In my last post I talked a bit about my history with the Welsh language, why I speak it, and about getting the chance to write a book, but I didn’t go into great detail on the book itself. I’d like to give a shout out to the Geeky Gaeilgeoir for inspiring me to do so.
As with announcing the birth of a child, it seems only appropriate to celebrate the new arrival with a proper introduction to the world!
It’s called the Welsh Tattoo Handbook, but the content is relevant for all manner of Welsh-affinity things a person might want to do even if they don’t personally speak Welsh. That could be a tattoo, an inspirational phrase or proverb for a family motto, a custom project like a mug or t-shirt or what have you, even a gravestone. Anything that the non-Welsh-speaking person might be interested in finding a Welsh expression for.
We also wanted the book to be enjoyable for anyone with a general interest in Wales or Welsh. The book provides a modest capsule history of Wales, along with what I’m tempted to call a speed-date between the reader and the Welsh language. As I alluded to in my previous post, I hope the book will provide people with an easy entry to even some casual Welsh language learning. Welsh and English are very different; engaging with Welsh on its own terms can provide a much more vital connection to this part of one’s Welsh heritage.
That’s why, in addition to the expected set of glossary entries, we wanted to include traditional Welsh proverbs (diarhebion), not to mention excerpts from a few important Welsh poems and songs. We were fortunate to be able to do so, thanks especially to the generosity of both Sain Records and the estate of the late poet Gerallt Lloyd Owen.
We even provide a brief description of some of the most distinctive features of Welsh poetry, which together are known as cynghanedd. Poetry is exceptionally important in Welsh culture, with competitions from the local to national level called eisteddfodau, the most prominent of which is Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru, the National Eisteddfod of Wales.
The beauty of Welsh is lost on no one who encounters it. As the Geeky Gaeilgeoir mentioned, no less a creative mind than J.R.R. Tolkien, of literary and philological fame, was inspired by it. The story goes that in his youth he saw train cars with astonishing words on the side like Cwm Rhondda and was transfixed. Along with Finnish, Welsh would be an important influence on Tolkien’s Elvish languages. (The mark of Finnish is arguably more visible in Quenya, the mark of Welsh in Sindarin.)
In keeping with its title, the book also provides instructive examples of what can go wrong in a tattoo (or anything else) thanks to misuse of the language. With the information it provides, and firm guidance to seek professional translation assistance with anything not already vetted for the book, the Welsh Tattoo Handbook aims to help the non-Welsh-speaker enjoy exploring and expressing themselves with authentic Welsh — and maybe even motivate them to study Welsh themselves.
We’ve all seen or heard tales of bad tattoos in other languages. Someone wanted a Chinese character that meant one thing, and ended up with one that meant something else. Someone thought they knew the meaning of a line from a poem in a language of their heritage, but it turns out they did not. It’s often as simple as someone using the dictionary to try to translate something word-for-word, and since they don’t actually know the grammar or vocabulary nuances of their target language, they omit important elements and produce gibberish.
Cring-inducing Welsh mistranslations — which manage to find their way even onto public signs with alarming frequency — are so ubiquitous that there’s an entire social media movement (“Scymraeg”) dedicated to mocking them. One immortal example is the time someone emailed a translator to see about getting some Welsh text for a sign; the translator’s out-of-office reply was soon on prominent roadside display.
Welsh has fought for its life for centuries, and is still fighting. More bad Welsh, be it in a tattoo or anywhere else, is not going to help the cause. And the reality is, the Welsh-language community celebrates people’s efforts to learn and appreciate the language. It is a big-hearted world full of lovely people. So if you have an affinity for Welsh, I hope you’ll take some well-meaning advice to heart.
Don’t try to do this on your own. Don’t try to wing it. Don’t go to a dictionary or a dodgy online translation program.
By all means, say a resounding “Yes!” to your heart’s desire for Welsh. Learn even a little of the language, even if it’s just enough to do what you want to do. Get that tattoo. Memorize that poem. Customize that mug and show your Welsh pride. The rest of the Welsh-speaking world only asks one thing of you: Please, do it right.
Welsh has a nickname: iaith y nefoedd, the language of heaven. An old joke says that someone once saw God sitting and enjoying a beautiful day in Wales, and asked what God was doing. The answer: “Working from home.”
Languages aren’t just mixed-and-matched versions of each other. They’re complicated. They’re unique. So, it takes a little bit of work, a bit of preparation to do it right. It’s rather like you’re setting off on a quest. You want help. You want a toolkit.
It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.