Translating ‘Gwyn’

A controversy arose recently about part of the motto used by the Llangollen International Eisteddfod. In the original Welsh penned by the poet T. Gwynn Jones it reads “Byd gwyn fydd byd a gano …” which translates as “Blessed is a world that sings…”. But someone apparently noticed that if you put the words ‘byd gwyn’ through an automatic digital translator it comes out as ‘white world’, and drew the attention of the International Eisteddfod to the possibility that it could be construed as racist. This would, of course, be particularly inappropriate for an institution that  hosts an annual festival of choirs and folk dance groups from around the world. But to construe it in this way would also be to ignore the fact that the range of meanings for ‘gwyn’ include ‘fair’, ‘blessed’, ‘holy’, ‘good’, ‘beautiful’. ‘pleasant’. The phrase ‘gwyn fy myd’ is well established in Welsh to express happiness and the Biblical “Gwyn eu byd y tlodion yn yr yspryd” (Blessed are the poor in spirit) embodies this meaning. ‘Gwyn’ has also been commonly used as a given name in Welsh at least since the early Middle Ages and is still widespread today; if its meaning is considered by parents naming a child  it is more likely to be thought of as an endearment than a description of complexion.

No-one who is familiar with the Welsh language would translate ‘gwyn’ as ‘white’ in the context of the Llangollen Eisteddfod motto, and the correct English version is widely available, but the Eisteddfod Council responded to the suggestion that it might be misconstrued by announcing that it was considering an alternative.  This, in turn, produced an almost unanimous response from across the spectrum of Welsh cultural life that it would be ridiculous to abandon the words of a noted poet and folklorist, written specifically for the festival, just because a digital translator might give an incorrect meaning of the phrase in question. The Eisteddfod has since relented and will continue for now with the motto that it has used since its inception in 1947. 

This highlights the fact that words gain much of their meaning from the context in which they are used and that language skills are as much about discerning such contexts as about learning single fixed meanings of words. No-one who is advised to put money into a bank will think that they should put it by the side of a river or under a hedge. Words are fluid. Even at the simple level of communicating information meanings can shift and things go awry if we are not careful. The craft of translation brings further challenges in establishing  the right context and producing an equivalent in the new language rather than word-for-word transliteration which might turn out to mean something quite different . The writer Jorge Luis Borges  once commented that “the original is unfaithful to the translation” in respect of a work where he presumably felt the translated version better and found ironic humour the best way to express this. Literary translation can produce such new versions that surpass the original or become valuable works in their own right. 

But it is another thing entirely to twist words into a different context that entails the creation of alternative meanings that the original author did not imagine, and would not have endorsed; that is, to appropriate the words of others to our own purposes, whether deliberately or through ignorance, to further a quite different debate, however worthy that debate might in itself be. Then the translation will certainly be literally unfaithful to the original and to its original purpose.


And fair Venus the bewtie of the nicht
Uprais and set unto the west full richt
Hir goldin face, in oppositioun
Of god Phebus, direct discending doun.

So wrote the Scots poet Robert Henryson sometime in the 15th century*. Venus may shine in the early morning or the evening. Other times hiding herself away entirely. But these last weeks Henryson’s vision of her has been brilliantly apparent, so I try here an ‘englyn writ in English’**

Splendour of the evening sky – each night now
A lamp blazing high
Above a fading horizon
Sunlight caught in her bright eye.

*The Testament of Cresseid
** As Waldo Williams put it. But there is no cynghanedd here.


A fair price for a farm gone – conifers
Increasing one-on-one;
A hedge-fund’s ‘green’ horizon:
Carbon credits are a con!

Such Songs as These

The best songs
are old and new
chanted and entwined
as those who weave
their thread with bones
and so preserve
a texture that conveys
an ancient theme,
an ancient form,
a song of praise
caught in the gleam
of a shaft of sunlight
dappling a woodland glade
with all the age of a forest,
all the vigour of sapling trees.
So, by my awen, would I make
such songs as these.

The Bard Sings …


The bard sings,
so do the strings
of the harp
as fingers brush
the soft hairs inwoven
with the hush
of a bee’s wing
as petals close around
the sound of humming.

Words are the honey,
the stream that flows,
the bee in flight
from the rose
that blooms from the drone
of the quivering lyre,
the crwth, the harp;
the bard on fire
fingers the strings
as a voice declaims.

What remains
in the afterglow
of the woven words,
the knotted strings?
Awen’s echo
fills the silence
which still contains
the sound of Mabon’s harp
from an otherworld of music,
and whispered words
from a cauldron of song.

Some strands of thought shaping the conceits in this poem are discussed in a separate post on my Awenydd site HERE~>

Early Welsh Verse as Modern Poetry

Recent Translations of the Cynfeirdd

The Goddoddin : Lament for the Fallen , a version by Gillian Clarke (Faber, 2021)

The Book of Taliesin : Poems of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain Translated by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams (Penguin Classics, 2019)

The texts of the earliest poems in Welsh have long since been available in edited printed texts and in translations that, at least since the twentieth century, attempt a reliable literal rendering of their meaning. In some cases, where literal meaning is obscure, the scholarly texts provide discussions of possible interpretations of difficult words or phrases informed both by philological analysis and by implications of the metre and other aspects of verse structure. Notably, recent editions of the texts of The Goddoddin by A.O.H Jarman and The Book of Taliesin, by Marged Haycock supply the original Welsh texts with annotations and detailed notes alongside literal line by line translations into English, thereby making them comprehensible to a wider readership. The primary purpose of these translations is to render the original meaning as far as that is possible rather than to produce an English text that could be regarded as poetry. Modern poets attempting their own translations of the texts include Gwyn Thomas’ modern Welsh version of Y Gododdin and extracts from both The Gododdin and the Taliesin poems into English by Gwyn Williams, Joseph Clancy and Tony Conran. A version of the whole of The Gododdin was presented as poetry in English by Steve Short in 1994. This does not attempt to be a literal rendering of the text but does contain an accurate reflection of it in expressive modern verse. Written in vivid language and employing a style of epigrammatic commentary it gets close to the atmosphere of the original in a way that the word-for-word parallel texts cannot achieve. Steve Short’s version was produced by the Llanerch small press and is unlikely to have gained a wide circulation, though I note that it is still available.

