In 1942, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto preached a sermon discussing contemporary global events. A common theme, you might imagine. Remarkably, the sermon’s themes were suggested by Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 classic, How Green Was My Valley. As the rabbi explained in an interview with a local newspaper:

There are so many homely truths strikingly related in this simple tale of a Welsh mining village […] that it cannot but tempt the preacher to take it as the theme for a message for our own distraught and distracted day.

Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto.
Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto.

Eisendrath was one of the most influential rabbis resident in North America in the twentieth century. As president of the United American Hebrew Congregations for thirty years (from 1943 until his sudden death in 1973), he was a formative influence on American Jewry and a stern critic of the Vietnam War and the presidency of Richard Nixon in particular. Given this it may seem unusual that, of all the works he might have drawn on, he turned to How Green Was My Valley. And yet, it is testament to the singular importance of the novel during the war years – it was enormously popular, in ways that we don’t properly appreciate.

The novel was first published in Britain on 2 October 1939 by Michael Joseph. The publisher took out an advert in the Sunday Times the week before declaring ‘it will be read and loved when nearly all the novels of our time are forgotten’. In its original format the novel was huge – some 651 pages (modern editions are about 450 pages) – something which probably would not have happened a year or so later when paper was in increasingly short supply. ‘If “How Green Was My Valley” is not an instant success’, Joseph declared, ‘I know nothing about books and readers’. He was to be proved right. The Yorkshire Post’s critic thought it ‘a most royal and magnificent novel’ whilst the Daily Herald thought it a ‘book which everybody can read with full delight’. Ralph Straus, the chief critic of the Sunday Times broadly agreed:

On the long side, perhaps, and for all its vivid scenes and truly admirable portraiture liable at moments to baffle the mere Englishman; but an astonishing and intimate and sometimes very dreadful, though sometimes very lovely, panorama, of the authenticity of which there is never a doubt in one’s mind. […] Here, then, is a wholly exceptional piece of work.

Within six months of publication, the book had received 122 reviews: 119 of them favourable and three broadly unfavourable. The American edition was published by MacMillan on 6 February 1940 – it would run to 140,000 copies by August of that year alone – and translation rights sold to Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Italy (more about that in a moment). Its fame was then cemented when John Ford resolved to make a blockbuster movie. It won the academy award for best American film at the 1941 Oscars, and arrived in the UK in April 1942. The Times thought Ford’s approach a little too ‘refined for the complex designs made by Welsh emotionalism and the brutality of the times, and the requiem for craftsmen remains unsung’. In their own way, they hit the nail on the head.

How Green Was My Valley, published in Swedish translation in 1940.
How Green Was My Valley, published in Swedish translation in 1940.

The first translations of the novel began to appear in 1940: in Amsterdam, the novel appeared in Dutch as Hoe groen was mijn dal (lit. How Green Was My Valley) in a translation by Johan de Molenaar; and in Stockholm it appeared in Swedish as Jag minns min gröna dal (lit. I remember my green vale) in a translation by Gösta Olzon. Olzon was a prolific translator of the greats of twentieth-century English-language literature into Swedish. Born in Valbo in 1886, he worked as a journalist for a variety of newspapers in Stockholm and Gothenburg before turning his attention to translation in the mid-1930s. One of his earliest translations was of H.G. Wells’s Kipps, for example, and after the Second World War he would turn his hand to The Great Gatsby (1946) and Pride and Prejudice (1946). Molenaar, by contrast, was chiefly a composer pianist but translated a number of works by continental authors (mostly German-speaking) into Dutch, including Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig.

The following year, translations appeared in Finnish, German, Hungarian, and Danish. The German edition was actually published in Zurich, rather than in Nazi Germany. In fact, the earliest edition published in Germany itself was the 15th edition which appeared in Stuttgart in 1955. The translator was Albert Gysin, although this appears to be his only major intervention into this field. The Danish and Finnish translations are rather more interesting. The Danish edition first appeared in August 1941 in a print run of 6,500 copies. By the end of the month the publisher – P. Haase and Son – ended up having to print a further 3,500 copies, and a further 6,500 in November. In all, then, the book had sold some 16,500 copies in just four months. The translator was Aage Dons, a famous Danish author (he published some 25 novels in his lifetime), whose characters and novels tend towards melodrama. He later developed a considerable interest in psychoanalysis. It is in Finland, however, that we find the most sustained interest in the kind of novels that Llewellyn was writing. The translator in this instance was Helvi Vasara who not only translated HGWMV but much of AJ Cronin’s work into Finnish as well, including the Citadel in 1938.

