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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

18-and-under, joint second prize

Read the judges’ comments
To obtain the free booklet of winning entries and commentaries,
please email: info@stephenspender.org


Iona Hannagan Lewis

‘Rhyfel’
by Hedd Wyn


Cursed am I to live such a life.
While God recoils on distant shores,
Man, in His wake, will toil in strife,
To prove his power through his wars.
When God’s presence began to wane
Man took up arms to kill his own,
And now the sound of slaughter reigns,
Its shadow haunts the hearth and home.
Sweet harps of old that used to sing
Hang silent now in grove and glen.
While on the breeze the boys’ cries ring,
The rain blends with the blood of men.

Translated from the Welsh by Iona Hannagan Lewis
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Rhyfel


Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.
Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.
Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
Yng nghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw

Hedd Wyn
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Translation commentary


Hedd Wyn’s ‘Rhyfel’ is one of my favourite Welsh poems. The allusions to God and nature lend the poem a myth-like quality reminiscent of Celtic war poetry, yet the poet damns war instead of glorifying it.

It was also very interesting to translate. The Welsh has an inherent rhythm, and while translating I realised that if I was going to try to capture the power of the original, I would have to respect its metre. This proved to be quite difficult – the differences in syntax between the languages meant it was hard to maintain the exact up-beat, down-beat pattern, though I have tried to do so whenever possible.

It was important that I remained as faithful as possible to the original imagery used, yet sometimes I have had to make small concessions. For example, I couldn’t think of a way to fit Yn codi ei awdurdod hell – which translates literally as ‘Raises his vile authority’ – into the rhyme scheme. In the context of the poem I felt it fair to assume that ‘vile authority’ pertained to the corrupt authority of war, and so I hope I have remained close to the spirit of the poem. Also, I chose to translate Gwae fi as ‘Cursed am I’, since I felt the more correct ‘Woe is me’ to be too archaic.

For the last stanza, I wondered whether or not to use a more faithful version:

[…]
Hang silent now in grove and wood.
[…]
The rain pours, mixing with their blood.

However, I finally decided to keep the version I have submitted. Though the addition of ‘men’ changes the meaning slightly, the final image is so horrific that, in order to underline its potency, I felt I had to end on a perfect rhyme.

Iona Hannagan Lewis
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