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Experiment: Translating English Haiku into Welsh

Updated: Sep 23, 2022

Earl Livings tells a very personal tale of self discovery and explains the idea of transcreating

When I was a child, I discovered my Welsh heritage. My father’s mother was born and

raised in Shire Newton. One side of her family was Welsh through and through, while

the other side had come to Wales from Scotland two generations before. When she was

seven years old, her family moved to Australia. Twelve years later, she married a man

who had come to Australia from Hertfordshire with his family.

Even though my mother was Belgian and my father had English roots, I identified with

my Welsh ones. I don’t know why. It was something sensed rather than intellectually

considered. When I told my father about this feeling, he announced I couldn’t be Welsh

because I couldn’t roll my r’s. I was too young to question this.

Over the years, but especially when I began to write fiction and poetry, all things Celtic

and Celtic-inspired continued to call to me. Mythology and folklore. Merlin and Arthur.

Writers and poets like J R R Tolkien, David Jones, Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins, and W B Yeats. I visited Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, and Scotland several times and felt always at home. I suffered hiraeth when I wasn’t walking the Celtic landscapes, especially Wales, which I began to call my ‘soul country’.

In my higher education teaching career, I predominantly taught poetry and myths &

symbols, always with a Celtic slant. I also started researching cynghanedd (‘harmony’),

the Welsh system of word music using alliteration, stress and consonant structures, and

tried to apply similar principles to my poetry. Then one day, I heard about a group in

Melbourne teaching Welsh. Who cares if I couldn’t roll my r’s? I wanted to learn the

language of my chosen heritage. (It had chosen me, not the other way around.)

I have been learning for over a decade now, though I still am not fluent, yn rhugl. I

squeeze my lessons in between other obligations and commitments. Also, as any

second-language learner knows, immersion aids fluency, but my not living in Wales

means my opportunities for practice are limited. Still, I forge ahead and have improved

my reading, writing, and speaking of Welsh. Then came the point I wondered if I could

try my hand at writing poems in Welsh or at least translating to Welsh.

I had previously attempted to write English versions of some Welsh traditional forms

such as the Englyn Milwr and the Englyn Penfyr. These poems used alliteration,

consonance and rhyme but not in strict cynghanedd patterns. I realised my skill level in

both cynghanedd and Welsh would not be enough to write or translate (yet) such

traditional poems, or even free verse poems (pryddest) in Welsh, but I could tackle

something shorter.

I had been writing English haiku for many years and I felt it might be easier to work

with that form’s predominate use of short, crisp verbs, nouns and noun phrases. This

turned out to be more difficult than I imagined, which I will describe below with the

example of my first attempt.

The day after my decision, I wrote a haiku inspired by the contrast between the torrents

of rain outside my house and the warmth inside.

pouring rain…

silence and warmth

on the couch

Sometimes when I write a haiku or senryu, the first version, because I am in the right

frame of mind, zen-mind, is the best. Other times, I haven’t quite captured the

experience of the moment and I need to redraft the piece, usually quickly. This was one

such occasion:

heavy rain…

quiet warmth

on the couch

Even though I know Google Translate is not always accurate, I put this version into it to

see what would come up. I thought that a crude Welsh version might give me some

direction, especially when I immediately reversed the translation to see what changes in meaning would appear, which I could check using my Welsh dictionaries.

glaw trwm…

cynhesrwydd tawel

ar y soffa

I spent the next few days fiddling with words and nuances of meaning. I used the

translation service, back and forth, dug into my Welsh dictionaries for confirmations of

meanings, and wrote new Welsh versions directly. I discarded English and Welsh words

or phrases because they were too clunky, because their contributions to the soundscape were discordant, or because the meaning still wasn’t right.

I also wanted to introduce the sense of the warmth being shared with my wife, which

led me to remember similar moments. Sometimes, a new English version would cause

me to finetune the Welsh and sometimes it was the reverse:

glaw trwm…

tawel clyd

ar ein soffa

heavy rain…

cosy quiet

on our couch

The next stage was the realisation that, because I am not a native Welsh speaker and

have not spent long periods in Wales, I may be using terms for rain that aren’t colloquial

enough. I researched various Welsh articles and forums while also trying to find the

precise English description of the rain I had experienced.

Even though my mother was Belgian and my father had English roots, I identified with my Welsh ones.

I don’t know why. It was something sensed rather than intellectually considered.

drumming rain…

we claim

the cozy sofa

glaw drymio…

dyn ni’n hawlio

y soffa glyd

pelting rain…

we claim

the cosy couch


dyn ni’n hawlio

y soffa glyd

I finally struck on an English expression that perfectly fitted my memory of the initial

experience of the rain (‘pelting’) and a Welsh word for that expression (‘curlaw’). Now, I

needed to find the best construction of word, line and sound that gave the sense of the

contrast I wanted and the intimacy of the moment enjoyed by my wife and me.

pelting rain…

the cosy couch

for old bones


y soffa glyd

am hen esgyrn


yr hen soffa

ein nyth glyd

pelting rain…

the old couch

our cosy nest

pelting rain…

giggling and giddy

on our couch


giglan a dryslyd

ar ein soffa

After a total of 22 pairs of English and Welsh drafts, I settled on versions that were as

evocative of, and as truthful to, the original experience as I could make it, while adding

hints of other intimate moments:

pelting rain…

always cosy

in our creaky bed


yn glyd bob amser

yn ein gwely gwichlyd

Both versions have alliteration, consonance and assonance and the Welsh one also has

repetition. The English haiku is 12 syllables, which is generally considered the

equivalent of the 17 mora of Japanese haiku. I haven’t seen any consideration given to a Welsh equivalence, but from this example and others I have written (see below), I

suspect it would generally need more syllables.

As a final check on my translation, I sent it to my Welsh tutors. One of them hadn’t

known of the ‘curlaw’ word but thought its use was perfect. She also enjoyed the

alliteration. The other tutor was a little unsure of the undertones of ‘clyd’ but was happy

with the piece. (The dictionary meanings of ‘clyd’ are warm, sheltered, snug and cosy,

which I feel offered the right resonances for the experienced moment.)

The process I developed during this first translation attempt I have now used for a

number of other haiku. I’m thrilled one pair (12 and 19 syllables respectively) was

recently published in the Wales Haiku Journal:

back to normal

after lockdowns…

hazy night sky

yn ôl i normal

ar ôl y cyfnodau clo…

awyr niwlog y nos

I plan to continue my experimentation. I like the turning of the English to Welsh and

vice versa as it helps me rethink word choices for both languages in a type of

continuous drafting and translation dynamic, a sort of hermeneutic loop.

I also like the ongoing exposure to the nuances and colloquialisms of Welsh usage. This may be my best way of gaining deeper familiarity with the language until I am able to return to Wales and immerse myself in its speech, landscape and culture.

What I didn’t realise until part way through this experiment with Welsh haiku

translation is that the process had a name. I came across an article by John Rowland on

the Wales Haiku Journal website. In it he says, ‘I translate some [haiku and senryu] back

and forth between languages and the fracturing process can sometimes be revealing’.

For this fracturing technique he prefers Gabriel Rosenstock’s term, transcreating. My

translation experience certainly echoes Rowland’s and I hope he doesn’t mind me

adopting his term.

I have come a long way from that childhood epiphany about my heritage. I still may not be able to roll my r’s too well, but I am steadily gaining confidence in my use of Welsh to communicate and to creatively express myself.

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