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LLYM AWEL ( part1)

Llym awel, llum brin
Anhaut caffael clid
Llicrid rid, reuhid llin,
Ry seiw gur ar vn conin.

This long sequence of ancient Welsh verse is named from its first phrase. I was curious to see if I could use some of these words in my artworks. There is a magnetic mystery in words on the horizon of understanding, whether because the language is very old or because it is unknown. Language freed in this way from meaning turns into the music of rhythm and the shape of the mouth. Language is a vessel of sound. Meaning is what fills that shape up in some way. But meaning is not one thing. These gnomic verses, like much ancient poetry, is terse and ambiguous. Translate one way and it carries a completely different mood from translating another way. After all, vocabulary is not meaning. Language builds a picture in the reader/hearer’s mind, and because it is created by another human, it carries its own emotional energy, which may or may not be transmitted whole. Language is translation of a unique experience by and for another. Translation from one language to another first of all loses the implicit rhythms of the original language, and then it often misplaces some of the original emotional intent by a less than perfect matching of word meanings.

‘Llym awel’ seems to be generally translated as ‘sharp wind’, but this itself is a metaphor. Wind does not cut, nor bite, gnaw or pierce. It has no teeth and no sharp edges. The wind, ( if it is wind), is to be perceived through our physical experience. That is what is transferred ( or not) in the meaning. I cannot speak Welsh, neither modern nor Medieval. I have relied in this investigation on accepted academic translations, commentaries and the automatic translations of modern computer programmes. All these provide different viewpoints from whence the original genuine emotional might be unearthed, or else an interesting improvised variation might grow.
Most words have synonyms. Poetry relies often on these to select appropriate metre and rhyme. Bardic Welsh poetry is hugely complex in its internal structure, playing with sounds all the time, following convoluted rules and templates. Translation cannot hope to match any of this well. Poetic commentary and improvised variations may be the best way to approach the feel of the original material, without pretending it translates word for word…..

The first query I came across was the meaning of ‘awel’. My translator insisted on ‘breeze’, giving a completely different word ( in modern Welsh) for ‘wind’. Now the feel and mood of ‘wind’ and ‘breeze’ are very different. So too, ‘llym’ was given as ‘sharp’, ‘ keen’, ‘acute’ – all of related meanings but all with very different emotional energy.
Language relies heavily on habitual idiom and familiar metaphors. We do not question ‘sharp wind’ because we understand that this is not a literal, objective statement. Literal meaning slur and smudge in the creation of a mental picture. By practice we learn to understand when familar phrases mean something rather different. This somewhat complacent use of language is often very different from the meticulous choice of the skilled bard and poet, so it is important not to fall into using the blurred edges of familiar idiomatic phrasing when it can distort or disguise the precise clarity intended by the poet.

We all pass over ‘sharp wind’ very quickly. We get the general drift of meaning, the flavour, but ‘sharp breeze’ makes us pause and reconstruct. It is at once less usual, and a much more particular equation. A breeze is not a buffeting force. It is more akin to an occassional breath. A more harmless movement of air. So when this gentle, slight thing is felt as ‘sharp’ or ‘keen’, then we can automatically readjust the experience. How cold must the air be, for even a slight breeze to cut through to the skin?

So my commentaries and improvisations on these two words were:

Llym awel,
Sharp breeze,
This small stirring drains warmth,
Negates clothing.
Breath breeze makes cold colder.
This breeze breathes ice.

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