TALKING TO AUTHOR AND TRANSLATOR: NESS OWEN AND SIAN NORTHEY ON MAMIAITH
New from Arachne Press this month is Mamiaith by Ness Owen: a book exploring concepts such as family, motherhood, place and belonging. While mainly written in English, five of the book’s poems are translated into Welsh, with the help of Welsh-language poet Sian Northey, and one, originally written in Welsh, is translated into English by the author herself.
Language is the underlying theme of the collection: Mamiaith is a deep reflection on the author’s relationship with the Welsh language, the ‘mother tongue’ (as mamiaith translates).
Author and translator, the poets Ness Owen and Sian Northey, have kindly answered a few questions for us regarding their inspiring work. Keep on reading to discover how Mamiaith came to life and what such a unique book may symbolise.
How would you describe Mamiaith in a few words?
Ness Owen: Mamiaith is for me a journey into language, place, family and politics.
Sian Northey: It’s a book that made me realise that you don’t have to choose between being a Welsh poet, an English poet, a bardd Cymraeg, an Anglo-Welsh poet (a term which is by now almost the equivalent of the n word!), a Welsh poet who writes in English or ‘any other label’ poet… You can simply accept with pride that you are a poet and ‘begin with fearlessness’.
The collection title, Mamiaith, means ‘mother tongue’. What does this symbolise and what does it mean for the author in particular?
NO: Firstly, I’d say that Mamiaith refers to the Welsh language and my yearning to be able to write more freely in it. To me there is an enormous difference between speaking and writing Welsh especially in poetry. Coming from a family that was losing its language, I could have called it ‘Nain-iaith’ (grandmother language) as growing up it was my grandmother, who lived with us, and one of her sisters who lived next door that were the most fluent.
I think it also refers to the language we choose to use or not to use to communicate with each other and the voice we need to find so we are heard. Mamiaith is about beginnings and moving forward.
SN: I wouldn’t venture to speak for Ness, but for me my mamiaith is Welsh and that’s the language I feel in. I guess my English is fluent enough, almost all my education after I was 11 was in English, but something is missing when I write in English. Playfulness perhaps.
Although the majority of the poems are in English, this is a bilingual collection. How do languages and meanings interweave in the book?
NO: I didn’t quite realise how much I write about language and voices until my editor Cherry pointed it out. She also asked why I didn’t write the poems I’d sent to her in Welsh which I hope the collection goes in some way to explain.
Living in a bilingual community, language switching is as natural as breathing. Often, my work starts as a word in Welsh but continues as to what that means in English.
SN: As a first language Welsh speaker it’s a bilingual collection because I see myself, my world, in the English language poems. It’s both reassuring and disorientating. In some ways that makes it, for me, more of a bilingual work than the actual presence of the poems that have been translated.
The poet Ness Owen. Photo provided by Arachne Press.
Five poems in the book have been translated from English into Welsh. Who translated them and how did the process work?
NO: I translated them into a first draft of Welsh then sent them to Sian who kindly looked over them and made suggestions for improvements and clarity. She also pointed out any ‘camdreiglo’ (missed or incorrect mutations) that I’m guilty of and where I tend to mix the formal and informal.
From my side, it felt like a free and easy conversation and I felt incredibly lucky that Sian had agreed to do it being an accomplished Welsh poet and translator amongst many other things. I’d attended Sian’s workshop about translating and it opened my eyes to the different ways of approaching the process. In particular, I took on board the idea of looking deeply into meanings and feelings before starting to translate.
To see and read the poems in Welsh was a very emotional experience and I only wish that my grandmother would have lived to see them.
SN: Ness created the original translations and I then worked on those, mainly changing things where grammatical errors led to lack of clarity of meaning. The poet Siôn Aled also had a look at them and made suggestions. Ness of course, since she is a Welsh speaker, had the final say.
What are the specific challenges relating to translation into and from Welsh?
NO: For me when translating into Welsh there is an intense pressure to ‘get it right’ the first time. Mistakes almost feel painful. This leads me towards feeling defeated before I begin, so I have to try and remind myself that this is drafting and it doesn’t matter!
SN: I’m not sure what challenges are specific to Welsh, only because I have no other languages to compare with. Either I’ve translated from English to Welsh, more rarely from Welsh to English, or into Welsh from other languages using English as a bridge language. In Ness’s work I found the line breaks and punctuation, or lack of punctuation, the most difficult element.
Do you have any favourite verses from Mamiaith?
NO: It’s difficult to pick out one, as, like all poems, they each have their own story attached. ‘Mamiaith’, the poem, took the longest to write and for me to translate. It went through many rewrites so I’m glad I stuck with it and it felt like an accomplishment to finish it. I’m fond of ‘Female Blackbird Sings’ as I hope it speaks to anyone who has to talk a little louder to be heard.
SN: The answer to questions like this always have to start with ‘today’. Today my favourites are ‘Lobsgows’ and ‘Mamiaith’.
What were your journeys to becoming authors? And what is your relationships to language(s)?
NO: I’ve written plays, stories and poems for as long as I can remember. I seem to go through periods where I concentrate on just one of them. After studying for an English Literature degree, I stopped writing poetry for a good while until I discovered poets and poems that inspired me to write poetry again. My work has been published in a variety of journals and anthologies but Mamiaith is my first full collection.
SN: As a child I wrote until I went to study sciences at A level and nobody told me to continue writing. There were then many, many years when I didn’t write, but I gradually found my way back until I’m now, in my 50s, and to my great surprise, earning a living as a writer. That’s the short version. In the long version I would thank so many people for their help and encouragement.
Ness Owen lives on Ynys Mon off the North Wales coast. Her poems and short stories have appeared in a variety of journals including in Red Poets, Mslexia, Poetry Wales, Ink, Sweat & Tears and Culture Matters and in anthologies published by Arachne Press, Mother's Milk Books and Three Drops Press. Her poetry collection Mamiaith was published by Arachne press in August 2019.
Sian Northey was one of the Hay Festival’s Writers at Work in 2016 and 2017 and last year visited India as a member of a poetry translation workshop arranged by Literature Across Frontiers. Her latest book is a novel, Perthyn (Gomer, 2019). She is currently working on a volume of essays, and also, thanks to support from the Royal Society of Literature, some short stories based on food banks. She met Ness when they both attended a drama writing workshop run by the company Dirty Protest.