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The Privilege of Language: Manon Steffan Ros on Self-translation, Welsh Literature, and Her New Book

By Casi Dylan


Manon Steffan Ros was nervous about presenting Llyfr Glas Nebo to the world. Before it won the 2018 National Eisteddfod Prose Medal and the 2019 Wales Book of the Year, before it became a best seller, she questioned whether anyone would make time for this postapocalyptic story of a mother and son adapting to life as survivors of nuclear disaster in rural northwest Wales. But the book has resonated across Wales and, increasingly, the world; its dark, moving account of the resourcefulness of hope and love has propelled the book to a special place in contemporary Welsh writing. Ahead of its English-language publication as The Blue Book of Nebo, Casi Dylan spoke to Manon about the book’s anxious origins, its journey, and the cultural and linguistic landscape from which it emerged.

 

Casi Dylan (CD): This book has already been on quite a journey, but for now let’s begin at the beginning! Tell us a little about your starting point for Llyfr Glas Nebo.

Manon Steffan Ros (MSR): I think in a way that the book had been there since I was a little girl. I was brought up going to protests almost every weekend—the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Cymdeithas yr Iaith [the Welsh Language Society]—and, as an anxious child, I remember the fear very specifically of nuclear disaster. I had a recurring nightmare about the start of a nuclear war and would ask questions about the nearby nuclear plant, Yr Wylfa. I remember thinking: “If there’s a nuclear disaster, it’s bound to be around Bangor (that was the closest town to me), and I wonder if I’ll have enough warning so that I have time to walk from my school in the village to mam so that we can die together.” When I had my children, my mind returned to those places in which I’d lingered as a child. They were irrational fears, in a way—or irrational, perhaps, until it happens! For Llyfr Glas Nebo it felt very natural for me to put that in the context of a mother and son, partly because I’m a mother to sons, but also because I’m interested in the relationship between parents and children and am always writing about that in one way or another. The longer I spend with Llyfr Glas Nebo—and I’ve lived with it for a long time nowI realize that it isn’t a book about nuclear disaster: it’s a book about the relationship between a mother and son. You could take that setting away, place them in a different context, and the relationship would remain the same.

 

CD: Has publishing the book, talking about it, allayed those anxieties at all?

MSR: It’s made me realize that other people share the same fears, and it’s forced me to confront them head on. We began working on a stage adaptation of the book about six months after its original publication, and I found aspects of that process very difficult. At the time I didn’t really want to think: “Why did I write this?” or “Why did I create these characters?” Walking into that greenroom was a big part of the journey of Llyfr Glas Nebo for me, having to meet the characters I’d created. My instinct was to run away, but it was beneficial in the long run. It’s a complex therapy—and a very public one!

 

CD: It’s interesting what you say about spending time with the book. Your writing comes quickly, as I understand it, a dam breaking in one flow. The process of translating your own work must be very different.

MSR: It is, but I’m surprised by how much I enjoy it. I was much more interested in English literature than Welsh literature in school, and—strange as it is to say—I do often feel that my Welsh isn’t good enough. I remember every unkind comment in that regard. But translating anything reminds me that I have both languages, with as strong a grasp of one as the other. It feels very liberating to remember how lucky I am to be able to tell this story, in the way that I want to tell it, in both languages. Because I’m translating my own work, I have the freedom to change it as I choose, to work out what my voice is in English.


“In Poland it was read as a feminist novel … I’d never considered the book from that perspective!”
 

CD: Was it the same when you translated your earlier work Blasu into English? That appeared in English as The Seasoning in 2015.

MSR: It was all new to me when I translated Blasu, and I struggled a little then. It’s so strange; even if you translate something word for word it’s never the same. The thing that emerges—it might be as good, better than the original even, but it’s never the same thing. Blasu in Welsh is a very dark novel, difficult to read, but in English it felt much lighter, and I couldn’t work out why. I was more confident when I came to Llyfr Glas Nebo. Having been invited by the Wales Literature Exchange to translate the opening chapter initially, I just kept going because I was enjoying it so much! I knew early on that I’d have to introduce new themes to it; for the same premise to work—Rowenna and Dylan, mother and son, writing their respective stories in a found notebook—I had to find a way to justify why they would be doing so in English rather than Welsh. The characters did change for me precisely because they were writing their stories in English.

 

CD: That struck me as a crucial difference between Llyfr Glas Nebo and The Blue Book of Nebo. Rowenna’s relationship to the Welsh language has become more complex, more strained, in the English novel.

