Caryl Lewis’s stormy novel, The Jeweller, focuses on the humdrum yet turbulent life of Mari, a market-stall jeweller by day who moonlights in a most peculiar way. She, along with her friend Mo, clears the houses of the recently deceased, sorting through their things to find jewels which she can sell on her stall. For Mari, however, value is about more than just a potential price tag. In her battered cottage, she surrounds herself with photographs and letters she has salvaged from those houses – the relics of other people’s past comforting her present. Her most prized possession, however, is a magnificent emerald bought in her youth. Just as she chips away at the emerald, trying to unlock its hidden shape, she inches closer and closer to truths about her past that will change everything.
The characterization is another facet of this novel that sets it out as something special. So many of the people you meet in this book are filled with compelling contradictions. Mari is wonderfully crafted as a strong yet insecure woman, who battles through a difficult life with resilience, only to quite surprisingly succumb to depressive episodes she terms the “blues.” An engaging and touching combination of steely self-preservation and friendly reliability is to be found in Mo, and Dafydd embodies the outwardly strong man who, not so deep down at all, is still in fact an uncertain, unsure boy.
It is thanks to Gwen Davies’s diamond of a translation that this wonderful novel is now open to an even larger readership. The English version of the novel achieves that holy grail of literary translation – Davies has not so much translated Lewis’s novel as she has read it, digested it, and recreated it in English.
The haunting narrative and evocative description are wonderfully captured in Davies’s translated prose, which is sensitive and faithful to the original, as well as engaging and remarkably smooth. The sentence “shock had smelted the memory so that it was just a molten mess in her mind” gives a good insight into the poetry of Davies’s translation. She transports the reader to the characters’ windswept coastal home, leaving little doubt as to the novel’s distinctly Welsh setting. Davies’s turns of phrase bring with them the tempestuous atmosphere and the smell of cold sea air that is so captivatingly evoked in the original, as when the sky is described as a “a silver streak of mackerel” and, elsewhere, “deep blue” and “ragged.”
As if the narrative aspects of the text reading were not enough, it is actually in the dialogue where Davies’s translation really comes into its own. She seamlessly translates the Welsh speech into dialogue that not only accurately conveys the tone of the original, but is entirely believable and instantly recognizable as that specific dialect of English spoken in Wales. With Wales’s interesting position as a bilingual nation (one of those languages being English), the characters lose none of their Welshness in Davies’s translation of their speech. She has used this situation to her advantage by crossing the linguistic divide without having to cross a cultural one. Whether it’s the little telltale words at the ends of sentences like “Watch out, now”; the frequent dropping of initial subject-verb groups like in “Up to him if he wants to be like that”; or the typically Welsh takes on English syntax as in “Asking for bad luck, you are,” the result is dialogue that, despite no longer being in the Welsh language, remains unmistakably and convincingly Welsh.
It’s difficult to find fault with the poetic prose that Gwen Davies has created to render this remarkable Welsh novel into equally engaging English. What marks this translation out as a real gem of the craft is that it has lost nothing through its translation, and may have, in fact, gained something.
Lewis, Caryl. The Jeweller. Translated from Welsh by Gwen Davies. Honno Press, 2019.
Ben Frrancon Davies is a free-lance writer, editor, and translator from French, Spanish, and Welsh.