Gold flange twisted spiral torc, found at Glamorgan; © The Trustees of the British Museum, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license. Click the image to go to the entry in the British Museum collections database.
The first English translations of the medieval Welsh prose tales we now call the Four Branches of the Mabinogi were done by William Owen Pughe (1759 – 1835), an important Welsh scholar and lexicographer who published some of his work starting in 1795. While he had completed transcribing and translating all of the texts designated by that title, he died before publishing the full collection. There is a full account of his life and contributions to the study of Welsh literature on this page, which is part of the larger Mabinogi Study site by Shan Morgain.
From 1833 to 1849, Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1895), only daughter of the 9th Earl of Lindsey and wife of the Welsh industrialist Sir Josian John Guest, published her translation of the medieval Welsh prose tales she called The Mabinogion. There are two collections of these tales, one in the White Book of Rhydderch (National Library of Wales, Peniarth MS 4), and the other in the Red Book of Hergest (Oxford, Jesus College, MS 111). The White Book is the older manuscript, dating from around 1325, but the only complete text is found in the Red Book, of around 1400. The Red Book is a massive compilation of poetry and prose which includes the text more properly referred to as “The Mabinogi”; that is, the four prose tales known as the Four Branches. The error in the name probably came about as a result of the misunderstanding of the formulae which open and close the tales of Pwyll, Branwen, Math, and Manawydan. Here, for example, is the end of Pwyll in the White Book (NLW Peniarth MS 4, fol. 10r):
Learn more about Charlotte Guest at the BBC’s Great Lives.
The text, from the last two words in the top line, reads “Ac yuelly/ y teruyna y geing hon yma o/ mabynnogyon.” The line may be translated “With that, this branch [geing, the mutated form of keinc, or branch] ends.”
Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales. Click the image to go to a complete digitization of the manuscript.
Below is another version of the ending/ beginning formula, here from the Red Book of Hergest (Jesus College Oxford, MS 111, fol. 179v; image appears by permission of the Principal and Fellows of Jesus College, Oxford; click the image to go to a full digitization of the manuscript):
… Ac uelly y teruyna y geing honn yma or mabynnogy ~ ~
The form here is “mabynnogy” (mabinogi). You can also see that the introduction to the next branch (in red), also uses “mabinogi.” The White Book also uses “mabinogi” for the final formula in another branch.
It seems likely, then, that “mabinogion” is a scribal error, but such was the popularity of Lady Charlotte’s translation (see opposite in a 1910 printing) that the name has stuck, as has the practice of presenting an eclectic collection of medieval Welsh prose under this single title.
Mab is the Welsh word for son or boy; it has been suggested that a mabinogi might mean something like “a tale of youth.” Nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Welsh scholars saw in the Four Branches the remnants of a mythic hero-tale, arguing that these prose tales, which were felt to have taken something like their manuscript form in the 11th century, preserved much older material – fragments of a complete cycle for the Welsh hero Pryderi, who is born to Pwyll and Rhiannon in the first Branch, and who dies at the hands of Gwydion in the fourth Branch. They pointed to remnants of myth in the names and details of the stories. The name Rhiannon has been traced to Rigantona, a name meaning “great queen goddess.” Pryderi, Rhiannon’s son, may be at root the British god Maponos. The horse-related material in the stories of Rhiannon and Pryderi may suggest the tendency in both Irish and Welsh tales to connect sovereignty with horses and with women. Both Pryderi and the Irish hero Cu Chulain are associated with horses. The importance of the sea is also reflected in this complex of myth – one example is the way that Dylan, son of Aranrhod in the fourth branch, heads to the sea as soon as he is born, and of course Manawydan son of Llyr is the Irish Manannan mac Lir, god of the sea. But the Four Branches as they survive to us are not obviously mythic, nor do they present their heroes as gods.
As you will also see on the pages devoted to Medieval Welsh Poetry, translation of medieval Welsh allows for a wide range of possibility. In the case of the Four Branches, the habits of translators tend to colour just how ancient these “venerable relics of ancient lore,” to quote Charlotte Guest, sound. Below you will see the opening of the first branch, Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet, as it appears in the White Book of Rhydderch (NLW Peniarth MS 4, fol. 1r), in a modern edition of the medieval Welsh, and in four translations. So that you can compare the edited Welsh with an original manuscript version, I have divided the lines of text to match those in the manuscript.
Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet
a oed yn arglwyd ar seith
cantref Dyuet. A threig
ylgweith yd oed yn Arberth,
prif lys idaw, a dyout yn y
uryt ac yn y uedwl uynet
y hela. Sef kyueir o’y gyuoeth
a uynnei y hela, Glynn Cuch.
Ac ef a gychwynnwys y nos
honno o Arbert, ac a doeth hyt
ym Penn Llwyn Diarwaya; ac
yno y bu y nos honno. A thr
annoeth, yn ieuengtit y dyd,
kyodi a oruc a dyuot y Llyn
Cuch I ellwyng e gwn dan y coet.
A chanu y gorn a dechreu dy
gyuor yr hela …
Pwyll Prince of Dyved, was lord of the seven Cantrevs of Dyved; and once upon a time he was at Narberth his chief palace, and he was minded to go and hunt, and the part of his dominions in which it pleased him to hunt was Glyn Cuch. So he set forth from Narberth that night, and went as far as Llwyn Diarwyd. And that night he tarried there, and early on the morrow he rose and came to Glyn Cuch, when he let loose the dogs in the wood and sounded the horn, and began the chase.
Pwyll prince of Dyfed was lord over the seven cantrefs of Dyfed; and once upon a time he was at Arberth, a chief court of his, and it came into his head and heart to go a-hunting. The part of his domain which it pleased him to hunt was Glyn Cuch. And he set out that night from Arberth, and came as far as Pen Llwyn Diarwya, and there he was that night. And in the morrow in the young of the day he arose and came to Glyn Cuch to loose his dogs into the wood. And he sounded his horn and began to muster the hunt.
Pwyll Lord of Dyved ruled over the seven cantrefs of that land. One day, when he was in his chief court at Arberth, his thoughts and desires turned to hunting. Glynn Cuch was the part of his realm he wanted to hunt, so he set out that evening from Arberth and went as far as Penn Llwyn on Bwya, where he spent the night. At dawn the next day he rose and made for Glynn Cuch, in order to turn his hounds loose in the forest; he blew his horn and began to muster the hunt…
Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, was lord over the seven cantrefs of Dyfed. Once upon a time he was at Arberth, one of his chief courts, and it came into his head and his heart to go hunting. The part of his realm he wanted to hunt was Glyn Cuch. He set out that night from Arberth, and came as far as Pen Llwyn Diarwya, and stayed there that night. And early the next day he got up, and came to Glyn Cuch to unleash his dogs in the forest. And he blew his horn, and began to muster the hunt…
Lady Charlotte Guest, from the translation done 1838-1849
Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, from the translation first done in 1948 for the Golden Cockerel edition
Jeffrey Gantz, from the 1976 Penguin translation
Sioned Davies, from the 2007 Oxford World’s Classics translation
The challenges facing the translators include the verbal system of Middle Welsh. The “a’s” scattered throughout the Welsh original are verbal complements — so, a oed is our “was,” a dyuot is our “went,” and so on. The sentence that starts “Sef kyueir o’y gyuoeth a uynnei y hela, Glynn Cuch” illustrates another kind of challenge posed by Welsh grammar. Literally, it means “This is the direction of his realm in which he wanted to hunt, Glynn Cuch.” None of the three translators above uses that syntax, but medieval Welsh is full of this kind of construction.
The stylistic expectations of medieval Welsh can also prove difficult. An example is the statement that it came into Pwyll’s uryt and uedwl to go hunting. Both of these words can in fact mean the same thing — “mind.” Welsh prose and verse are often elaborately patterned, and decorous repetition is one aspect of that patterning; see the pages on Medieval Welsh Poetry and The Welsh Triads for more about these practices. Here, the translators have to look for two English words that, like the two Welsh words used, mean almost the same thing.
Finally, the three translations show differing degrees of conscious archaism.
The American poet Sidney Lanier (1842-1881) produced a version of The Mabinogion aimed at youth in 1881. He called it The Boy’s Mabinogion (he had already published The Boy’s Froissart and The Boy’s King Arthur). You can find the whole book, with its illustrations, online at Archive.org.