Megan Farr talks to Manon Steffan Ros, prize-winning Welsh author, playwright, and musician, about writing her best-selling YA novel Llyfr Glas Nebo in Welsh and adapting it into English.
Megan Farr (MF): Can you tell us a bit about where the original idea for Llyfr Glas Nebo came from and about entering it in the Eisteddfod Prose Medal competition.
Manon Steffan Ros (MSR): I’d been writing for a while and had published quite a few novels, but Llyfr Glas Nebo was so different from everything else I’d done, both stylistically and thematically. We’re so lucky with the Eisteddfod in that you can send off your work to get feedback, but it’s all under a pseudonym, and that felt important to me with Nebo – I wanted it to be read without the expectations a reader may have, having read my previous work. I was truly stunned to have won, because I consider Llyfr Glas Nebo to be a work of sci-fi dystopia, and I didn’t think there’d be much enthusiasm for that!
The fear of a nuclear disaster has always taken up space in my mind. As a child, I spent many of my weekends accompanying my parents to protests and rallies, mostly for Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) but also CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). I had recurring nightmares about World War III and replayed the image of a mushroom cloud I’d seen on TV over and over again in my mind.
As I grew older, these fears made space for new ones, but then when I had my own children, the fear returned. Now I am frightened for their safety more than my own. I think Llyfr Glas Nebo was forming for 35 years in me.
Saying all that, for me personally, the main theme of the book is about children growing up and growing away from their parents – the complexity of the fact that, as a parent, your job is to make your children independent of you. In a society that fetishises motherhood, it’s an unspoken truth for many that letting go is far more difficult than those early sleepless nights…
MF: You made some changes to the book when you adapted it into English including character names, the language the diary is written in, and the backstory of the mother’s relationship with the Welsh language. Why did you decide to make these changes?
MSR: The truth is that the characters I was writing about in the Welsh version would speak Welsh with one another – that’s just who they were. And because the book is written as notes and journal entries, I felt [in the adaptation that] I had to explain why they weren’t writing in Welsh. That became a main theme, an extra thread in the novel. I could have just avoided the issue of the Welsh language, but somehow that didn’t feel authentic to me.
I became interested in language identity and ownership whilst writing The Blue Book of Nebo – why do so many people feel that their Welsh is substandard, and that there are degrees of quality to spoken Welsh? It isn’t really something I’d given much thought to before, but I became fascinated by it. After all, the purpose of language is communication, so if you’re understood, you’re doing exactly as well as someone with a PhD in Linguistics. Language can’t be owned. Welsh belongs to all who want it.
Interestingly, I felt the need to change most of the characters’ names in the English version. I wanted a distinction between The Blue Book of Nebo and Llyfr Glas Nebo. It was a selfish gesture in a way – it was all for my benefit, as the author – but I’m glad I did it. Nevertheless, I couldn’t bring myself to change the name of Rowenna. Maybe she’s the bridge between both versions.
MF: What are your thoughts on foreignization and domestication in literary translation (strategies regarding the degree to which translators make a text conform to the target culture)? For example conversations between Rowenna and her English neighbours, the Thorpes, are written in English in the Welsh edition but everyone communicates in the same language in the English adaptation.
MSR: I don’t know about the translation, and it’s an interesting point. In the original Welsh, there is a definite othering of the English neighbours which is gradually, tragically unstripped and exposed as a damaging distinction. I do wonder whether other cultures have quite the same polite, stilted distance as a result of different languages. I think they probably do.
In The Blue Book of Nebo, the linguistic difference disappears – everyone is speaking English. Interestingly, though I’ve never considered this before, I think it then becomes about both class and community – the thought that the characters of the Thorpes have moved into an expensive property in a community they have no ties to, and seem happy to exist in their pocket of land without making much effort to be part of the wider community. Readers’ reactions to the Thorpes are fascinating to me – some are repelled by them, some judge them very harshly although they are, in many ways, the key to our main characters’ survival. I always think of them fondly!
MF: The book has been translated and adapted into six languages so far (French, Polish, Spanish, Catalan, Arabic and English). Some of the translations have come from the original Welsh edition and others from the English adaptation...
MSR: It’s an odd and wonderful feeling that there are versions of my novel, with my name on the cover, which I can’t read. I didn’t write it with the expectation of translation, and so Nebo always felt like a very specifically Welsh novel to me. I had no idea if it would work in other languages, but I think I perhaps underestimated the fact that so many themes are universal.
Because I added a lot when I adapted the novel into English, those versions translated directly from Welsh will be very different. With any adaptation, though, I do believe that I have to be as hands-off as I possibly can be. Once a novel is published, I have to relinquish ownership of it to an extent.
MF: The original book has been adapted as a stage play. Are there are plans for it to be adapted for the screen too?
MSR: In the past, I’ve rallied against the idea of adapting my books into film, and have been adamant that I want to preserve the images in readers’ minds and not sully them with the visuals of the screen. But Nebo changed this – it’s always felt so filmic. I am trying to get it adapted to the big screen.
The stage play was a huge learning curve for me. I’d written plays before and had been involved with the process of staging them, but it felt very different this time. I was far more resistant to any deviation from the text, and felt far more possessive of the characters I’d created. I remember walking into the rehearsal space on the first day of rehearsals, and all the actors – or “my” characters – were there, and I had the urge to walk straight back out again! But it was such an important, liberating experience to be able to give the story to a trusted group of artists, and realise that it was OK to do that – I didn’t have to hold on tight. A bit like the theme of a teenager growing away from his mother in the book – the book grew up and could look after itself!
Megan Farr is Marketing and Publicity Manager at Firefly Press and currently researching into ‘Strategic Action for Internationalisation of the Children’s Publishing Sector in Wales’, as part of a creative industries PhD at the Mercator Centre at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, funded by the KESS II European Social Fund and sponsored by the Books Council of Wales.