Country, country

Today is Saint David’s Day. He was an early Welsh bishop and is the patron saint of Wales. No doubt many renditions of Mae hen wlad fy nhadau will be rendered from Cardiff to Holyhead. I am not an expert in Welsh, so I will keep this to my own experience.

When I was young, one of my piano tutor books had many songs from many countries, including this one. I remember that the title was given as O land of my fathers and the words entirely in English. The first line was O land of my fathers, O land dear to me, but I can’t remember enough of the rest of it to attempt to reproduce it, and the internet doesn’t seem to have it.

The first two words of the chorus were Great land. I now know that the original is Gwlad, gwlad, meaning country, countryside, nation.

In 1997 I joined a leading chamber choir in Sydney, and our first concert (a month after I joined) was at the office of the European Union in Canberra, on St David’s Day, at the invitation of the head of the EU delegation, a Welshman. Our conductor was of Welsh ancestry, and the choir had sung some pieces in Welsh the previous year (which is how the EU man had known about them/us).

We sang this item, and several others, in Welsh, so the issue of translation didn’t arise. The EU man’s mother was visiting, all five feet nothing of her, and she had tears in her eyes as we sang this. The EU man rushed up to us afterwards and said “Your Welsh pronunciation was so good I could almost understand you!”. Another man thought that we were a Welsh choir, to which I said “Having four Davids, a Bronwyn and a Pritchard doesn’t make us a Welsh choir”. Someone asked me whether I, with my possibly-Welsh surname, was Welsh or had Welsh ancestry. I said possibly, but the surname also occurs in England, and although my great-grandfather was born in Shrewsbury, we haven’t traced that line beyond him. One of my sisters will be visiting there later this year, so she might find something.

In 2002 our choir and another leading chamber were invited by Sydney’s biggest choral organisation to join them on a tour to England. Between rehearsals and concerts, we had spare days to travel, so I went to Shrewsbury (but didn’t do any family history research) and, without really intending to, Cardiff. From the train I saw Siop rygbi and at the railway station I saw a sign for Tacsi, but there’s more to Welsh than English words spelled Welsh-style.

I saw a poster of the song with the Welsh words and an English translation which began the chorus Country, country, so it obviously wasn’t meant to be sung. Even set to a four-note motif and without being ever-so-close in pronunciation to a very rude word, Country, country is just so awkward to sing.

All of this raises the issues of singing songs from other countries in original languages or translations, and the difference between literal translations (which are generally not suitable for singing) and singing translations (which generally have to take some liberties with literalness). 

The three translations given by Wikipedia start the chorus Wales, Wales, Home, home and (“a more literal translation”) Nation [or country], nation.

So Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!


3 thoughts on “Country, country

  1. Pingback: learn up | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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