How Welsh is Roald Dahl?

Roald Dahl born in CardiffIf disaster strikes on the other side of the globe, the Welsh media always succeed in finding some Welsh person whose second cousin or neighbour’s son was present at the event. This habit of claiming everything for Wales can be amusing and ridiculous, but in the case of Roald Dahl, we (I count myself as Welsh now, after living here for seven years) can definitely claim at least a small part of him for ourselves. He was born here, baptised in the Norwegian church (his parents were Norwegian) and spent his early childhood living in Llandaff (which is now a suburb of Cardiff, although it pretends not to be).   

I must admit that when I first discovered the event ‘A Welsh Dahl?’ (part of the Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival) I wondered what it could mean. I knew he grew up in Wales, but how was this relevant to his work? Why would his ‘Welshness’ be important enough to discuss or write about? I couldn’t recollect anything apart from his autobiographical work Boy which contained any obvious link to Wales.

The event was organised in partnership with Cardiff University, in advance of the publication of Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected, a collection of essays edited by Damian Walford Davies which analyse Dahl’s relationship with Wales and explore his work in this context. It took the form of a discussion among some of those who have contributed towards the book.

Book: Roald Dahl- Wales of the UnexpectedDamian Walford Davies began by showing us the cover of the book, which will be published in August. It was illustrated by Quentin Blake, and shows Dahl ‘doubled’ – as a boy and as a man. He explained that a ‘Welsh Dahl’ is a “misnomer” and that, in fact, the book is not about “pigeonholing him as Welsh”. Dahl does not write about Wales directly, instead a kind of “absence” of Wales comes “through the gaps”.

The discussion was intriguing, embracing the ideas of defamiliarisation, the “uncanny Dahl” and a Roald Dahl who was “not quite Welsh”. In fact, the academics seemed to conclude that he “doesn’t quite fit anywhere” with his Norwegian, Welsh, English and American connections.

I was particularly interested to hear Ann Alston speak about Dahl’s use of language in The BFG (my favourite Roald Dahl book). She explained that the BFG continuously “plays with language” and, whilst Sophie loves the way he speaks, she is also determined to teach him how to speak “properly”. I had not heard the term ‘Wenglish’ until I moved to Wales but it refers to a particular Welsh habit of mixing Welsh and English words together. The BFG also speaks a kind of mixed language, creating new words such as “whizzpopping”, and is proud of his unique way of speaking. I look forward to reading Alston’s essay when the book comes out in August.

Peter Finch is a Cardiff based writer, known in particular for his poetry and books about Cardiff. He explained that Cardiff would have been “far less Welsh” back in Roald Dahl’s day than it is now. He described the process of writing his contribution for the book as looking at “absences” and “things that are no longer there”. He read out a portion of his essay – a kind of creative, poetic exploration of Dahl in Cardiff. I look forward to reading more of it.

Welsh Roald Dahl event

Peter Finch reading a creative exploration of discovering Roald Dahl in Cardiff

It was interesting to hear Siwan Rosser talk about the Welsh translations of Dahl’s work. She held up both the English and Welsh language copies of Matilda, pointing out that on the face of it they seem identical, but then described the strange process of reading the Welsh translation with the “cultural expectation that he will feel the same”. One example of how they are not identical is the BFG’s comment: “There’s something fishy about Wales” which cannot be translated into Welsh because the Welsh word for Wales is Cymru. So instead the translators have used the Welsh word for “cucumbery” which, of course, is not quite the same and “loses the satirical touch”, explained Rosser. She said that the experience of reading Dahl in Welsh could be quite “jarring”.

Peter Finch finished off the event by reading the close of his essay, which describes how his search for Dahl in Cardiff ended up with him gazing “at empty air”, and how he is “here but hidden”. The book, it seems, takes a somewhat ironic look at the Welsh obsession with claiming people and events for Wales. There is substance to the idea of a ‘Welsh Dahl’, and plenty to say about it, but it is only, as Damian Walford Davies stated, through “the gaps”, “the absence” and “the shadows” of Dahl’s work.

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