March 07, 2007



On Writing Poetry in Two Languages
Lewis begins by explaining that she is bilingual (Welsh and English) and that she is interested in how her languages work together

Lewis begins by explaining that she is bilingual (Welsh and English) and that she is interested in how her languages work together. Initially being bilingual was very difficult for Lewis, but eventually she began to create her own set of poetics:

I have become less and less interested in literal translation, more keen to write totally separate poems in both languages. This is bound to be the case because I rely totally on rhyme and scansion (the most difficult elements of poetry to translate) to lead me through the poem. I see rhyme as the tracer bullets in the battle to capture a passable poem – it shows me where I should be shooting, where I’m wide of the mark and how to be accurate in the gloom of the battlefield. I find the labour of translation far less interesting than writing itself, that pleasure of riding meaning like a wave, not quite knowing if you’re surfing for shore or heading for an embarrassing tumble on the beach in front of a crowd of girls in bikinis. (81)

Lewis tells that she is not interested in ‘self-translation’ and she adds that translation by another poet can create the most extraordinary results:

Milton’s Latinate English, James Macpherson’s Hebrew-sounding Ossian poetry, the stark surrealism of postwar Polish poetry have all added new tones to the palette of English verse. Behind these new rhythms lie new philosophies and visions as well, whose substance is given formal expression in prosody, and these ideas may be translated. In its essence poetry is a translation of an experience into words. The feeling that the finished poem never quite catches the original insight or emotion would support this, as if poetry were, in itself, a kind of algebraic language or logarithm which had its own proportional relationship both with the emotions of the poet and the ear of the listener. (81)

Having said all this, Lewis is aware that the signification of certain words have deep resonances in a language. She notes the example of the Welsh word for grace, gras, which also refers to, ‘fully-aired clothes’ (82). In Lewis’ mind the word gras will always be associated with the putting on clean clothes.

Yet Lewis is aware that languages are not always as separate as it might appear at first glance. Between Welsh and English, Lewis senses, ‘a complex underground system of seepage and mutual irrigation […], subtle connections which make the whole literary landscape between them fertile and pleasant to inhabit’ (82). English and Welsh work, ‘a kind of magnetic attraction and repulsion’ (82). For Lewis, there are, ‘two linguistic rhythms’, which work in, ‘syncopation’: cynghanedd in Welsh and euphony in English, the half-rhyme proest in Welsh and English (82).

Taken together they are both one language to me – I know them both so intimately that they are often transparent to me, so that I’m aware not of hearing Welsh or English but of understanding the thoughts of another person speaking. They flow through my dreams like rivers. (82)

Lewis, Gwyneth.: “On writing poetry in two languages.” Modern Poetry in Translation (7) 1995, 80-3. (1995)

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