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.