R.S. Thomas: poetry in translation

Caernarfon Castle from the Menai Strait.
© Copyright Keith Williamson

After some fairly heavy posts, a poetic interlude. I’m currently reading Byron Rogers’ biography of R.S. Thomas, The Man Who Went Into the West, which – while highlighting what a difficult individual Thomas was to warm to personally – is reminding me just how great a poet he was.

A small illustration of this from relatively early in his career. Byron Rogers quotes (on pp.185f.) two translations of the Welsh traditional folk verse “The Walls of Caernarvon”. The first is by W.J. Gruffydd (better known, Wiki tells me, as Elerydd), from his Festival of Britain book North Wales and the Marches:

One rainswept eventide I went a-walking
On the shores of Menai in silent meditation:
Loud was the wind and wild was the white billow,
And the sea was hurling over the walls of Caernarvon.

But on the morrow morn I went a-walking
On the shores of Menai, and stillness was on them;
Silent was the wind, and kindly was the sea,
And the sun was shining on the walls of Caernavon.

Which is, y’know, fine. Does the job. (Though it’s fair to point out that Gruffydd’s main language as a poet was Welsh, so it’s to be expected he wouldn’t be at his best translating into English. R.S. Thomas, by his own admission, couldn’t write poetry in Welsh.)

Here is Thomas’s version:

One night of tempest I arose and went
Along the Menai shore on dreaming bent;
The wind was strong, and savage swung the tide,
And the waves blustered on Caernarvon side.

But in the morrow, when I passed that way,
On Menai’s shore the hush of heaven lay;
The wind was gentle and the sea a flower,
And the sun slumbered on Caernavon tower.

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is poetry. John Betjeman described this as “the perfect lyric”, and was known to recite it from memory to random acquaintances.

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2 thoughts on “R.S. Thomas: poetry in translation”

  1. You are certainly right about the beauty and power of Thomas’s version. It is a great poem.

    I can’t help but think, though, that it’s better judged on its own merits as a poem in English, rather than as a translation. My Welsh is v. rusty indeed, and never was all that good, but I think it is safe to say that Gruffydd’s translation is more faithful, not only to the meaning of the original, but to its shape and rhythm. There’s a gentle, rolling feel to the Welsh that is missing in Thomas’s version:

    Ar noswaith ddrycinog mi euthum i rodio
    Ar lannau y Fenai gan ddistaw fyfyrio;
    Y gwynt oedd yn uchel, a gwyllt oedd y wendon,
    A’r môr oedd yn lluchio dros waliau Caernarfon.

    You don’t have to understand the Welsh to hear the rhythm, I don’t think. And there’s more of that rhythm in Gruffydd’s version, as when he translates

    Y gwynt oedd yn uchel, a gwyllt oedd y wendon

    with

    Loud was the wind and wild was the white billow

    where the alliteration of the ‘gw’ in the original is echoed by the alliteration of the ‘w’ in the English, and the subject-verb inversion (Y gwynt oedd … gwyllt oedd) in the original comes through in the English (Loud was … wild was … ).

    That doesn’t change the fact that Thomas’s is far the better poem than Gruffydd’s. But give Gruffydd his due: his translation is more than just a serviceable version.

    I forget who said it first, but they say that poetry is defined as “that which gets lost in the translation.” We may have an illustration of that here.

    1. Hi, thanks for this. It’s good to have the insight into what Gruffydd was doing in his version, and I take your point about his version being more faithful as a translation in some respects.

      My aim in the post, though, wasn’t to compare the two as translations, but to take the opportunity of being able to compare a really good poem with (as it were) an equivalent but (for these purposes) inferior poem, as a kind of quasi-scientific “control”… 🙂

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