NWR Issue r36

Geiriau Diflanedig

by Mererid Hopwood (Robert Macfarlane, Jackie Morris)

The 2014 revision of the United Nations’ document revealed that, for the first time, the globe’s urban population accounted for more than half of all people: 54%, up from 34% in 1960. Further studies in the ensuing years have shown that this global move towards urban life continues to grow exponentially.

Within a single human’s lifespan, humanity’s geography has changed utterly. As Robert Macfarlane, Jackie Morris, and Mererid Hopwood highlight with the publication of The Lost Words and Geiriau Diflanedig, this sudden change of our economic landscape has brought with it an equally swift lexical shift.

Macfarlane was inspired to write his collection of spell poems, The Lost Words, in response to the removal of common nature words – ‘acorn’, ‘bluebell’, ‘kingfisher’, and so on – from an English-language children’s dictionary, due to their apparent lack of everyday usage. Published in 2017, the collection has become an acclaimed work on the move away from rural life, with its beautiful hardback presentation and binding, and Morris’ stunning illustrations, all combining with the poems to show us the worlds we lose with each lost word.

Geiriau Diflanedig, Hopwood’s Welsh translation of Macfarlane’s English source text, was published in late 2019. Here again, the translator strives to retain the conservational approach of the original. Structured as acrostic ruminations on the lost words themselves, Hopwood makes it clear in her introduction that these are ‘swynion’ (spells) in a ‘llyfr lledrith’ (book of magic) rather than poems in a collection – much like Macfarlane’s book full of spells. They are to be read aloud, remembered, and used, rather than simply ruminated upon in solitude:

Sylwch nad cerddi yw’r penillion hyn felly ond swynion, a rheiny’n rhai a ddaw’n wir drwy ddefnyddio’r hen, hen hud a lledrith siarad-mas-yn-uchel.

(Notice that these verses are not poems but spells, ones that will come true through that old, old magic of reading our loud.)

The oral intentions behind the ‘swynion’ are evident in their composition. Dialogue features in many of the pieces, often in immediate first-second person exchanges. In the first two ‘swynion’, for example, the poet poses a philosophical question to an engineer and a woodcarver about the nut-making properties of the castanwydden (chestnut tree); then, a rock, the Earth, and the sky all ask a boastful cigfran (raven) about its nature, to which the bird replies with variations on its own existential truism – ‘Myfi yw’r Gigfran!’ (I am the Raven!). This direct, conversational style imbues these ‘swynion’ with the intimacy of speech.

The spells are also oral in their storyteller-style flourishes. Take, for example, the way the repetition and quickening pace of this verse from ‘Dyfrgi’ (otter) – composed almost entirely of verb-nouns – urges us to read it out loud:

Rasio, plymio, bolltio, troelli,
Sglefrio, gwibio, lluchio, corddi,
Mynd amdani – dyna’r dyfrgi!

(Racing, plummeting, bolting, twisting,
Skating, speeding, hurling, churning,
Going for it – that’s the otter!)

This grammatically satisfying stream of regular verbnouns, concluded by the contrast of the irregular verbnoun ‘mynd’, alludes to the domesticating strategy employed by Hopwood in her translation. For example, ‘swynion’ such as ‘Iorwg’ (ivy) and ‘Dant y Llew’ (Dandelion) muse on the plants’ various Welsh names – ’sgwyda dy holl hen enwau: / dant y ci, dail clais, piso’n gwely, blodau crach’ – and thus domesticate the source text’s conservational intentions.

These strategies of lexical and grammatical domestication are underpinned by an equally purposeful thematic one. Allusions to other Welsh artists ground the spells in the Welsh literary experience. Echoes of Gerallt Lloyd Owen can be heard in ‘Mesen’ (acorn); the redcoat danger of the fleet-footed ‘Gwenci’ (weasel) recalls R Williams-Parry; and the ‘cwmwl tystion’ of starlings in ‘Drudwy’ (starling), along with the title Geiriau Diflanedig itself, attest to the influence of Waldo Williams.

It is in its titular allusion to Waldo’s poem ‘Cofio’ that Geiriau Diflanedig is at its most domesticated. The Lost Words addresses the anxiety caused by lexical shift as a symptom of economic change; Geiriau Diflanedig addresses the anxiety caused by language shift as a symptom of the same phenomenon. In its choice of title, it deliberately speaks to the anxieties of the speakers of a minoritised language, charting an ongoing linguistic loss that could have a much more lasting impact than a set of alterations to a dictionary.

In 'Cofio', Waldo does not long for the lost words alone; he longs for the languages that framed them, the cultures that supported them, and the people who spoke them:

Mynych ym mrig yr hwyr, a mi yn unig,
Daw hiraeth am eich ‘nabod chwi bob un.

(Often in the dead of night, when I am lonely,
I’m overcome by a longing to meet you one and all)

In Geiriau Diflanedig, Hopwood gives voice to that same underlying desire. These words are not artefacts but still living things that are to be spoken, used, and cherished. These creatures and plants are not museum pieces but still living things, ones that not so long ago had a central position in the lexicon of a vulnerable culture that must now strive to keep up with the relentless march of urbanization.

As more and more of us move into the world’s cities we must decide on what we pack to take with us from the country; Geiriau Diflanedig provides us with a beautiful yet haunting account of those most vulnerable treasures that we must never leave behind.

Dewi Huw Owen is a PhD student at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, writing on translation theory and the history of translation in Wales during the nineteenth century. Huw won the Urdd Eisteddfod Crown in 2008 and has published fiction and nonfiction bilingually in a range of publications.


previous review: The Moving of the Water
next review: Thinking Again


A brief note on copyright:all authors have given permission for their work to appear online on New Welsh Review's website. Copyright remains with the author. If you wish to reproduce part or all of any article then the permission of the author must be sought, and the author and New Welsh Review credited accordingly.

Contact us:Registered Office PO Box 170, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 1WZ - Telephone 00 (44) 1970 628410
© New Welsh Review Ltd, all rights reserved - Registered in England and Wales - Registered number: 02493828
Website design: mach2media and mopublications      Website development: Technoleg Taliesin Cyf.