Save the Wales! Gwyneth Lewis defends a language spoken by 721,700 people.


Taking flak (Photo: Keith Morris)

I figure pretty much every language is going to become a boutique language sooner or later.  Eventually English, Spanish, and Mandarin will become boutique, antique, or extinct, swept into the sea of time with Pali and Koro.  It’s dismaying to think that only 40 million people speak Polish, only 7 million speak Czech … and Welsh?

That brings me back to the subject of Gwyneth Lewis, the poet who came all the way down from the Cardiff countryside to hear my talk at the British Academy last month.  Somewhere in the middle of all that brouhaha, we had a Christmas season lunch at the National Café, where I was introduced to a fittingly Welsh “wild mushroom, leek, and glazed salsify stew with chestnut dumplings” as Gwyneth told me about her exploits.

All in all, it had been a good year for Gwyneth.  She won the crown at the Vale of Glamorgan National Eisteddfod. Moreover, according to Wales Online,  “The National Eisteddfod in the Vale of Glamorgan presented an intriguing counterpoint between Gwyneth Lewis’ magical translation of The Tempest for Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru’s Y Storm, and the modern day tragedy of Ma’ Bili’n Bwrw’r Bronco staged by the Wales Millennium Centre in an innovative co production with Theatr na n’Óg. Winners all.”  I can’t pronounce any of it, so I’ll simply reproduce it.

I had meant some time ago to write about Gwyneth’s coronation – but I searched, in vain, for a video clip of the awards ceremony in Welsh, and then for Gwyneth reading anything in Welsh, and finally gave up the whole damn thing.

So I was grateful when her publisher Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books alerted me to her article in The Guardian, “Welsh-language Books Deserve Their Subsidies,” in which she takes issue with a Daily Telegraph article dissing grants given to Welsh writers, under the headline Taxpayer Funds Welsh Authors to Write Books No One Wants.  She ably defends the language spoken by a mere 721,700 speakers (according to a 2011 census), principally in Britain and the Chubut province of Argentina.

Behold the queen!

“Welsh predates English in the British archipelago,” writes the inaugural National Poet of Wales. “If you want to know what cultural despair is, go to the US and see, as I did recently, the bleakness of a Native American poet trying to piece together his tradition from oral sources recorded by a white anthropologist. The rarity of a plant makes its preservation more important, not less.”

She concludes:

On an individual level, the creative economy works indirectly. It’s not a matter of putting in a pound and receiving a set piece of work from it. I’m not speaking here of commercial success (if you want that, become a banker) but of artistic quality. My first book of poems in Welsh, funded by the Welsh Book Council, paid me just over £14. I did consider framing the cheque (as my cousin did the $30 he received for expenses during each of four flights in the space shuttle), but I though it’d be useful for groceries. I publish Welsh poetry in Wales, English-language work with Bloodaxe Books and non-fiction with Harper Collins in London and America. Work in one form has an effect on what I can do in all the others. Therefore, a modest grant for a book of Welsh-language poems has a direct impact on what I can sell, say, in the U.S.

The imagination works by underground streams, proceeds by snakes and ladders. You grow new writers by doing not one thing but many different activities at the same time: promoting critical thinking, publishers whose commercial successes can subsidise fledgling talent and promotional services to expand the reach of high-quality writing like that of Owen Sheers and Rachel Trezise, Deborah Davies, Horatio Clare, Catherine Fisher, Fflur Dafydd, Belinda Bauer and many others.

What followed it was 261 comments, some of them surprisingly vitriolic (some of them had to be removed).  Who knew language could generate so much spit and fire?

And behold, we finally found a video of Gwyneth’s coronation…

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4 Responses to “Save the Wales! Gwyneth Lewis defends a language spoken by 721,700 people.”

  1. Jeff Says:

    I love Wales, I’ve made Welsh friends, and I used to fly the Welsh flag every time I taught medieval Welsh literature, so I’m certainly not objective, but when I scan the comments on Lewis’s Guardian article, I’m surprised to see how citizens of a country who are generally proud of their welfare state can get so angry and bitter about tiny subsidies for Welsh authors. (The Telegraph writer has to add up five years of programs to generate what I suppose is meant to seem an outrage-worthy sum.)

  2. Phyl Griffiths Says:

    For such a small nation we have an unproportionally high level of great talent, publishing and performing world-class work in both languages. As a Welsh speaker running a Welsh bookshop, I am often disappointed at the intensity of anti-Welsh feelings within Wales. Although such comments are becoming less common, it isn’t surprising that these negative vibes only ever come from one side of our bilingual nation – the monoglots. While I’ve not yet found a single Welsh person who wishes they couldn’t speak Welsh, I know of countless others who wish they could. The story of Wales is contained within its language and to be able to understand and speak it is the key. As a result of the foresight of my non Welsh speaking parents in choosing Welsh medium education for me not only can I appreciate, and understand, all the cultural and social delights of 21st century Wales, I’m free from the frustration and bitterness that seems to come from only seeing half of the picture.

  3. Should Welsh writing be subsidised? | Writers' Corner Cymru Says:

    […] Save the Wales! Gwyneth Lewis defends a language spoken by … 6 days ago … Cynthia Haven's blog for the written word … to her article in The Guardian, “Welsh -language Books Deserve Their Su… 00Share […]

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Sorry for the delay getting this up, Phyl. It got lost in a spam file.