Gwyneth Lewis – Mother Tongue


‘I started to translate in seventy-three
in the schoolyard. For a bit of fun
to begin with – the occasional “fuck”
for the bite of another language’s smoke
at the back of my throat, its bitter chemicals.
Soon I was hooked on whole sentences
behind the shed, and lessons in Welsh
seemed very boring. I started on print,
Jeeves & Wooster, Dick Francis, James Bond,
in Welsh covers. That worked for a while
until Mam discovered Jean Plaidy inside
a Welsh concordance one Sunday night.
There were ructions: a language, she screamed,
should be for a lifetime. Too late for me.
Soon I was snorting Simenon
and Flaubert. Had to read much more
for any effect. One night I OD’d
after reading far too much Proust.
I came to, but it scared me. For a while
I went Welsh-only but it was bland
and my taste was changing. Before too long
I was back on translating, found that three
languages weren’t enough. The “ch”
in German was easy, Rilke a buzz…
For a language fetishist like me
sex is part of the problem. Umlauts make me sweat,
so I need a multilingual man
but they’re rare in West Wales and tend to be
married already. If only I’d kept
myself much purer, with simpler tastes,
the Welsh might be living…
                             Detective, you speak
Russian, I hear, and Japanese.
Could you whisper some softly?
I’m begging you. Please…’

from Chaotic Angels: Poems in English (Bloodaxe Books, 2005)
Poem selected by Emilia Mirazchiyska, series’ editor

Previous articleGwyneth Lewis
Next articleLiane Strauss – Frankie, Alfredo
Gwyneth Lewis
Gwyneth Lewis is bilingual in Welsh and English and after being recognised as a poet in English whilst she was studying at Oxford in the early 1980s published a Welsh collection, “Sonedau Redsa a Cherddi Eraill” (1990) before her English debut “Parables & Faxes” (Bloodaxe Books, 1995). Her early poem sequence ‘Welsh Espionage’ was notable for sustaining its conceit of Welshness as a concept to be smuggled through the lines of the dominant English culture over many formal stanzas, inspired by Auden’s early spy-in-the-northern-landscape poems. Gwyneth Lewis was made National Poet of Wales in 2005, the first writer to be given the Welsh laureateship. She published six books of poetry in Welsh and English, followed by “Chaotic Angels “(Bloodaxe Books, 2005) which brings together the poems from her three English collections, “Parables & Faxes” (1995), “Zero Gravity” (1998) and “Keeping Mum” (2003). Her modern epic “A Hospital Odyssey” (Bloodaxe, 2010) and later collection “Sparrow Tree” (2011) are published separately. Her first non-fiction book, “Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book on Depression” (Flamingo, 2002) was shortlisted for the Mind Book of the Year. Her second, “Two in a Boat: A Martial Voyage” (Fourth Estate, 2005), recounts a voyage which she made with her husband on a small boat from Cardiff to North Africa. She studied at Girton College. Cambridge, and received a D.Phil in English from Oxford for a thesis on 18th-century literary forgery. After working for many years a documentary producer and director at BBC Wales, she become a freelance writer. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a member of the Welsh Academi and a NESTA Fellow. She lives in Cardiff.