More recently translations of The Book of Taliesin by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams and of The Gododdin by Gillian Clarke have appeared. Both, in their different ways, seek to give an accurate rendering of the poem as modern English poetry. The Book of Taliesin by Lewis and Williams supplies the texts of all the poems as given by Ifor Williams in his edition of those poems he supposed to be by the original sixth century poet, or later renderings of them, as well as those given by Marged Haycock in her editions of the ‘Legendary Poems’ and the ‘Prophetic Poems’, supposed to be the work of later bards adopting the Taliesin persona. They provide an extensive introduction discussing the provenance of the poems, their metrical features and the nature of awen as understood by the medieval bards {this latter matter discussed separately HERE~>}. They also preface each poem with it’s own introduction and provide both footnotes and endnotes to aid interpretation. So although they offer a readable version of the Taliesin poems as modern poetry, this edition also has an interpretive dimension that delves more deeply into the background, although some readers simply wanting a version of the texts may find the multiple footnoting a distraction. What Lewis and Williams do not provide is the original Welsh text. By contrast, Gillian Clarke’s edition of The Gododdin dispenses with much of the scholarly apparatus but does print her version of the poem as a parallel text facing the Welsh version as given by Jarman. Her ‘Version’ (as she titles it) does not always follow the facing text line by line but re-arranges it into a sharpened and syntactically more flexible modern English.

In both cases what results is editions of the poems as accessible modern poetry by accomplished poets from major publishers which should bring them to the attention of a wider readership than the niche market of those interested in medieval Welsh poetry or the world of the early Welsh bards. But they too will be well served by both of these books. The Taliesin poems of Lewis and Williams provide most in the way of background analysis and context for the poems and even render some in a metrical configuration reflecting the original. But Gillian Clarke’s Gododdin poems may be best appreciated as modern English poems in their own right and do include the original Welsh text for comparison. She adds a translation of ‘Pais Dinogad‘ a short poem the manuscript of which was contained in the same binding as the Gododdin poems. Together these publications are invaluable additions to the published corpus of translations from early Welsh poetry.


Big birds overhead
haunting the sky:

Kites like ships
on the wind

Buzzards turning
through slow arcs
preying over the land;

A heron’s
heavy wing-beats
towards the river;

Beyond them the Sun,
clouded in grey,
diffused through the veil

Of retreating Summer.


Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales, edited by Mike Jenkins, £12 inc. p. and p., 180pps., 4 colour illustrations, ISBN 978-1-912710-48-5


Containing my contribution:

Notes for an Ecologist

It is the Earth itself that is the treasure, not
what is buried in her – the shining hoards of
carbon that feed the rolling mills of the dragon.

We had a life once marked out by the rising
and the setting of the Sun, and by darkness,
with bright Moon and and dark Moon, dark cloud or stars.

To the Earth we cleaved for love and for shelter,
her stones were our hearth stones, her trees made our fires
and we cleaved the earth for a giving of seed.

Our implements bit deep into clay and marl, into
shales that resisted the shares of wood and bone
but were shattered and ground by iron and gritstone.

Our fires then were the fires of the Sun, furnaces
blazing in the heat of the day, cold blades we made
that would pierce shale and bone: steel to carry a life away.

We mined ore from the rocks, cut stone for our walls,
dug pigments for staining. Some gave blood in recompense,
others gathered wealth from wasted lives.

We painted our world with the mind’s brush
and shaped a story with sharp quills of thought,
sat back satisfied as bright day faded to night.

We viewed it all then in imagination’s starlight
waiting for dawn to bring it alive. Dawn comes
gun-barrel grey over the subdued land. We grieve.

For the knot that was tied is broken forever
though we try with gestures to the way of right-living
to be something more than brave green consumers.

We find time to mourn for the forest peoples
who prayed to Faunus before their lands were taken,
for the scattered tribes who dwindle in cities.

We have a creed now: to love the Earth,
be carbon neutral, protect the climate.
Will this bring expiation, this guilty posturing?

What of those who profit from the crimes
that revenge themselves on our children,
who impose even death vicariously?

There is no refuge, nor any sanctuary.

Wildlife on the House

I thought these marks on the wall under our porch were mud splashes until I looked closer and found them to be spiderlings (Araneus…?) bunched up together.

A few days later they are beginning to disperse….
….and a few are beginning to make tiny webs!

Although we are willing hosts to these, for the first time in many years we have no martins nesting in the eaves nor swallows in the back of our garage. In fact only one sighting so far this year of either of these birds passing overhead when there have been several flying around daily in past years.

They may be late arriving, and the warmer southern winds that are now blowing may bring them. We will certainly miss them if they don’t come.


If sitting in a garden listening
to a blackbird singing
were all that there was,

it would be enough!