That’s me on my fifth birthday. Jelly and ice cream were probably on the menu, and I’m wearing an up-to-the-neck pinafore over my jumper because I’m a messy eater. I’m still a messy eater – some things never change. This month has seen me turn sixty. In terms of creativity this is, hopefully, a good thing. According to something I read recently (but of course now can’t find – hey, I’m over sixty), our brains are at their most creative when we’re children and when we’re over sixty. Of course we’re creative when we’re kids, but why once we’ve passed our sixtieth birthday? Well, our brains start ‘slackening’; our neural pathways are less fixed. So perhaps the brain of that woman with grey salon-cut hair will, in time, return to the creative ability of the little brain under that black hair with the wonky fringe.
Being this old means I have a certain self-confidence in my abilities. As above, it may also mean I’m going to get increasingly more creative, but what I certainly don’t have is a long time. There is an urgency to this menteeship project; I don’t have a lifetime in which to build a career or to find stuff out. This urgency means the learning curve about what I need to do and with whom I need to connect to even start the prospect of getting a literary novella in translation into print is pretty steep. (But at least now – being sixty and self-employed – I’m not losing time to period pains, hormonal migraines, menopausal crises in confidence, and office-incubated colds.)
Small networking, big storms
Having now joined the Society of Authors, I went on the bus (new bus pass – yay!) to my first SoA event in Aberystwyth, in the aftermath of Storm Ciara. Storm C had deposited a lot of the beach on the prom. Crunchy underfoot.
One take-away from this event was that maybe I should pitch Yn y Tŷ Hwn in terms of themes, rather than story, character, or quality of writing. The speaker, Philip Gwyn Jones of Scribe, said that novels are being pitched as if they were non-fiction these days.
In the teeth of Storm Dennis off I went on the bus again to a one-day seminar at Bangor University, ‘Women in Publishing’, where Caroline Oakley of publishers Honno gave a presentation about the advantages of being published by a small press. In essence, her message was that agents’ lists are ninety-nine per cent full and most publishing houses won’t look at you unless you’re represented by an agent. In contrast, small publishers will deal with the author directly and are more willing to take risks, she said. She added that these days they often network with the local bookshop community too.
Big networking coming up
Notwithstanding this ‘small is beautiful’ stuff, I’ve been advised to attend the big beast – the London Book Fair – coming up in March. To this end, I applied to Literature Wales for a ‘Go See’ grant to cover the cost of attending. Having done this – and so in anticipation of possibly going – I’ve been working my way through the list of exhibitors on the LBF website and noting possible publishers and agents with whom I might begin a conversation. Now I’ve been awarded the grant, the prospect of actually going is scary but hopeful in equal measure. I’ll report how I get on in my March post. At least my new senior railcard will come into play as I commute from where I’m going to be staying (thank you John and Jo!) into central London for the three-day jamboree.
I reckon it’s time to introduce in a bit more detail the book I’m translating, Yn y Tŷ Hwn, if you haven’t read it, and its creator, Sian Northey, if you don’t know her. First, here’s Sian.
And here’s a paragraph from the book, the title of which translates as ‘In This House’. The context is that Anna, the main character, and Ioan have lost their only child as a three-year-old, twenty years ago. This paragraph has been arrived at by way of a two-and-a-half-page train of thought.
Fe adawodd y dillad am y tro a’u clirio, fisoedd lawer yn ddiweddarach, pan nad oedd Ioan yno. Fe daflodd bob un dilledyn, heblaw un hosan fechan oedd wedi disgyn tu ôl i’r tanc yn y cwpwrdd crasu. Flynyddoedd yn ddiweddarach y cafodd hi hyd i honno a methu’n lân â’i thaflu. Gosododd hi yn ei drôr sana ei hun, a fanno oedd hi byth, yn fach a glas, a theigar dewr yn sgyrnygu arni. Neu’n gwenu arni efallai.
His clothes were left for the time being and only cleared, months later, when Ioan wasn’t there. She threw out every item, except for one tiny sock that had fallen behind the tank in the airing cupboard. Years later she found it, and couldn’t bring herself to throw it away at any price. She placed it in her own sock drawer, and there it stayed, small and blue, with a brave tiger snarling at her. Or maybe smiling at her.
This is typical of the meditative nature and interiority of the book, and typical of Sian’s writing. I draw your attention to these four points:
- The language is straightforward. The Welsh is not ‘high’ or ‘literary’ or ‘posh’. I’ve had to look up a handful of words in the dictionary as I translate, but that is all.
- Sian is excellent at ‘show don’t tell’ and at conveying emotion. How people act in her stories often tells you more than what they say.
- Details are telling. For instance, that ‘small and blue’ – she puts it where it is, on its own, rather than saying ‘one tiny blue sock’. And the fact that ‘small and blue’ is contained its own clause underlines that it has been contained within a closed drawer for decades.
- A trademark Sian-ism is a statement that is immediately contradicted, or doubted, as with that ‘… snarling at her. Or maybe smiling at her.’ In this way she reminds us that things aren’t always as they appear; there’s always more than one way of looking at things, or interpreting them.
Oh, and …
… here comes a shameless plug for the two commissioned translations I’ve been doing over the last few months. Both were published in February. The Crown in the Quarry is an adventure story for older children, using as a backdrop the fact that national treasures and works of art were hidden in the slate mines of Blaenau Ffestiniog during the Second World War. The Red Dragon of the Welsh is a look at the history and culture of Wales’ national flag.
Images and words ©Susan Walton 2020, except the portrait of Sian by Dylan Williams, and the Welsh text from Yn y Tŷ Hwn ©Sian Northey 2011, reproduced with the permission of Gwasg Gomer.