“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

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“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

Retrospective: Medieval Welsh Translations on BODY


I’d like to write something every now and then about poems I’ve had published in the past, since at the time I hardly said anything, and because most of the online and offline publications that have posted or printed something of mine are well worth further exploration. BODY, for instance, is a seriously international publication that’s free to read and puts up performance texts and videos alongside work from poets across the world. It’s got a slick website too.

The pieces they published are only a half or a third mine, since they’re translations – in this case, of work by medieval Welsh poets Dafydd Ap Gwilym and Gwerful Mechain (the links here are to the poems). I’m (still) frustratedly monolingual, despite efforts in recent years to upgrade, so my approach to ‘translating’ poetry is this: I run the originals through Google Translate, in whole and in part, and marvel for a while over the weirdness produced. I read other translations, as many as I can obtain, and try to map parts of them to the raw automated translation. I read and reread the original texts, often aloud to myself, to try to get a measure of the rhythms and sounds employed. I read around the poem, if there’s any commentary on it, or interesting biographical information that surrounds it. Then I take my best shot, I suppose in much the same way someone might attempt a portrait from a series of colourful descriptions.

I don’t actually think dead-on accuracy matters that much. Translations of poetry are always necessarily defective as pure translations, so their purpose must be to create something new – albeit related. It’s more worthwhile to think of them as collaborations of a sort, or ‘reimaginings’, to borrow the cinematic term. It turns out, for instance, nearly everyone else has a preferred translator of Celan which differs from mine – I like the Ian Fairley versions to the point where I can hardly be bothered with the rest. It might be that’s because I like reading Fairley as much as (or more than) I like reading Celan.

As for these Medieval Welsh poets – well, I happened on them because I’ve been on the look-out for obscene poetry from the past and from other cultures for some time. They’re hardly obscure poets, and the poems I’ve chosen are among their most famous, but the existing translations I found are all somewhat grim and ponderous in the face of what seems (to me) to be their obvious exuberance and comic energy, so my versions attempt to bring that out, at the cost of metrical fidelity. And though the authors are separated by more than a century (Ap Gwilym was around in the 1500s, Mechain in the late 1600s), these pieces seem to go together as a pair.

I also wrote a short essay for BODY about a poem by Rimbaud in which he remarks on a barmaid’s ‘enormous tits’, which seems not entirely unrelated.

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