The siblings refer to each other, in Welsh, as ‘chi’, which might sound archaic or excessively formal to a modern ear. Without being able directly to translate that difference in pronouns, did you find that you had to convey the particularity of the relationship in other ways?

I approached the relationship between the siblings in a holistic way. It is clearly toxic and massively conflicted and ambivalent, at least that is true of Martha and Jack. With the relationship of Shanco to both of them being that of child-parent, this aspect is one of the ways in which the novel seems to me to be similar to a sitcom such as Father Ted where ‘family’ relationships are reconfigured.

I didn’t really get hung-up about the French ‘tutoyer’ question, when Martha and Jack clearly hate each other’s guts, and their every action and exchange reflects that. I honestly don’t think it’s such a big deal, in the original novel, that Judy doesn’t speak Welsh. Caryl has already introduced class issues (whereby my introduction of a Yorkshire accent rather patronisingly addresses this). She also uses humour to cast doubt on Judy’s morals, with it being suggested that she is a ‘tart’, in the Welsh, and in what is a pun on an English word. It is clear to everybody except Jack that she’s after his money and the farm. These are forces of character, voice and plot as much as language; the story carries these elements so well that the translation doesn’t need to get tied in knots over one character speaking English, which of course is extremely common in Welsh communities.

Translating The Jeweller was of course different, as it’s a different novel – not as splashy as Martha, Jack & Shanco

That interplay or tension between languages that I’d perceived in Martha, Jack & Shanco is, in any case, not as central in Y Gemydd and your translation, The Jeweller. Did that make your work easier or harder in any way?

Since I didn’t worry too much about ‘the language question’ in Martha, Jack and Shanco, I didn’t notice that these issues were less present when turning Y Gemydd into The Jeweller. I do have a practical, pragmatic approach to questions as they arise – rather than taking on more abstract, theoretical or over-arching issues. I look at the novel as a whole – the characters, the language, the setting, imagery and themes – and I imagine, or rather, reimagine all these things. And hopefully, all those issues embedded in the original are addressed, in an instinctive way, within the new work. At the Aberystwyth launch of The Jeweller, the author and critic Jane Aaron asked me a question about the translation process, and it was clear that she’d thought about these theoretical issues much more deeply than I had. She made the point that in Welsh, dialect indicates geographical location rather than class. I had never thought of that, and yet, intuitively, I’d given Judy a Yorkshire accent. I suppose that Caryl herself side-stepped this issue by making Judy speak English, because it’s easier to indicate someone’s class in English… What I am saying here is that perhaps Caryl was making a point about class as well as language when she chose to make Judy a non-Welsh speaker.

I think I felt a bit more protective towards The Jeweller than I did towards Martha, Jack & Shanco. An earlier draft got onto the books at the Marsh [literary] Agency, but Paul Marsh died suddenly and his successor, a junior agent, didn’t manage to place it. The feedback I had from publishers generally was that it was a ‘quiet novel’ and that the protagonist Mair (who I called Mari in the translation as it’s easier to pronounce by non-Welsh speakers) was not the warmest or most engaging character. I fought quite hard to get this book published, and it took some patience. So, there will have been more drafts than there were for Martha, Jack & Shanco, and it was more of a slow maturation process.

Translating The Jeweller was of course different, as it’s a different novel – not as splashy as Martha, Jack & Shanco – with a less engaging central core of characters and a slightly depressed main character who has other emotional problems arising from the situation surrounding her birth. Also, Caryl was a little older and more experienced in writing the original, and I was the same in terms of translating it. We had both become slightly better writers, channelling different nuances and themes in our approach. I have had children, a miscarriage, know jealous people who try and steal other people’s children in the way that Mari does, know others who are addicts as Dafydd’s mother is. I have life experience, and I like the healing message that this novel presents. For all these reasons of empathy, which Caryl exudes as an author and I amplify as a translator, working on The Jeweller was a joy.

For all these reasons of empathy, which Caryl exudes as an author and I amplify as a translator, working on The Jeweller was a joy.

I found that The Jeweller was written in a more heightened, ‘literary’ language. I was struck by how you conveyed the lyricism of the original novel, but there was also something more concise and vigorous to the prose in English. Does a translator need to take account of the differing temperament, perhaps modality, of each novel but also of each language?

Following on from my comments above, The Jeweller sort of grew on me. I think if you read it superficially, it can seem that there isn’t that much about it. You have to read it at least twice to understand all the levels; in the imagery, the language, its cadence and themes. It is a bit like the novels of Beryl Bainbridge, also short, and also passed over for prizes. Y Gemydd wasn’t even shortlisted for the Wales Books of the Year in 2008, and Beryl Bainbridge never won the Booker in her lifetime. I ultimately read it many, many times, and got to know it inside out, and was rewarded by that as it coyly revealed the breadth of its prism. If that results in a literary language, then that is just, as the Welsh original is literature. If I were to return to Martha, Jack & Shanco now and work on it to the same level, I’m sure I would pick up lots of aspects that could be further polished in my translation. But then, the central concept of the novel is more in-your-face than The Jeweller, so perhaps polishing that would be redundant.

