Saturday, January 26, 2008

Mabinogion: Sioned Davies & Patrick Ford's translations: Book Review

Patrick Ford's standard version of the Mabinogi has been out for three decades now. In fact, it'll be reissued this March by U. of California Press. I wish I had been able to study with him at UCLA as a grad student, but pressures of having Old & Middle English and Latin to master along with the required array of seminars and courses outside my medieval emphasis already constituted a heavy burden. Harvard spirited him off anyway, the middle of my arduous slog to a Bruin Ph.D. Old Irish and Middle Welsh, it appeared, would have to wait as luxuries neither my schedule, my research, nor my endless grind of teaching frosh comp could accomodate. But, in either my mid-life crisis or my maniacal prime, I try to learn more about both Irish and Welsh in their venerable cultural guises and contemporary linguistic fashions.

My question today: How does this handsomely bound new rendering by Sioned Davies, Chair in Welsh at Cardiff, compare with Professor Ford's? Will his "30th Anniversary" U. of California paperback reissue of his widely praised and often chosen standard version find itself in a dead heat with Davies in this elegant Oxford U.P. edition? The race may prove a photo finish!

I compared their translations of a favorite passage of mine early on in the First Branch, Pwyll's tale. Arawn's just been reunited with his queen after the year's test by unwitting yet steadfast doppelganger Pwyll. She wonders, post-coitally after a long year's lapse, why it's been so long since her husband made love with her.

Here's Ford (1977 ed., p. 41) first at bat.

"Shame on me," she said, "if from the time we went between the sheets there was even pleasure or talk between us or even your facing me-- much less anything more than that-- for the past year!"

And he thought, "Dear Lord God, it was a unique man, with strong and unwavering friendship that I got for a companion." And then he said to his wife, "Lady," he said, "don't blame me. I swear to God," he said, "I haven't slept with you since a year from last night nor have I lain with you."

And he told her the entire adventure.

"I confess to God," she said, "as far as fighting temptations of the flesh and keeping true to you goes, you had a solid hold on a fellow."

"Lady," he said, "that's just what I was thinking while I was silent with you."

"That was only natural," she answered.

--You can feel the hesitant insertion of the teller's dramatic pauses implied with the "saids." These intensify rhythms of the poet's strong, confident prose. A few contractions and the well-placed dashes quicken the dialogue's pace. The language avoids the flowery exactitude and chivalric diction that marked Gwyn and Thomas Jones' 1949 Everyman edition. But, neither does Ford choose an entirely modern register. He keeps a slightly elevated style while emphasizing verve and a gently sophisticated voice for the couple.

--Compare and contrast Davies (2008 ed., p. 7). As in other pages I spot-checked, the two professors run neck and neck and overlap considerably-- a sign of how both scholars channel what Ford calls the "restraint" in this passage as well as its humor and tension.

"Shame on me," she said, "if there has been between us for the past year, from the time we were wrapped up in the bedclothes, either pleasure or conversation, or have you turned your face to me, let alone anything more than that!"

And then he thought, "Dear Lord God," he said, "I had a friend whose loyalty was steadfast and secure." And then he said to his wife, "Lady," he said, "do not blame me. Between me and God," he said, "I have neither slept nor lain down with you for the past year."

And then he told her the whole story.

"I confess to God," she said, "you struck a firm bargain for your friend to have fought off the temptations of the flesh and kept his word to you."

"Lady," he said, "those were my very thoughts while I was silent just now."

"No wonder!" she said.

--Davies in her preface emphasizes the "performative" qualities in her edition. In this passage, she appears to let the lines go longer rather than reining them in to English syntax. They drift away slightly before coming back to us. Perhaps this echo demonstrates Davies' own scholarship in the medieval Welsh interplay between orality and literacy. The author of two books on the Mabinogi, she stresses the "interactive" nature of the manuscript to be read aloud for the "acoustic dimension" embedded in the Welsh texts and through alliteration, tone, and beat, she tries to give us a feel for this tempo, albeit imperfectly conveyed perforce into our clunkier English.

--Both Davies and Ford include the four branches: Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan, and Math. Both include Lludd & Llueyls. But, reflecting textual differences in the original manuscript anthologies, they also differ. Ford's tales attributed to Gwion Bach & Taliesin, Culhwch & Olwen, and his appendix on Cad Goddeu do not appear in Davies. She provides Peredur, The Dream of the Emperor Maxen, The Lady of the Well, Geraint, and Rhonawby's Dream.

--Both editors explain their textual choices and open with prefaces. They both add glossaries, pronunciation guides, and bibliographies. Ford situates the tales in Indo-European contexts and Davies delves into their delivery as recited stories. Ford begins each tale with a short introduction; Davies adds explanatory notes in a detailed appendix, keyed to asterisks in the body of the text. Davies keys her "Index of Personal Names" to pages in the text while Ford does not. For study and teaching, it looks like the competition may result in a dignified and spirited draw. Most serious readers doubtless will want to consult, as I have, both fine efforts side-by-side.

(This review's, fittingly,-- sans the personal lament-- at both the Ford [1977 ed. as the 30th Anniversary one has not come out yet-- as of 2008!] and Davies listings on Amazon US. May both translations flourish.)

Image: Y Lolfa's graphic novel version in Welsh by Gwyn Thomas, illustrated by Margaret Jones.

This cover reminds me of the Cló Mhaigh Eo tetralogy of colorfully depicted Irish tales from Colmán Ó Rathallaigh that I've commented upon earlier on my blog regarding his "Táin." Jones' elongated style recalls the hieroglyphic-Amerindian draftsmanship of the Cló series.

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