Women in Translation Month: Menna Elfyn

MurMurMennaElfyn“Why write? It is so much easier to say when I started to write. I fell in love with words, and wordsmiths such as Dylan Thomas… in the ‘fifties, when I was growing up, the Welsh language was still seen by many as a second-class language, a language to be shunned, a language taught at school as a foreign language alongside French. I cannot convey the feeling of my mother-tongue being given back to me as a foreign language! But this led me to write subversively, in my secret language, keeping note-books full to the brim of words that were old, hardly uttered aloud except in chapel or at home. I was, after all, an endangered species, speaking a language that was in so many people’s minds going to be extinct.”

Menna Elfyn, the author of these words, is one of the best known Welsh poets today. Hear her reading ‘Handkerchief Kiss’/‘Cusan Hances’, in response to R.S. Thomas’ warning that ‘A poem in translation is like kissing through a handkerchief’, in Welsh and in Joseph P. Clancy’s English translation. This is part of an anniversary project for the brilliant Bloodaxe Books, with whom she published Perfect Blemish/Perffaith Nam, a Welsh/English edition of her poems from the 1990s and 2000s. Her poems are also available in Spanish and Italian bilingual editions, and a host of other languages.

Her latest book, Murmur,  includes a cycle of poems about the last Welsh princess, Catrin Glyndŵr, the daughter of the last prince of independent Wales, Owain. Catrin was imprisoned in the Tower of London with her mother and children. Catrin and two of her children died there four years later, in 1413 (mur-mur in Welsh also means wall-wall). The translators include Gillian Clarke, and this is one of hers:


My veins are frozen

icicles on a ridge

Without my children

I am nameless, nobody.


Fferrodd fy ngwythiennau

fel pibonwy ar esgair.

Heb etifedd,                   amddifad

a dienw wyf.

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Posted in books, language, poetry
One comment on “Women in Translation Month: Menna Elfyn
  1. Thank you Kate. I love the poem. It resonates deeply despite not being a (English) princess.

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