‘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

Via Frizzy Logic, where you will find some wonderful remarks on the sexiness of foreign languages (mentioning the immortal A Fish Called Wanda). And I will have to investigate Lewis further:

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.’…


  1. From the bio you linked:

    Poet Gwyneth Lewis was born in 1959 in Cardiff, Wales. She attended a bilingual school in Pontypridd and studied English at Cambridge University. She studied at Harvard and Columbia, was a Harkness Fellow and worked as a freelance journalist in New York.

    From the bio you quote:

    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 […]

    I didn’t study at either flavour of Oxbridge, but I am assured by reliable sources that they are in fact different institutions in different places.

  2. I always understood them to be one and the same, like the “Republican” and “Democratic” parties. But I’ll look into it and get back to you.

  3. Oxford and Cambridge are two different flavours of a similar idea, but they are by no stretch the same thing. People will kill over the difference of a name (see also Republican v. Democrat, Yahweh v. Allah, etc. ad nauseum).

  4. Well, the truth will out: Lewis took her first degree (indeed a double first) at Girton (Cambridge), studied further at Harvard and Columbia, and then took a D. Phil. at Balliol (Oxford). So it’s all true! At least according to Wikipedia, which is usually reliable on this stuff. The Welsh Wikipedia article is rather a stub and not a translation of the English, and it confirms the same story. Oddly, her self-biography on her web site does not mention either Oxbridge institution, only the American ones.

    She wrote a delightful Grauniad article about how her father taught her English, starting with various body parts, and how she read a well-known sentence in English-speaking primary school as “Ddy cat sat on ddy mat” (which I happen to think is perfectly fine English). Her father also, she says, wrote in “biblical Welsh” and spoke archaically as well.

  5. Thanks for clearing that up after all these years!

  6. I meant to mention that she was appointed the National Poet of Wales / Bardd Cenedlaethol Cymru for 2005, the first to hold that title, but forgot. She has also published prose works now, but only in English.

    Curiously, both Lewis and the third National Poet, Gillian Clarke, were born and raised in Cardiff by Welsh-speakers. Lewis’s family spoke Welsh, whereas Clarke’s family spoke English, and she only learned Welsh as an adult. Cardiff has always been an English-speaking place (well, and Normand-speaking long ago), as it grew up around a Norman castle. Its Welsh name, Caerdydd, shows that there has been folk etymology at work. The original name must have been the transparent Caerdaf ‘fort on the (River) Taf’. This was then reduced to the meaningless Caerdyf > Cardiff. (English at that stage could not tolerate final voiced fricatives, so both the city and the river were devoiced, the river becoming Taff.) Welsh final voiced fricatives don’t devoice, but they are often subject to interchange with each other or outright loss, so that Caerdyf > Caerdydd ‘fort of the day’, which at least means something even if it makes little sense.

  7. That’s a great article, John.

    there’s always a third place from which you can view two given cultures. That’s the place from which I write.
    My 24 year-old daughter has recently taken to speaking English with a Norwegian accent when she’s having dinner with me & her Norwegian mother.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    The -dyf of the older Welsh Caerdyf (which is the original form, and not a mangling of *Caerdaf) is usually held to be due to i-affectation by the old Brythonic genitive ending; it does indeed mean “Fort of the Taff” though.

    Welsh final -f [v] has mostly dropped altogether in modern colloquial; final -dd [ð] likewise, so confusion isn’t surprising, and Caerdydd does indeed misleadingly look more like it means something.

    There’s no reason why a final -af would be reduced to -yf; the word is stressed on the final syllable, and in any case that isn’t a change seen in unstressed Welsh final syllables.

    It doesn’t seem likely to me that yer actual common folk in Cardiff (as opposed to yer nobby Normans in the castle) were French-speaking in Fitzhamon’s day. Welsh was spoken by most people a lot farther East than Cardiff for centuries after that.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    That should be “i-affection.” It’s all this talk of fancy Normans got me confused …

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    My 24 year-old daughter has recently taken to speaking English with a Norwegian accent when she’s having dinner with me & her Norwegian mother.

    I knew an English long-term missionary in what was then Zaire whose children were happily polyglot in their parents’ England-English, the missionary-kid American English they got from school, French and Lingala; they had a rule that England-English was required at common mealtimes so that they would not be deprived of their glorious heritage.

    I remember him citing “lorry” as the shibboleth-word versus American.

  11. Well, certainly nothing earlier than Caerdyf is recorded in writing, and I should have asterisked the transparent form (in the sense of ‘hypothetical’ rather than ‘erroneous’). So it may have been Pre-Welsh rather than Old Welsh that had a transparent form, particularly since there had been a Roman fort there before the Norman one, though there was no continuity of occupation after the departure of the legions, and the fort itself was probably ruined by time and weather.

    I like i-affectation, although I would have probably said (i-)umlaut, as in Sindarin (adan ‘man’ < atan, pl. edain < atani). So we have umlaut in Germanic, affection in Celtic, and metaphony in Romance for the selfsame phenomenon.

    As for the common folks, they do seem to have been mostly settlers from England, creating an island of English in the sea of Welsh. It quickly grew to 1500-2000 people, huge for a Welsh town (and it is still the largest town in Wales and since 1955 the official capital of Wales). In this way it is like Dublin, settled by Danes and then English, or like Vilnius, settled first by German Jews and then by Poles, neither place at all representative of its hinterland ethnically or linguistically. In Tudor, excuse me, Tudur times, Cardiff became a well-known pirates’ seat and place of general lawlessness.

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