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Review of Fireside Tales

Fireside Tales, by Daniel Owen, translated by Adam Pearce and edited by Derec Llwyd Morgan, pub. 2011 by Brown Cow and Y Lolfa. ISBN: 9 780956 703118 Price £8.95
Reviewed by Fiona Collins
Published in Planet magazine, May 2012

Here are nineteen tales, newly translated by Adam Pearce, narrated by ‘Uncle Edward’ to the author Daniel Owen, who appears as a young man ‘starting to walk the path that … nearly every member of the human race has walked’. Ironically, given that Owen, who published this collection at the end of his life, never married, this is the path of matrimony. The opening story is about Doli Hafod Lom, Uncle Edward’s first love, who dies in mysterious circumstances. There are more cautionary tales from Uncle Edward’s youth, and plenty of stories about local characters. Some are imaginary; others, like Angel Jones in the story ‘Enoc Evans of Bala’, are based on Owen’s acquaintances; others still are minor celebrities of the Methodist movement of the period. The book functions as a kind of digest of village gossip, including examples of traditional folk motifs: the shepherd who sees a funeral procession on the mountain which is a prophetic vision of his own funeral, and the prize fighter who is meek, mild and fair game for teasing, until he is pushed too far and takes on his tormentor, with predictable results.

My favourite tale is ‘Jac Jones’ hat’. Uncle Edward recalls joining forces, during his youth at the cotton mill, with his friend William James and Thomas Burgess from the spinning-room – though I wish Pearce had simply anglicized Owen’s evocative description of Burgess as ‘giaffer’, instead of rendering it ‘foreman’. By dint of constricting Jac Jones’ top hat with thread, so that it no longer fits him, and employing the power of suggestion (‘There’s something odd-looking about your head’), the tricksters persuade Jac Jones to take to his bed. However, Jac has the last laugh, for after their miracle cure, he remains ‘on the club benefit for a week before returning to work.’

Some stories feel pedestrian to a modern reader, relying on knowledge of nineteenth-century Chapel etiquette and practice. Owen’s translator, Adam Pearce, has done his best to enlighten the non-Chapel goer with footnotes explaining seiat, gwylmabsant, yr Hyfforddwr, but the characters in these stories do not really spark to life. More memorable are comic caricatures like Ned Sibion and Edward Cwm Tydi.

The portraits of women are much as one might expect from an old Victorian bachelor, including a sentimental depiction of Uncle Edward’s mother ‘drying her eyes on her apron’ as Edward, then a young lad, sets off to enlist. Only the sound of his sweetheart Doli singing ‘My own dear mother’ behind a hedge turns him homewards. Doli herself, who appears in two of the stories, is ‘tall and shapely (with) a face like a picture’. There is an unpleasantly predatory ‘old maid’, Miss Perks, in one tale, and Pearce adds an extra twist to Owen’s epithet for her, ‘y genawes’, translating it as ‘the old vixen’, rather than simply as ‘she-fox’.

Owen’s dogs are much more individual than his women: he delighted me with Lion and Sultan, the mysterious dog named ‘God-sent’, which saves the Jones family of Liverpool from starvation, and Sam, ‘big, pawed, hairy and famished’.

‘I believe this book will get the reception it deserves – whatever that is’. Owen’s words in his Foreword exude one of his best features, his dry wit. The aim of the publisher, Brown Cow, is to bring Owen’s complete works to English-speaking readers: Fireside Tales, first published as Straeon y Pentan in 1895, is their second volume. It follows a translation of Enoc Huws by Les Barker – surely the man to whom the (deck) Chair for ‘Writer of droll footnotes’ will one day be awarded by the Gorsedd of the Bards.

Adam Pearce’s footnotes do not emulate Barker’s in creating a witty sub-text, but his translation, if occasionally clunkily over-literal, does exactly what it says on the tin, or, more accurately, in Pearce’s own Foreword: ‘translat(ing) artistically but keeping to Owen’s form so as to retain all the content of the original text’.

Owen has a good ear for colloquial language – the translator’s nightmare. It is impossible for English to convey the register of:
‘Mae’n reit hawdd treio’r peth bydae ti a Wil James yn rhoi eich pennau ynghyd sut i experimentio ar un o’r chaps yma’. (Owen’s italics)
Pearce renders this:
‘It’s quite easy to put this to the test if you and Wil James put your heads together to experiment on one of these chaps.’
This has all the right words in the right order, but can’t convey the heady mixture of Wenglish which so delights my Welsh learner’s ear.

This is a workman-like translation of an important text in Welsh literature. It brings Daniel Owen’s world to life in English, and should achieve the publisher’s aim of interesting a wider public in his work. This is to be welcomed.

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