As to the ‘vigorous’ and ‘concise’ element of The Jeweller, that will also be the product of reworking. I do remember, when tackling Martha, Jack & Shanco, that I started to get a bit annoyed by how many references there were to Martha ‘looking at’ something. By the point that I started on The Jeweller, I had the confidence to just present scenes, without including the additional layer of someone ‘looking at’ such a scene. Mari is already cool enough as a character, without adding that extra distance. The novel is so much less of an ensemble act than Martha, Jack & Shanco, that I decided that everything should be through Mari’s viewpoint, unless it was stated otherwise. A bit like Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, if that’s not too presumptuous. That approach means you can cut out quite a bit of extraneous text. I think I started experimenting a bit with dialogue too, trying to convey emotion within the speech rather than in its descriptive suffixes (for example, ‘she said, anxiously’), and using punctuation to do that. I have a suspicion that these techniques came into being because I was getting bored from reading so many drafts, so I was pushing my own technique. Hopefully, it works and doesn’t stray too much from the original temperament, as you describe it. What I do, I suspect, is to keep an eye out for what may be a slight weakness in a book, such as Mari being quite hard to know, and wanting to give her a chance to become more intimate with the reader, so I am challenging the prejudice I mentioned about Mari being diffident and the novel being ‘quiet’. There’s an element of me advocating more strongly for this book (within the writing) than the original needs to, because the English-reading market is so much tougher. This approach is the editor in me, which leads on to your next question.

Yes; you are, of course, an experienced and highly respected editor. How much do you listen to – or perhaps try to ignore – the editor’s voice as you translate? You noted once, for instance, that ‘my own work as a literary translator makes me sensitive to how vulnerable an author can be during the editing process’.

I’m afraid that I find it very difficult to ‘turn off’ the editorial voice. It is part of my writing, it is a skill all writers need. If I notice a continuity problem, some repetition, or a lapse in viewpoint, I will address it. That is why I swapped around the chapters at the end of The Jeweller; Mari’s viewpoint had been held so faithfully for so long that I thought it needed to be relinquished only at the very last moment, rather than dipping in and out of it, as the original does towards the end. I did check this change with the author.

It is true also, though, that it’s salutary to be put in the writer’s seat, to be reminded that everyone is vulnerable when it comes to showing their work to other people. Hopefully the process has made me kinder to authors I’m editing, although I do know that my USP seems to have become that I tell it straight. An author surprised me once by saying something like, ‘Aha! I get it, you are on the side of the work.’ I thought, ‘Duh! Of course I am! I am paying you the utmost compliment by believing in the work that you created, treating your characters as though they are flesh and blood.’ I don’t want to waste time pussyfooting around with authors who won’t move a comma. But, of course, I may have been that author or translator myself, once or twice.

At the same Aberystwyth launch I mentioned above, though, I did catch a friend of Caryl saying to her, after I’d described my translation process in the session, ‘How can you stand it?’ I did die a little inside at that point, and I do think that person (an author herself) was missing the point. I don’t like hierarchies, and I don’t put people on a pedestal. Although I love and respect Caryl, I love and respect her fiction more, as a professional and creative person in my own right. It is to the fiction that I am answerable. If my translations work, then that is how they should be judged.

But I do start from the position that any translation is by definition at a disadvantage. It will necessarily lose some key ingredients, just in the process. And it would be impossible to exactly hit the same highpoints in terms of sound, alliteration or imagery, for example, in exactly the same positions on the line that they appear in the source language. So I aim, to adapt a phrase from Morecambe and Wise, to get down all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order. They will appear on the same page as the original, however.

I’m afraid that I find it very difficult to ‘turn off’ the editorial voice. It is part of my writing, it is a skill all writers need.

As you’ve already mentioned, some time had passed between writing Martha, Jack & Shanco and The Jeweller – both the original Welsh and the translations. But I wonder whether a comparison might be made between Martha and Mari. As readers, we are on their side, and we see most of the narrative from their perspective, if not through their eyes. Both have fragile characters dependent on them; Nanw in Mari’s case, and Shanco in Martha’s. Both have a blunt, almost cruel streak, yet we also see moments of affection and tenderness, their quiet determination, and our sympathy lies squarely with them. There is the sense that they’ve been trapped or subdued by their circumstances. But unlike Martha, Mari does have a friend, a refuge and some stability in the form of Mo, and to me, the portrayal of that friendship is one of the most special things about the novel: the understanding between them that requires few words. It’s very different from the spiky, tense relationship between Martha and Jack or Judy, which is conveyed in a much more verbal manner. What type of experience was it to translate Mari and Mo’s relationship, and that tenderness, in comparison to the constantly heightened tension in Martha, Jack & Shanco some years previously?

Your summary of Mari and Nanw’s, and Martha and Shanco’s relationships, and the ‘trapped circumstances’ strikes a chord with me in terms of my personal circumstances (some people in my family have autism) and it’s also a good description of a Gothic literary trope, which appeals to me.

