‘I started to translate in seventy-three
in the schoolyard. For a bit of fun
to begin with – the occasional “fuck”
for the bite of another language’s smoke
at the back of my throat, its bitter chemicals.
Soon I was hooked on whole sentences
behind the shed, and lessons in Welsh
seemed very boring. I started on print,
Jeeves & Wooster, Dick Francis, James Bond,
in Welsh covers. That worked for a while
until Mam discovered Jean Plaidy inside
a Welsh concordance one Sunday night.
There were ructions: a language, she screamed,
should be for a lifetime. Too late for me.
Soon I was snorting Simenon
and Flaubert. Had to read much more
for any effect. One night I OD’d
after reading far too much Proust.
I came to, but it scared me. For a while
I went Welsh-only but it was bland
and my taste was changing. Before too long
I was back on translating, found that three
languages weren’t enough. The “ch”
in German was easy, Rilke a buzz…
For a language fetishist like me
sex is part of the problem. Umlauts make me sweat,
so I need a multilingual man
but they’re rare in West Wales and tend to be
married already. If only I’d kept
myself much purer, with simpler tastes,
the Welsh might be living…
Detective, you speak
Russian, I hear, and Japanese.
Could you whisper some softly?
I’m begging you. Please…’
Gwyneth Lewis is bilingual in Welsh and English and after being recognised as a poet in English whilst she was studying at Oxford in the early 1980s published a Welsh collection, Sonedau Redsa a Cherddi Eraill (1990) before her English debut Parables and Faxes (1995). Her early poem sequence ‘Welsh Espionage’ was notable for sustaining its conceit of Welshness as a concept to be smuggled through the lines of the dominant English culture over many formal stanzas, inspired by Auden’s early spy-in-the-northern-landscape poems:
‘Close shave at the station when I asked my way.
Ticket collector quizzed me: Did I know
The pubs or the chapels better? Got away
With mumbling ‘Neither’ and then leaving fast.
I mustn’t let on that I speak Welsh
Or they’re sure to connect me with my past.’…