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A birthday, a BIG birthday

Birthdays

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.

Urgency

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.

Irish fish box on Aberystwyth beach

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.

Introductions

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.

Sian, ‘my’ author – a lovely portrait by Dylan Williams

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

My latest commissioned translations

 

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.

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Norwich and cross-cultural dialogue

Going

‘The role of the translator is crucial to foster cross-cultural dialogue’. So says Literature Wales, and it was in this spirit that I embarked for Norwich on National Express service 375. Seven hours later I’m taking a turn round the block during a break in Birmingham, and in a car park I come across this excellent mural of Black Sabbath, one of Brum’s finest.

Mural of Black Sabbath

Five hours after that, I arrive in Norwich for the first time in my life. It’s a long way from North Wales. I was making this epic journey (which probably took me as long as the delegate from South Korea) to attend an ‘industry weekend’ at the National Centre for Writing. The weekend is one specially tailored to the needs of emerging translators.  The other delegates, all of whom are being mentored through the English scheme, were already three months in and would have their mentors in attendance for the weekend too. Newbie Sue hasn’t got a mentor yet – talk about being dropped in at the deep end.

Friday

With the public announcement of the beneficiaries of the Welsh bursaries and menteeships being made mere hours before the weekend started, I found myself – at 4.30 on a Friday afternoon – standing in Norwich’s Apple Store, blagging the Wi-Fi. I was frantically emailing ‘my’ author, Sian, and her publisher to get the sales figures for Yn y Tŷ Hwn, prior to the big day on Saturday when we’d be meeting publishers’ representatives.

Thankfully, neither Sian nor the lady at Gwasg Gomer, her publisher, had knocked off early and I got the sales figures with which to impress. I quickly calculated that there has been one copy of Yn y Tŷ Hwn sold for every 480 Welsh speakers in Wales. With that impressive stat, I dashed to Dragon Hall, home of the National Centre for Writing, to meet the other delegates.

Dragon Hall

Dragon Hall – what can I say? It’s amazing. It’s close to the river Wensum and was built in 1427 by a wealthy merchant to display and store imported goods. There’s only one dragon left: a particularly curlicued one, crouching on a roof beam of the first-floor great hall. This magnificent room looks down into a courtyard. Here is a pan round the courtyard buildings. As you can see, the Hall’s conversion to modern use has been boldly but sensitively done.

 

 

Our first session was an icebreaker. All the delegates read extracts of work they’d translated, in both source and target languages. As well as a few paragraphs of Yn y Tŷ Hwn, I gave them Myrddin ap Dafydd’s ‘Lynx mewn sw’ ( ‘Lynx in a zoo’), which is here, and Gerallt Lloyd Owen’s ‘Cilmeri’. But I teased them – I’ve recently found another translation of ‘Cilmeri’: one by Greg Hill, a former editor of The Anglo–Welsh Review. I gave them both his and mine, and left them to guess which was which. More ice was then broken over a lovely communal meal at the Iron House restaurant.

Saturday

Not having a mentor meant I could skip the first session on Saturday: everyone else was having intense one-to-ones with theirs. The first session for me was a very useful walk-through of contracts by internationally renowned translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones. She’s an old hand who strongly advocated, as soon as we are eligible, membership of the Society of Authors and, within it, the Translators Association.

After coffee (and gorgeous cinnamon pastries) we were given a session about visual storytelling. One exercise involved working in small groups to draw a monster, and then naming its body parts in our native or non-English language(s). Tentacles proved a challenge: the Europeans and Americans didn’t know; for the Chinese and Korean delegates it’s the combination of the symbols for ‘touch’ and ‘foot’. Interesting stuff!

But enough of interesting distractions – the main event of the day was the panel of publishers and the ‘speed dating’ that followed. These one-to-ones were provided for us to practise pitching our work. It was invaluable. With ‘date’ #1, I managed to neglect to tell him that Yn y Tŷ Hwn means ‘in this house’. He kept a poker face, and I hastily rearranged my thoughts ready for #2 and #3.

Phew! With that over, I went out for a much-needed breath of fresh air. Walking around, it was evident that Norwich City FC had just won. The yellow-clad fans were buoyant; I was buoyant. The ordeal was over – time to relax and socialise and pretend to be lords and ladies in the great hall of Dragon Hall, where supper was to be served.

Dragon Hall supper table

Afterwards

As it turned out, I had no duties on Sunday because of not yet having a mentor, so I had what the Welsh call a ‘diwrnod i’r brenin’ – an easy day (literally, ‘a day for the king’). I wandered round the picturesque streets of Norwich. My sunny Sunday saunter brought me to Jarrold, a wonderful independent department store. From their lovely books department I could at last buy an Ordnance Survey map. Without a map, I’d been feeling slightly uneasy the whole time. Now – satisfaction. Off I went to Mousehold Heath, an ascent of all of 30 metres for a panoramic view of the whole of Norwich.

Then back by coach on the Monday, my culture having been well and truly crossed when you consider that +30 metres is nothing where I live: it’s my bike ride back from the shops.

Images and words ©Susan Walton 2020.

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At the start of 2020

I’m going to have an unusual and interesting year in 2020. I have been awarded a place on Literature Wales’ Mentoring Scheme as ‘an early career translator working on literary translation’.

In August 2019 a client’s timetable had slipped and I found I had a slack month. I used the bonus time to prepare a sample translation of Yn y Tŷ Hwn by Sian Northey and submit an application to the scheme. Then I forgot about it. When I got the call in November, my first reaction was disbelief: I genuinely thought it would go to some bright young thing with a Masters in translation studies or some such. But delight also – Yn y Tŷ Hwn is one of the best novels of the decade just gone. I want my longest-standing friend – who does not have much Welsh – to be able to enjoy it too.  It is she who will be in my mind as I translate the rest of the novel.

The book is fewer than 150 pages long, but decades of the main character’s past  are skilfully revealed through her recollection of telling incidents, and a few significant details. Older readers will recognise some of life’s patterns in the story; the younger reader may see how events and decisions in life can determine patterns for years to come. I hope I can do it justice; I hope I can produce a text as nuanced and subtle in English as the Welsh original; I hope Sian Northey will like it.

I’m the first mentoring recipient of a place reserved for a translator, and I might be the last, because the place specifically for a translator is being run as a pilot in Wales.

Photo by Thomas Owen on Unsplash; book cover courtesy of Gwasg Gomer. Words ©Susan Walton 2020.

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