James Vilares reviews Feet in Chains (Traed mewn Cyffion) by Kate Roberts, translated by Katie Gramich.
A tower in Welsh language writing, Kate Roberts’ 1936 novel Feet in Chains has been re-translated for a new edition, launched at the Eisteddfod this week. The scheduling is no surprise. Where better to launch the iconic Welsh language novel than at the pinnacle of Welsh language culture, which prizes literature so highly.
The novel charts the history of the Gruffydd family of Fridd Felen, a farm in the hills below Caernarfon, over a forty year period after Jane marries Ifan. The opening is one of the most powerful scenes in the book, and the awkwardness and ridiculous nature of the setting are perfectly rendered in Gramich’s translation of Roberts’ sparse prose. Jane Gruffydd, recently married, suffers through a seemingly endless outdoor prayer meeting on the mountainside in the blazing summer heat, dressed inappropriately in heavy, stiff satin which, as soon as she returns home, she casts off, ‘stretching out luxuriously [on the bed] in sheer pleasure at the feeling of release.’ It is release not only from the clothes, which you can take to signify the constrictions of society’s expectations upon women but from the prayer meeting itself. The significance is that for a novel starting with a prayer meeting, Feet in Chains offers very little in terms of spiritual life whatsoever. (Saunders Lewis branded an early draft a ‘failure’ precisely because it made this decision).
This is a realist’s Wales, a Wales where wages are low, working conditions poor, worker unity uncommon, food scarce and education scarcer. The novel focuses on the economic realities of a quarryman’s life, and in that respect Roberts pulls no punches. The existence her characters endure is grim, as grey and bleak as the stony landscape they inhabit. Those with authority use it to their own advantage, and even education (for Owen and Twm, two of Jane’s sons) and the possibility of social and economic progression carries with it an immense burden for the family and is cast against the fortunes of William, their older brother whose wages are unstable and very low at the best of times.
Of course, there are many economic parallels to be drawn with modern society. Recession, poverty, insecure employment; there are many who will identify with Roberts’ characters’ struggles to make ends meet.
But it’s not only the economic tale which poses such clear parallels with our own world. For me the novel excels in its portrayal of the family and family relationships, of Jane and Ifan and their children. Family tensions, sibling rivalry, teenage romances: any one of these family dramas could be stories taken from any home throughout the country. The concerns and troubles of the Gruffydd’s are no doubt common to every family at one time or another. Roberts shows the difficult, sometimes brutally cruel aspects of family life: her examples of interactions include arguments, misunderstandings, disobediences and avoidances of responsibility, to name but a few. This is at the same time a parable of an ordinary Welsh country family and a fearfully honest account of individualism posed against the family unit.
At times, it seems Roberts is almost too insightful for comfort: ‘Yes,’ said Owen, thinking and pondering what a strange thing family was. Portraits of some of the family were looking down on him now from the walls of the room. Sometimes he felt like smashing them up so that he could forget his family history. And yet, it was impossible to cut himself off from them, as impossible as it was to cut himself off from the pain caused by some of them who were still alive. They were there, falling out and making up, then falling out all over again; he hated them so much he felt he could kill them.’
Owen’s sense of responsibility and the deep pain he feels is posed against the distinct lack of care shown by his sister, Sioned (the ultimate example of which is that Owen gives some of his small earnings back to his parents, but when Sioned comes into money, she keeps it all to herself). It’s about money, of course. But it’s also about honesty, care, duty. It’s about love.
This is a Welsh society in flux, with families struggling to come to terms with the rapid changes brought on during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the end, Roberts’ characters (typified in Jane and Ifan’s approach to parenting) deal with this by avoidance rather than action, and the wounds grow under the surface for many years, slowly distancing mother and daughter, brother and sister.
Why is 2012 an apt time to revisit the translation of this classic novel? Undoubtedly the previous translation needed work. There’s an argument to maintain Roberts’ austere prose, but not, perhaps, the clunkiness.
But also perhaps we could use a look back, a reassessment of our values from time to time. For me, the poor economic situation which caused the Gruffydds to pursue materialism over spirituality throws into stark contrast our own consumerist obsession with the new, and speaks of how, not so far in the past, the struggles we prefer to think of as ‘third world’ (which, as an expression, is a hideous avoidance tactic in itself) were a little closer to home.
No doubt there’s much more which will become apparent as this new translation settles into its current context. I wasn’t at the launch, but I can imagine the Maes offered the perfect place to delve into the past and draw forward modern renderings of some of the very best of Welsh language fiction.
What the Eisteddfod doesn’t offer (and not many literary awards differ) is a prize for literary translation, which is a shame. As the UK’s uniquely bilingual nation, wouldn’t it be nice if we could lead the way in celebrating literature in translation? Katie Gramich would be a worthy winner, her translation of that rare breed which balances faithfulness, context, readability and appropriateness for a modern audience.