I am writing this as Afghanistan descends once more into horror. A tiny Welsh part of me still thinks “the bloody English colonials, look what they started and didn’t finish – again.”
And you could read the Gododdin this way, I suppose. A hundred verses of lament for Welshmen who fell in battle against the Saeson (the Saxons, the English). Dating from the sixth century. Is nothing new under the sun?
But when you start reading, you realise that these are sketches of individuals who were loved and to be remembered. Details of their hands and faces, the way they moved, what made them laugh and sing.
These fighters stood fast against all hope at the battle of Catraeth in Y Hên Ogledd (probably Catterick in the “old north,” not far south of Edinburgh). At this time, the Welsh were a major power on these islands.
Their story is told by Aneirin, who is up there with Talesin. He’s one of the bards in a country of bards, whose highest honours are for poetry and song. So trying to translate him, not least from early Welsh (Brythoneg) with 1400 years between you, is undoubtedly daunting.
Perhaps your Welsh is limited – so the verse with the days of the week in brings flashes of recognition, but you’re learning the words for mead and sword and eagle as you go along.
This was one of the best things about reading the book for me. Of course the Welsh here is about as different from the modern language as Beowulf’s English from the one I speak, but it’s still from where I grew up, rooted extremely deep in me, with an emotional echo that I do not have with languages learned later. And the sounds!
Gillian Clarke’s version – she doesn’t call it a translation – conveys all this skilfully. The alliteration, the pain, and the remembering. I heard her speak about the project in her Anthea Bell Lecture at the Hay Festival on 5 June, the day it was published. As she emphasises in her introduction to the Gododdin, this verse was made to be heard, not read, and so the repetition of form, pattern and metaphor is all designed to aid the memory of the teller.
Cynghanedd – taut regulation of alliteration, stress, and rhyme – is part of this, and can’t be translated from Welsh in the same way. But as Clarke says, “we learn poetry ‘by heart’ because we love the sound, because it stays in the mind.” Her version does just that.