Instant Houses, translated by Steffan Nicholas

An Ice Age litter of smooth stones
lay scattered along the river’s bank:
The waste and spoils of the ice flow’s hammer
which shaped the valleys year by year;
and with this waste, our ancestors built
a rectangular cottage on the river’s turn,
stone by stone through day and night,
lit a fire before the landowner could knock it all down;
claimed a spot of land and made it home,
through the strength of an arm
turned dream to reality:
On the edge of the motorway in the grey city,
and under the wing of empty concrete offices,
under bypass bridges, and in car parks
some are doubled over tonight also building a house,
scouring through the waste and spoils beneath the stars,
claiming a piece of land with a cardboard box.


The first and most fundemental difficult decision I had to make was how to translate the title. The welsh title, ‘Tai Unnos’ refers to the 19th century Welsh tradition of building a house in one night and having smoke coming out of the chimney by daylight. If the villagers failed to complete the house in time, the land owner would be allowed to tear the house down. English culture doesn’t have a concept like this, so I eventually chose ‘Instant Houses’ because this ties both halves of the poem together (The historic oppresion of the rural Welsh and today’s urban homelessness). The second problem I encountered was the use of the English loanword, ‘landlord’ in the original Welsh poem. This word was chosen for poetic effect: it symbolizes the fact that landowners in Wales were often English people and were often absentee landlords. Once again, as England hasn’t been oppressed in this way (people from other countries owning land), there is no word or way to convey a non-native landlord, so I chose to keep an English word with ‘Landowner’. For the Welsh reader it also conjures up the threat to the language as well as to the people, which is a concept that again was lost in the translation, as English is not an endangered language. The third difficulty was to do with tenses of the verb. In Welsh, it is possible to stack infinitives in subclauses e.g Gosod, Cynnau, Hawlio. This isn’t allowed in English so I decided to change them into past tense.

Tai Unnos
Sbwriel oes yr iâ oedd y cerrig llyfnion
orweddai’n flêr hyd lannau’r afon:
sbarion a shafins cŷn a morthwyl y rhewlif
a siapiodd bob dyffryn ganrif wrth ganrif:
ac â’r sbwriel cododd ein cyndeidiau’n ddyfal
fwthyn clyd yn nhro’r afon, ar seiliau petryal;
gosod carreg ar garreg rhwng gwyll a gwawr,
a chynnau tân cyn i’r landlord dynnu’r cyfan i lawr;
hawlio darn o dir a’i godi’n aelwyd,
drwy nerth bôn braich troi llafur yn freuddwyd:
ar lannau traffyrdd y dinasoedd llwydion,
ac yng nghesail goncrid swyddfeydd gweigion,
dan bontydd ffyrdd osgoi, mewn meysydd parcio mae rhai
yn eu dyblau heno hefyd wrthi’n codi tai,
rhoi trefn ar sbwriel dan y sêr,
hawlio darn o dir â bocsys cardbord blêr.


Original poem by Iwan Llwyd. Reproduced by kind permission of Nia Lloyd.