Hopefully not lost

A few days ago I was asked to help try and find a translation for a Welsh poem for Remembrance Day. The poem, “Y Pabi Coch” (The Red Poppy), written by Isaac Daniel Hooson in 1924, is apparently quite well-known in Welsh language culture but I was only vaguely familiar with it. Here it is, for those of who can speak Welsh or just like to look at texts in languages you can’t speak (I’m sure I’m not the only one):

‘Roedd gwlith y bore ar dy foch
Yn ddafnau arian, flodyn coch,
A haul Mehefin drwy’r prynhawn
Yn bwrw’i aur i’th gwpan llawn.

Tithau ymhlith dy frodyr fyrdd
Yn dawnsio’n hoyw ar gwrlid gwyrdd
Cynefin fro dy dylwyth glân,
A’th sidan wisg yn fflam o dân.

Ond rhywun â didostur law
A’th gipiodd o’th gynefin draw
I estron fro, a chyn y wawr
Syrthiast, a’th waed yn lliwio’r llawr.

Y Pabi Coch, I. D. Hooson (1924)

I did a bit of Googling but was unable to find any translation. The closest I got was a bibliography which seemed to indicate the existence of a translation by Tony Conran (himself a noted Anglo-Welsh poet who used to be a member of the English department in the University of Wales, Bangor; I met him on a number of occasions when, as a very old man, he used to come and listen to the Welsh folk music sessions I played at in my early years in North Wales, but I digress). I ordered a copy of the anthology it was supposed to appear in (“Welsh Verse: Fourteen Centuries of Poetry” translated by Tony Conran; 3rd Ed., Seren, 2017; ISBN: 978-1781724040) but when that arrived I found that while it did indeed contain a translation of a poem by Hooson and a translation of a poem about poppies, they were different poems (the latter was called “Poppies” and was a translation of a poem, presumably called “Pabïau”, by Nesta Wyn Jones, though I haven’t managed to locate a copy of the original poem).

I therefore had to resort to my backup plan, which was to do my own translation. Initially I intended to just do a prose translation to convey the meaning (or at least the surface meaning) of the words to those who couldn’t read the Welsh (this, incidentally, was for an Act of Rembrance led by the Bangor University Chaplaincy), but once I’d finished that I decided to have a go at doing a verse translation too. This was a task I attempted with some trepidation, bearing in mind Robert Frost’s dictum that poetry is “what gets lost in translation”.

I wanted not only to convey the sense of the original words but also to preserve the original meter (iambic tetrameter, if I remember my terminology correctly) and rhyming scheme (AABB). There’s also at least a bit of cynghanedd (a somewhat complicated scheme of alliteration that’s characteristic of much Welsh poetry) going on, but I figured that was a step too far and decided to ignore that for my translation. To the best of my knowledge, Gerard Manley Hopkins is just about the only poet who’s successfully managed to make much use of cynghanedd in English poetry and he wasn’t working with the extra constraint of trying to translate poems from Welsh (or any other language).

In the end, I think I managed to achieve a reasonable result with only fairly minimal poetic licence employed to make it fit (most notably rendering “flodyn coch” as “red flower meek” rather than simply “red flower”):

The morning dew lay on your cheek,
In silver drops, red flower meek.
The sun throughout the afternoon
Cast gold into your cup that June.

You with your many brothers seen,
Dancing merry on the green,
The place frequented by your ilk,
A flame of fire your garb of silk.

But someone with relentless hand
Plucked you out of that fair land
And far away before the dawn
your blood did stain some foreign lawn.

tr. Magnus Forrester-Barker (November 2021)

I think something has been inevitably been lost in translation but I trust that not too much has been lost and that any loss is balanced by the gain of opening up Hooson’s beautiful, moving poem to a wider audience.

Bad breath

My recent foray into Euclid’s Elements has rekindled my interest in Ancient Greece, so I have decided the time has come to have another bash at learning Homeric Greek.  As well as being an interesting project in its own right, which will enable me to appreciate two of the classics of world literature (and, arguably, pillars of European culture) in their original language, I hope the exercise will enrich my understanding of Koine (aka. New Testament) Greek and provide a good doorway to other Greek dialects.

I already have some Homeric study material from a previous fling with the language, the main one being Clyde Pharr’s classic textbook Homeric Greek.

Working through some of the early exercises in the book this morning, I found a sentence which seems to demonstrate in quite an amusing way the range of variation possible in translating a sentence, due to the range of meanings of each word.

The sentence (lesson IV, no. 5) reads: καλη ἐστι θεα, ἐχει δε ψυχην κακην.

I don’t have a copy of the key to Pharr’s exercises, if such a thing exists, but I’m assuming the translation he had in mind was along the lines of the goddess is beautiful but she has an evil spirit (or perhaps an ugly spirit to contrast with her physical beauty).

However,   καλη can mean good, beautiful or several other things (all generally positive) while κακη is bad as well as ugly, evil etc. and ψυχη can be spirit, soul,breath or life. So there are several other possible translations for this sentence, including the goddess is good but she has bad breath.

Two phone-related observations to finish with:

I wrote the bulk of this post using the WordPress app on my phone, though I finished it on my PC (mainly to access the polytonic Greek keyboard, so I could put the breathings on the Greek sentence – I decided to leave out the accents though).  I notice that I seem to have written much shorter paragraphs than usual (indeed, several of them are just single sentences) and I wonder if this is largely due to the phone having a much smaller screen so a paragraph that is short on the computer screen looks quite long on there.  As you will probably have noticed, the current paragraph (which I’m writing on the PC) is just about the longest one in the whole post.

Yesterday I discovered what appears to be quite a promising app to help with my study of Homeric Greek.  It’s called Phlash Cards and is basically a set of flash cards designed to be used with Pharr’s textbook.   I’ve not made much use of it yet, but so far it seems to be working well.  It offers flashcards to test the vocabulary for each lesson (going Greek -> English or vice versa) as well as the paradigms for verbs, nouns etc. that are to be learned, and it has all the lines from the Iliad (all book 1, I think) that are introduced in the later lessons (as I recall from my previous outings with Pharr, the student is encouraged to memorise these).