MSR: Yes, that was a deliberate decision and a cultural experience I was becoming more aware of in my personal life too. I live in an area where many people can speak Welsh but don’t feel confident enough to do so, and I had come to consider what a terrible thing it is to be estranged from your own language because you don’t feel that you reach a certain standard. It’s deadly to a language, lethal. The Blue Book of Nebo is partly informed by that perspective.

 

CD: It can feel like a big responsibility, introducing the social and cultural complexities of a minority language experience to a wider audience. It’s easy to become defensive.

MSR: I always wonder: Why would someone feel defensive? People are naturally protective of the Welsh language, as we should be, but we have to consider how we go about protecting it. I have a certain view on that, and I know that many people feel very differently. But for me, in my writing, the starting point is character, always. It felt authentic that this was how Rowenna would behave, how she would write, what she would say. Once I was confident in that, everything else could follow.

 

CD: And that’s why, perhaps, it feels like a different book, a work in its own right?

MSR: It surprised me a little—my need as an author to differentiate between the novels, even to change some of the character names. I did it instinctively, without thinking really. I’m not sure even now why I did that, or why in both books Rowenna remains Rowenna.

You know, I’ve never traveled—never even lived outside Gwynedd—and I don’t have international experience to draw on, but the response to the Polish translation of the book showed me that each translation is a new and different work by default, proof that the reader finishes the author’s work. That book was translated directly from the Welsh, and yet the themes are somehow changed, the response so different to what it was in Wales. In Poland it was read as a feminist novel, and a lot was made of Rowenna’s experience as a single mother. I’d never considered the book from that perspective! Thinking about it, most of the books I write feature a single parent, but I’m not trying to make a point with it. It’s fascinating to see how broader political conversations and concerns—in this case women’s rights in Poland—feed into the story of the book.


“I’ve never had an ambition to reach an audience outside of Wales.”
 

CD: And you draw directly on your own cultural context in the book, of course. I was struck by the references you make to other Welsh writers in The Blue Book of Nebo—Dewi Prysor, Gareth F. Williams—alongside English authors and influences. Were you conscious of the choices you were making, introducing these names to a new readership?

MSR: The honest answer is that I don’t overthink it—it’s a matter of doing what feels right at the time. But it’s an interesting point that all of us who have been raised in Welsh, who live in and through Welsh, have bilingual influences. There is no point denying that; it enriches us.

 

CD: In many ways this is a book about books and reading. Even the title draws on the Welsh literary heritage held in collections such as The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest. Did you feel any pressure to explain those references more fully, or to change the title?

MSR: No, not at all. But the process has shone a light on the way that I’ve felt for a while about Welsh literature within a global context. Over the fifteen years I’ve been working as a writer I’ve become used to the comments: “When are you going to write it in English, then?” I understand it to an extent; people don’t really consider the historical context in which such responses are rooted, what it really means. I’ve always subconsciously felt that, as I write away in Welsh, no one outside of Wales has any interest in it. It’s a British thing, driven by London-centric publishing: things that aren’t written in English aren’t seen to have as much value. It’s never really bothered me: I’m happy to write things in Welsh forever, and I’ve never had an ambition to reach an audience outside of Wales. I was initially suspicious when I was approached by a New York–based agent about the rights for Llyfr Glas Nebo. “Is this guy for real?” I thought. “Why would someone from New York be interested in this?” It slowly dawned on me that, beyond the British context, there is huge interest in and respect for this work, that people want to read it. The same hierarchies don’t exist, and that’s been a real lesson for me.

 

CD: Has that vote of confidence fed into your writing? Or do you approach new work as something altogether separate?

MSR: I like to think that the public response isn’t that important to me, but the truth is that when I publish in Welsh, I really want people to enjoy it. I’m a mess waiting for the reviews! But beyond Wales, there’s a sense of incredulity about it. I feel that the ideas I have are Welsh ideas. I’ve already translated my latest book, Llechi—“Slate”—to see how it felt, but I do still ask myself how readers outside of Wales will respond to something as culturally specific, say, as Chwarel Penrhyn—Penrhyn Quarry, where that novel is set. But it’s nice to think that The Blue Book of Nebo is the book that is likely to introduce my work to a new readership, especially as it draws so centrally on Welsh language and culture. I feel close to this novel somehow, to its characters. If there is a book to go on a journey, this is the one.


“So much of it comes back to the fact that our translation of the Bible is so utterly beautiful.”
 

