Speaking with two tongues: the Welsh book awards

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jul 3 13:38:35 UTC 2008

Speaking with two tongues: the Welsh book awards

Don't think Welsh and English scowl at each other across a linguistic
trench. The relationship is more dynamic than defensive

July 2, 2008 12:15 PM

Think of literature and Wales and there's a good chance you might
think of the Guardian Hay Festival, the "Woodstock of the mind", as it
was memorably called by one of its most prominent guests, Bill
Clinton. Hay is the little Welsh border town which has become English
literature's annual holiday home, and the festival is its country
house-party with all the accoutrements: deckchairs, panama hats and,
if you're one of the guest speakers, a crate of rather pleasant
champagne. With all the linen suits, it sometimes looks like a
convention of Men from Del Monte, and if you live and write in Wales
year-round, it can feel more of an exotic visitation than a native

If you want native, you want the National Eisteddfod. Always held in a
different location, like the pow-wow of a wandering tribe. Always held
in the first week in August. And always, and only, held in Welsh. The
Eisteddfod's combination of reimagined druidic ritual, intense
literary competition and multi-faceted cultural affirmation provides
the members of the oldest language group in these islands with their
annual booster injection of cultural confidence. Forget the champagne:
these authors are rewarded by being robed in purple and greeted with
enough pomp to make a despot blush.

The linen suit and the native costume. It might seem that never the
twain shall meet. Except they do. Surprisingly often. Wales is a small
country, and those charged with promoting its literatures - note the
plural - are keen to promote as much dialogue as possible. Some
aspects of the relationship between the two main cultures of Wales can
be seen in the Wales Book of the Year awards, which maintain a policy
of strict equality between the two languages. There are two judging
panels, two longlists of 10 books, two shortlists of three and,
finally, two overall winners at the scrupulously bilingual awards

This year, the English award was won by veteran poet Dannie Abse with
The Presence, a poignant memoir of his grief at the death of his wife
in a car accident. The runners-up were Nia Wyn's Blue Sky July and Tom
Bullough's The Claude Glass. The Welsh-language award went to another
veteran, Gareth Miles, for a novel dealing with the 1904 religious
revival in Wales, Y Proffwyd a'i Ddwy Jesebel (The Prophet and his Two
Jezebels). The runners-up were Tony Bianchi for the novel Pryfeta
(Bugging) and Ceri Wyn Jones for Dauwynebog, a volume of poetry, much
of it written in the ancient strict-metre form of alliterative verse
called cynghanedd.

It would be tempting to view the two literatures dichotomously: the
English-language work outward-looking and expansive, the
Welsh-language work introspective and intense, each operating on
separate circuits, with different audiences and expectations. The one
with access to the most powerful language group the world has ever
seen, the other focused on some 600,000 Welsh-speakers in Wales, a
number which, although slowly growing, is still hardly in the big

However, the reality is somewhat more complex, and the membrane
between the two literatures is more porous than might be thought. For
instance, Abse's work has always been informed by his knowledge of
Welsh literature and mythology. Many other English-language writers
are either Welsh-speaking to some degree, or have a sympathetic
knowledge of the language and its culture. On the Welsh-language side,
while some work does display an understandable preoccupation with the
politics of identity, the most exciting writers have long moved beyond
angst-ridden cultural catharsis or communal cheerleading.

Tony Bianchi is actually a Geordie, a learner of Welsh who has become
one of the language's most provocative authors. Ceri Wyn Jones is the
English-language editor for a publishing house. Gareth Miles's
prolific work is informed by his mastery of French and Spanish, and
his long relationship with Marxist thought. His recent translations of
Hamlet and The Crucible into Welsh have been theatrical landmarks: his
Welsh-speaking Polonius came alive for me as he has never done in
English. In the other direction, translation out of Welsh is becoming
a minor export industry - one that's a whole lot cleaner than coal.
Still other authors, such as the poet Gwyneth Lewis, write original
work of the highest standard in both languages. These authors'
energies are those of traffic and exchange, not of retention and

Proponents of bilingualism in education are fond of quoting research
that having two languages improves one's performance in all areas.
Perhaps the same might be true of a country whose two languages live
in a constant creative tension. And if nothing else, at least it means
that at the awards ceremony not one, but two authors went away with a
cheque for £10,000.


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