I am not an expert at anything. I am a Jack-of-all-trades kind of girl. Imagine my surprise when an elderly gentleman approached me at the library.
‘I want to learn Welsh,’ he said. ‘One of your colleagues told me you are the library’s Welsh language expert.’
Turns out the man was vision impaired and needed a course that didn’t require him to be able to read or write. I knew just the course and my ‘Welsh language expert status’ was confirmed as surely if it had been listed on my job description along with a degree in library and information studies, eligiblility for ALIA accreditation, and holding a current Victorian driver’s license.
Now, personally, I think the ability to speak Welsh should be an essential requirement for every librarian. But as they haven’t yet achieved this in Wales, I don’t have much chance in suburban Melbourne. It was a shock therefore when on a second business-as-usual afternoon another man sought me out.
‘Hello. I’m looking for Liz Corbett.’
‘Yes. That’s me. How can I help you?’
‘I heard you speak Welsh.’
Heard! Where from? I guessed another of my colleagues had supplied the information.
‘I try, but…my Welsh isn’t fluent.’
Turns Ken James was a local historian with Welsh ancestry who was doing research on Eaglehawk’s Welsh Churches (yes, the hiraeth gets to us all eventually). He had a couple of cemetery inscriptions that needed translating. Would I have a look at them? Now, as my job description does not have ‘an ability to speak Welsh’ as a condition of employment, I am not paid to translate documents. As a librarian I am supposed to direct the borrower to the languages section. But as a person with an interest in Austalian history and Welsh language, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.
‘I’ll have a go,’ I said. ‘If I can’t work it out, I know people who can. Why not email me a copy?’
Here is one of the inscriptions Ken James sent to me:
Serrhog Goffodwrineth / Robert Watkin Jones/ Pantymarch / Anwl Ac Unig Fab / Watkin Jones / Pandy, Llanuwchllyn, Bala / Yr Hwn A Hunodd Yn Yr Iesu / Hydref / 10 February 1884 Yn Zomywydd Oed / “God’s Will Be Done”.
It was school holidays and being a mildly (cough) obsessive person I didn’t want to wait until Welsh classes started back again. I looked up serrhog. It wasn’t in my dictionary. Neither was gofodwrineth. However, language is all about context. I am often telling my Welsh class. Your comprehension will sometimes be situational. So, what was the context here? I looked at English language cemetery inscriptions. They generally started with something like loving remembrance. I looked up remembrance in the English side of my dictionary and came up with: coffadwriaeth, remembrance, and serchog, with means affectionate. The spelling was wrong (possibly the family had no dictionary and may not have had much education in the Welsh language – it wasn’t exactly encouraged – and maybe they were relying on English speaking mason). Anyway, the inscription should have read: Serchog goffadwriaeth. Perfect.
See, being an expert is easy. 🙂
I knew Pantymarch and Llanuwchllyn, Bala were place names. I also knew that there was no letter z in the Welsh alphabet. A little enquiry, confirmed that Robert Watkin Jones had died at the age of twenty. Therefore zomywydd oed was probably 20 blwydd oed – twenty years old – Anwl ac Unig Fab meant: dear and only son.
I paused, thinking about this family far from home who had lost their only son at twenty years of age.
So, much pain, in those few words.
My final challenge with this inscription was the phrase: Yr Hwn A Hunodd Yn Yr Iesu.
Hunodd meant ‘slept’ my dictionary told me, Iesu, I knew, meant Jesus. But why yr hwn? And why yr Iesu? Literally, it seemed to be saying ‘the this and slept in the Jesus.’ Puzzled, I went where any sensible woman in this day and age who needs to know something goes. Facebook.
Fortunately Sion Meredith Director of Cymraeg i Oedolion – Canolbarth Cymru – Welsh for Adults mid-Wales was online. That’s right – a real expert. He confirmed my earlier guesswork and told me the phrase Yr Hwn a Hunodd yn yr Iesu meant: this one slept in Christ. Nice. I sent my results back to Ken James. Imagine my pleasure when a few months later he came back to the library with a signed copy of his book: Eaglehawk’s Welsh churches. He even put my name in the acknowledgements.