CD: For me, there’s an emotional resonance in the biblical language and references that are central to The Blue Book of Nebo. Even as someone who’s moved away from that tradition, it feels so emotionally Welsh! It’ll be interesting to see how that resonates with US readers.

MSR: It’s so interesting, isn’t it? Capel is such a central part of our identity, even if we have no interest in it, even if we’ve never been there ourselves. So much of it comes back to the fact that our translation of the Bible is so utterly beautiful. I don’t know if I would consider myself a Christian, but I do feel that I have a personal relationship with Iesu and get a lot of comfort from it—because of my culture, my history—though not with Jesus in English. It’s not necessarily a religious thing, but more to do with the comfort and the ritual of the words.

Of course, it’s something that Rowenna is very uncomfortable with in the novel, as Dylan increasingly draws on the influences of the Bible he has among his salvaged books. That inner division must be in me too, in a way. An early review of the book that appeared in a papur bro [a Welsh-language local community newsletter] argued that it was a Christian novel. But anything creative is a mirror really, isn’t it? You see in it what you need to see.

 

CD: It was a revealing experience reading Llyfr Glas Nebo before the pandemic and The Blue Book of Nebo afterward, in a changed world. Do you wonder how all this might inform new readers’ responses?

MSR: It’s bound to be a factor. At the very beginning of the pandemic someone tweeted saying, “This feels familiar, very Llyfr Glas Nebo.” I did find myself mirroring some behaviors of Rowenna’s and thinking: “Where does this lead us now?” I felt quite uncomfortable with that, in a way; I didn’t like the pressure of it. I haven’t returned to the novel during the pandemic—I’d completed the translation before it all began—but I do think that if I was writing it now, it would be different.

 

CD: For anyone new to writing from Wales, if you could choose to translate any Welsh book into English—other than your own works!—what would it be?

MSR: I’m not sure if I can limit myself to one! tu ôl i’r awyr by Megan Angharad Hunter stayed with me for a long time; it felt so new and fresh and has that rare power of making me acknowledge things that I knew but wasn’t facing up to. I do also tend to go through phases of obsession with certain authors, and my current obsession is E. Tegla Davies (1880–1967). There are some recognized geniuses in the Welsh canon—T. H. Parry-Williams, for example, another literary crush of mine!—but no one really talks about Tegla anymore. Tir y Dyneddon (1921), his fantasies of the tylwyth teg [fairies], would be wonderful in translation.

 

CD: Sounds fantastic! It’s such an exciting time to discover Welsh writing. Before we wrap up— and everyone heads off to read The Blue Book of Nebo—is there anything else you wanted to share?

MSR: Only my heartfelt thanks to the Wales Literature Exchange and everyone who’s worked on this book. It’s been a wonderful reminder that we are so privileged as Welsh speakers. Because there aren’t all that many of us, I as a writer am compelled to write all kinds of different things: I can’t make a living on YA novels alone, which means that I have to expand creatively to write other kinds of books, scripts for TV, a magazine column, and so on. Each one of those experiences is valuable and feeds into the others. This goes for the readership too: I’m increasingly aware that people who read books in the Welsh, if they’re actively engaged, also read a wide range of work. You’re not bound by specific categories, as you might be when you read in English. And making the choice, not always consciously perhaps, to engage with such a wide variety of things, it does something special to a culture. We don’t always acknowledge that there are good things about the fact that we don’t produce a vast quantity of work. Llyfr Glas Nebo is a novel for young people about the end of the world, and yet it’s been read and embraced by grandparents, parents, and young people alike. I’m struck by that privilege; it’s a lovely place to create from.

 

Manon Steffan Ros is a prize-winning Welsh author, playwright, and musician (she is one half of the acoustic duo Blodau Gwylltion). Her latest novel, Llyfr Glas Nebo (The Blue Book of Nebo), won one of the highest awards for Welsh-language writing, the prose medal at the Eisteddfod, in 2018, as well as the Welsh-language Wales Book of the Year Award and the Fiction and People’s Choice categories for 2019. Since then it has become a best seller in the Welsh-language market, is being adapted for stage and film, and is shortlisted for the 2019 Na nOg Prize for Literature for children and young adults, a prize that she has won three times since 2010. Her previous novels for adults have been shortlisted for and awarded the Wales Book of the Year and have been selected for the Wales Literature Exchange Annual Bookcase, including her novel Blasu (Y Lolfa, 2012), which was published in English translation as The Seasoning by Honno in 2015.

 

Read an excerpt of The Blue Book of Nebo on WWB.


Published Oct 14, 2021   Copyright 2021 Casi Dylan

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