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Translator's Note: What is it to be human?

by Menna Elfyn


Many people have translated "What is it to be human?" but many more have quoted these lines in funerals or gatherings to do with community and nationhood. The question, akin to the koan, is a statement that almost needs no answer, as its power lies in its incantation. Yet Williams does offer a kind of definition to each question which has paradox as its essence. How can a great hall be a cell? The poem suggests that one can be cozy in a nook or cranny if one is contented. The poem sways between the personal and universal, between creative instincts and those powers that endanger them. By the end of the poem, we realize that the state has thrown all the virtues of belonging and the beauty of the world into a possible chaos. The staccato terse line in short syllables is a feature of Welsh poetry, Zen-like, epigrammatic, emphasizing the urgency with their shortness of breath. They are also memorable because of this graffiti-like quality. If someone were to invite me to paint a peace slogan anywhere—any one of these lines would suffice.

Here are both the Welsh and English so that you can see the difference between them:

Beth yw canu? Cael o'r creu
Ei hen athrylith.
Beth yw gweithio ond gwneud cân
O'r coed a'r gwenith

What is it to sing? To receive breath
From the genius of creation.
What's work but humming a song
From wood and wheat.


Williams dwells on the importance of song and its composition. In Welsh poetry, and Celtic poetry in general, poets sang their poems, and we sense here the aura of the songs, in tune with the sounds of trees and harvests. He depicts an era where singing was second nature to breathing, part of that same joyous song.

One must remember that "nationhood" in Wales was very often synonymous with anti-militaristic campaigns. Very many prominent poets in Wales have been known as pacifists, seeing their patriotism as embedded in total regard for human life and rejecting notions of "imperialism" and "colonization." Many would argue that Wales was the very first acquisition of the English state when Wales was conquered in the thirteenth century, its princes killed, and the Welsh language disallowed.

But today Wales has an Assembly, and the Welsh language, according to the latest census, indicates an upward trend, with schools, television, and all public authorities exerting a proactive bilingual policy. Some might argue that even with all this it's still touch and go for a minority language to survive in a global context. That Welsh has survived at all, with the many vicissitudes it has encountered, is indeed nothing less than a miracle.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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