What is cawl in English?

What is cawl in English?

As a biographical researcher, studying older Welsh speakers, I have the challenge and the privilege of carrying people’s words across languages, so that English speakers can hear voices and learn of experiences that they might not otherwise witness. Transferring participants’ narratives into words that have meaning for my audience is a careful and cautious process; where assumptions pose risks and understanding cannot be taken for granted. The reward is giving people insight into another’s world and giving voice to minority language speakers.

What has cawl to do with this? Cawl serves as an example of the issues faced in interpreting minority languages for a majority audience. In answering the question of what cawl is in English we must navigate some of the inherent difficulties in translation and communicating meaning between one language and culture to another.

Through the case of cawl I will illustrate how we translation is more than mere word swops and how the speaker, the translator and the audience all play a part in moving meaning between languages.

But, back to the cawl. What is cawl?

Geiriadur.com offer four potential translations for the word cawl namely

  • Soup
  • Broth
  • Mess
  • Hotpotch

These four words have at least two meanings and demonstrate the initial need to understand context, when seeking to translate. The cawl we are looking to express in English is the soup/ broth variety, not the ‘pig’s ear’ or mess that the word is also used for.

Do we now have our answer, is cawl just a soup or a broth? Possibly, but not quite.

As Buden et al (Buden B, 2009) explain, the answer to translators’ dilemmas do not sit in dictionaries but in understanding the meaning and social context of words. As a word, cawl is similar to cwtsh or joio, in that it enjoys cultural significance, it is a Welsh word describing something that is also Welsh in its nature. This makes the process of transferring this essence of this particular bowl of soup from Welsh into English, without spilling meaning, difficult.

Let us begin with looking deeper at the cawl that we seek to describe. Firstly, we need to understand that cawl is in itself subject to different interpretation and simply put, my cawl may not be the same as your cawl.

Cawl’s recipe is thought to have originated in the 14th Century and therefore will today have considerable regional, local and even familial variation. Cawl  to my mother is a lamb and vegetable stew type dish, cooked in a pan. Cawl to me is the same, but without the meat. Another’s cawl may have come from the same root as mine but have a different ingredient in the mix. These differences make translating cawl more difficult and before someone can say what cawl is in English, they first need to establish what is meant by cawl on the part of the speaker.

Next, we need to consider how to transport the original meaning from the speaker to create an understanding on the part of another. The role of the translator is key to this transaction.

It is tempting to view translation as a neutral act of carrying words and meaning from language to a second; this is not the case. Translation is value laden. Anyone who has played the whispering gamewhere a phrase is passed around a chain of people, will understand the risks of misinterpretation or of hearing what one thinks is being said.

In this example the translator’s understanding of cawl is as important as the speaker’s. My vegetarian stew, soup or broth might be understood differently by a translator who is used to a recipe with more or less of any of the ingredients. They may never have tasted cawl at all and therefore be lacking in any reference points to translate; how then could I trust them to know the meaning of cawl to me and to present this in a way that the audience would understand?

As we need to consider the risk of partiality on the part of the translator, so too do we need to understand the position of the audience. To successfully explain to someone what cawl is in English, we need to know how to make sense of cawl to them. Xian (Xian, 2008) describes this process as telling a story in someone else’s words. So, to know what cawl is in English, we need to know what would have meaning for the audience. What might cawl mean to them? This will depend on their experience and cultural reference points. Cawl in Merseyside might be best described as something akin to Scouse, or Blind Scouse for vegetarians, in Lancashire perhaps Hot Pot might be a closer comparison. Knowing what the audience would understand helps us to translate what cawl is.

In summary, to answer the question ‘what is cawl in English?’ we need to ask at least the following four questions?

Firstly, in what context are we referring to cawl? Context helps to give meaning to words of phrases.

Secondly, what does the speaker understand by cawl? We need to know what is being said in order to convey this to another.

Thirdly, what does the translator know by the word cawl? Indeed, translator may be the incorrect title and interpreter more fitting to describe the one who moves meaning between languages.

Finally, we need to consider how the audience would best understand cawl and how we can describe it in our audience’s words?

Without answering each of these questions, we risk obfuscation or loss of meaning. But does this matter? Majority language speakers, in particular English language speakers, may not give much thought to how their words are represented in another’s tongue. Being a majority language speaker by its very nature means that more people will understand you than those who do not and issues of representation might not feel relevant. Minority language speakers, such as Welsh speakers, on the other hand are more reliant on the filter of translation in order to be heard and therefore the lens through which they are viewed is important.

Finally, we need to consider what motivates our desire to translate, as opposed to accepting cawl for what it is- a Welsh word for something Welsh. It is tempting to think that everything, including a 600-year-old Welsh stew, can be put in an English format and that the vagaries and subtleties of minority languages can be flattened and posted through the letter box of the majority language. This is not the case. Cawl is cawl and if we want to refer to it, then perhaps we should call it by its name and in so doing help to challenge the audience’s world view. Perhaps by knowing that we cannot say precisely what cawl is in English, we begin to understand and respect that Welsh is not just English in another language.

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