The Role of Translation and Language Rights

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Hi all, I’m Felix and I’m the Resident Translator of the Aberystwyth Students’ Union. I’ve been here for over two years now and it has occurred to me that while it may be obvious to me or to those who speak Welsh why there is a full-time translator here at AberSU I thought that the upcoming Welsh Language Rights Day on the 7th of December would be a good opportunity to shed light on my role and its context within language rights. 

The SU’s constitution states a commitment to bilingualism and my job as a translator is the mechanism that makes this possible. It’s a commitment to treat English and Welsh equally and to ensure the right to a Welsh language experience at university. On a practical level, all student groups as well as internal SU staff send requests for me to translate work. What kinds of things do I translate? Posters, flyers, handbooks, articles and manifestos to name but a few. This translation service is an integral part of our Student Union and so remember to make the most of this service and to get in touch with your requests.  

The practicalities of my job aside, why is bilingualism important? For many, coming to Aberystwyth University may be the first time that you encounter the Welsh language and if you’re like me and grew up in the North of England (or outside of a Welsh majority speaking area in general) – on the rare occasions that Welsh was discussed it was either a ‘dead language’ that was ‘only taught in school’ or the classic – ‘they only speak Welsh when an English person walks into the pub/shop’! 

Considering this, and the fact that an overwhelming majority of Welsh speakers can also speak English, it’s easy to see how some ask: ‘what’s the point?’. I would like to give you some context as to why it’s necessary (aside from liking my job).  

First of all, Welsh is the native language of Wales and remains the native language / language of choice of thousands of people to this day, for example, 30% of Aberystwyth can speak Welsh. Ceredigion itself is considered one of the Welsh speaking heartlands alongside Gwynedd, Anglesey, North Pembrokeshire, and Carmarthenshire (but not solely in these places of course). Many people live in communities and households where Welsh is the first language and so naturally feel more comfortable in Welsh even if they have a native speaker level of English. This links into the theme of 'language rights as human rights' as everyone should have the right to access services and live their lives through their mother tongue. People dream, laugh, cry, hate and love all in the medium of Welsh! 

The roots of UMCA (the Welsh Language Students’ Union of Aber) are that Welsh speaking students want to study and socialise in Welsh and so halls of residence like Pantycelyn were created to foster this community which has been crucial in ensuring the continuation of Welsh as a spoken everyday language in this university. 

Furthermore, despite official status in Wales, and equal status with English, Welsh is not on the same footing as English. We who live in the 21st century are seeing the culmination of centuries of attempts to exterminate the Welsh language. It's also important to note that the Welsh Language Act is only as recent as 2011. The damage of deliberate discrimination (i.e. ensuring English’s supremacy) cannot be undone overnight.  

It’s sobering to realise that children were beaten or humiliated in schools for speaking their native language until fairly recently. Historically, Welsh had been banned from the public sphere since the 16th century, which meant that Welsh speakers could not seek justice in their own language. Justice through the medium of Welsh is a long and nuanced history but a pertinent example of one the many challenges Welsh speakers faced. On the other hand, the 1891 census demonstrates the predominance of the language as 25% of Aberystwyth could only speak Welsh, 22% could only speaking English and the other 53% were bilingual. The foundation of Aberystwyth University in 1871 by Welsh (possibly monoglot) workers, has helped the continuation of Welsh in this town as it has provided opportunities for Welsh speakers to seek higher education in Welsh and therefore elevate the prestige of the language in the face of loss of status.  

Despite the fall in Welsh speakers in the 2021 census, Welsh has a thriving musical, literary and cultural scene with S4C and Radio Cymru being central to Welsh language broadcasting and content. Welsh language bands enjoy huge popularity, and the national Eisteddfod is one of the best show cases of the Welsh language and its culture. There are discussions, plays, gigs, singing competitions and more ranging from LDHTC+ Welsh speakers’ experiences to discussing renewal energy. Far from being a language consigned to history, Welsh is a modern living language in which the complexity of the human experience is expressed. You can even watch televised football games with Welsh commentary and interviews!  

My role as the Resident Translator of the Aberystwyth Students’ Union exists thanks to the campaigning for Welsh language rights of previous decades. There’s a danger of translation being seen as tokenism, especially to many who are unfamiliar with the language and culture; but in the wider context of a thriving Welsh scene, this service is a natural part of the linguistic landscape of Wales.  

If you’re considering learning the language, Dysgu Cymraeg/Learn Welsh offer free courses to everyone under 25. It’s a great way to become familiar with Welsh. You will find, after some exposure, that you’ll notice it more in the streets, shops and campus in Aberystwyth! UMCA also offers a weekly Welsh language practice group for free called ‘Paned a Sgwrs’ which is a good way to improve speaking skills.  

Language is far more meaningful than just a tool of communication. I recently read in an article that learning Welsh, like many minoritised languages, is participation and regardless of origin or background, it opens doors to participate in culture and community. Personally, being able to communicate with people in the language of the land has been one of my greatest privileges since learning Welsh! And in the 10 years since my very first lesson, never did I imagine that I would succeed in becoming a fluent speaker and live my life predominantly through the medium of Welsh.  

To celebrate Welsh Language Rights day, Welsh organisations and groups will have stands in the SU building throughout the day. Cymdeithas yr Iaith have also kindly lent us an exhibition highlighting the history of activism for the Welsh language since the 1960s - all on display in the SU! Other activities include a chance to chat in Welsh and have a cuppa (Picturehouse, 11:00-12:00) and a presentation in English discussing Welsh language rights (12:00-12:30 Picturehouse). But the highlight of the day will be the not-to-be-missed screening of Welsh language film Y Swn (with English subtitles) in Pantycelyn which shares the political activism that led to the creation of Welsh language TV channel S4C. The screening is preceded by a discussion between Elain, our UMCA President, and Siân Howys from Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg who is a veteran activist of Welsh language rights.  


Here are some resources for those who are interested: 

https://learnwelsh.cymru/ 

https://www.saysomethingin.com/en/home/ 

https://ypod.cymru/ 

https://lingo.360.cymru/ 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQmDvb_YK3Y 

https://minorityrights.org/law/linguistic-rights/#:~:text=Linguistic%20rights%20protect%20the%20individual,private%20and%20the%20public%20spheres

https://culturalrights.net/descargas/drets_culturals389.pdf 

https://cymdeithas.cymru/what-is-cymdeithas-yr-iaith 

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