I suppose, then, that as you’d seek out someone who’s full of humour and fun after a difficult and intense period, that’s how turning to translate Mo and Mari’s scenes felt. There was no theory or overthinking involved. There is levity and fun in the original, and it feels warm-hearted. I didn’t feel that there was any strain in the writing in either language, though I do remember contemplating for a while whether I should call the sculpture of Jesus ‘him/Him’ or ‘it’. The statue, in the chapter where the women clear the church, becomes some sort of child and a figure of fun, in a tender way, between Mari and Mo.

Mari’s dark side is there in her relationship with Dafydd and his mother. But it’s probably, as you say, that Martha has to keep everything inside herself and remain very introverted. Though I thought, to begin with, that Mari was the loneliest of the pair. She’s so nasty to Jack and Judy, and there is a spiteful humour there, isn’t there? But these are answers about the novels in either language. I don’t remember thinking about these things, rather simply understanding them on a subconscious level. Perhaps I felt that I had to promote Mari more (that is, I had to perfect ‘her text’) because of her evident faults and the way some publishers had criticised her for being ‘quiet’, like the novel itself. I felt, unfairly (as Martha, Jack & Shanco’s ending proves) that Martha could look after herself, like the book itself, as it was such a popular novel in Welsh. We’re now talking about me anthropomorphising a novel, and also feeling an immensely strong responsibility towards a fictional character, perhaps beyond reason!

It’s salutary to be put in the writer’s seat, to be reminded that everyone is vulnerable when it comes to showing their work to other people.

The Jeweller was your latest translation project, two years ago now. But you began earlier, with the work of authors such as Robin Llewelyn and Mihangel Morgan. What has changed since then, do you think, generally in terms of Welsh literature (in Welsh and English) – are we in a better or more interesting place than we were twenty or thirty years ago? What about your approach to translation then and now?

I did begin, in the early 2000s, with co-translating, or heavily revising Robin Llywelyn’s Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn (appearing in English from Parthian as White Star). I only recently translated part of Mihangel Morgan’s novel Hen Bethau Anghofiedig, but I am planning to adapt his novella about sexuality and gender identity, Pan Oeddwn Fachgen.

As I mentioned above, I’m not really somebody who looks at the macro picture that often, even though perhaps I should do more often, as editor of New Welsh Review. I treat each work on its merit, and in terms of how it resonates with me at the time, and the way I come across a work is often serendipitous. You might say, aha! Sexuality and gender identity, that is very topical, and it may be true that the book finds a publisher because of current trends of interest. But I’ve had my eye on that book for a long time, because I’ve long been interested in sexuality, gender, bullying and the development, in adolescence, of masculine identities. In addition, my grandmother spoke Gwenhwyseg, the eastern Welsh Valleys dialect that is on the verge of extinction. I am aware that Pan Oeddwn Fachgen, in employing this dialect, deals centrally with language (in a way that I still don’t think Martha, Jack & Shanco does), and I realise that it will be a challenge to tackle that, but I will work out those solutions as I work on the text, when the time comes. I do really translate with an emphasis on practice rather than theory.

My interest in Mihangel Morgan lies in his humour, his use of irony and his voice. I like to think that I have a sense of humour, and he presents a different challenge to the fiction of Caryl Lewis, whose sense of comedy is not as strong (unlike the author, who is very funny).

As to the bigger picture, if I really do have to zoom out that far, I am borrowing the recommendations here that I gave to readers of PEN Transmissions in 2019, preceding The Jeweller’s publication.

For me, fiction, especially, is about tolerance and empathy, and that is reflected in the calibre of fiction authors in both short and long forms, such as Carys Davies and Alys Conran. Climate change and ‘personal geography’ feature in the eco-novels of Alison Layland and Helen Pendry. We certainly have an ancient tradition for the public bardic role, alive in Welsh and healthy in English, particularly in a crossover from poetry to essay-writing and a passion for environment and place, in the work of authors such as Robert Minhinnick and John Barnie. There is a huge rise in confidence of our female poets; people like Emily Blewitt and Jasmine Donahaye. The genial gregariousness and hopeful spotlight that the Costa-winning poet Jonathan Edwards shines on his Valleys community points to affection and belonging as a way forward. Some of our other poets, such as Richard Gwyn and Patrick McGuinness, also moving into nonfiction, are doggedly cosmopolitan, both in settings and outlook. There is an interest in magic and fairytale, especially among female authors, especially those who cut their teeth on stories, such as Jo Mazelis, Kate Hamer and Mari Ellis Dunning.

But I am afraid that I’m very unlikely to work from such a lofty position when selecting my next translation project. That is more likely to start with a book seen in a bookshop or bought online by accident, a glance at the first lines, and the commencement of that warm humming feeling. The one that says, ‘I want to spend more time in this world.’

Gwen Davies’ translation of Martha, Jack & Shanco is available now in a new paperback edition as part of the Parthian Modern series. The Jeweller is available from Honno Press.

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