The Hungarian translation of How Green Was My Valley was undertaken by Tibor Déry. Born in 1894, Déry was active in the Communist Party from 1919 onwards, although he was exiled during the Communist regime of Béla Kun, and lived for much of the 1920s and early 1930s in Austria, France, and Germany, returning to Hungary in 1935. Déry remained with the Communist Party in Hungary until he was expelled in 1953; three years later he took part in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and wrote his famous Niki: The Story of a Dog – a Hungarian equivalent of Solzhenitsyn’s critiques of Stalinist Russia. In addition to his translation of How Green Was My Valley, he translated William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

The next translations to appear were those in French and Spanish, neither of which were published in their native countries but elsewhere: the French edition from Geneva in 1942 and the Spanish edition from Buenos Aires in the same year. Berthe Vulliemin, the translator of the French-language edition, came from Lausanne in the French-speaking Romandie region of Switzerland. A journalist and writer, he would be a leading figure in the campaign for women’s suffrage in Switzerland in 1945. During the Second World War, like many in the more internationalist, peace-loving Romandie, he worked with the Red Cross becoming president of the Swiss section of the association of Red Cross ambulance drivers (a largely female organisation – see Monique Pavillon’s book Les Immobilisées for more on this). As a translator, he brought the work of Mark Twain, Daphné du Maurier, and Richard Llewellyn to French-speaking audiences.

Tibor Déry, communist translator of the Hungarian edition of How Green Was My Valley.
Tibor Déry, communist translator of the Hungarian edition of How Green Was My Valley.

If a certain type of politics and humanitarian action hung around the translation of HGWMV into French, it was the politics of anti-fascism that accompanied the Italian translation which appeared in Milan in 1945. Born in Venice in 1906, Anita Rho was one of a group of intellectuals active in the Italian Resistance movement. In her daily life, however, she was a Germanist (indeed, one of Italy’s most important German scholars) and translated Kafka, Zweig, Thomas Mann, and Robert Musil into Italian, as well as Henrik Ibsen.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, How Green Was My Valley began to appear in translation in a number of smaller languages and for smaller national audiences. In 1946 it was translated into Slovak by Rudolf Kostial, a Lutheran minister (later bishop) who also tackled the translations of George Bernard Shaw’s work, and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. Graduating from Theological College in Bratislava in 1937, his first job was in Detroit, Michigan, before returning to Slovakia. During the Second World War, he was active in the resistance movement and supported the national uprising of 1944. In 1947, a Czech translation of the novel appeared undertaken by Jarmila Urbánková. Having lived in London for a period in the mid-1930s, principally to learn English, Urbánková married the Czech communist Max Galandauer and returned to Czechoslovakia. Galandauer died in Buchenwald in 1943. After the war, Urbánková took up a position working for the Ministry of Information, remaining there after the Communist takeover. By the early 1950s, she was editor in chief of the state’s publisher of children’s books. Alongside Llewellyn, she was another of those involved in translating AJ Cronin’s work. Aptly, perhaps, when a review of Llewellyn’s novel appeared in the Yorkshire Post on 4 October 1939, it was put together with Karel Capek’s The First Rescue Party, which also deals with mining communities.

Those who have followed this far will have noted a number of patterns in these translations: there is undoubtedly a cross-over interest in AJ Cronin and it is quite likely that publishing houses saw the two writers in a similar light. The Citadel and How Green Was My Valley share, after all, a Welsh setting (at least in part in the case of Cronin’s work) and similar sorts of themes. It is notable, also, that they were translated by individuals also working on Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, both of whom looked back at the period before the First World War with a nostalgia, and at their own times with a dose of disillusionment in ways that are quite similar to that of Richard Llewellyn.

Equally interesting are the political leanings of the translators: pacifists, humanitarians, anti-fascists, communists. This presents an interesting question, particularly if we follow Aidan Byrne’s critique of it as Britain’s first ‘fascist’ novel. He writes:

How Green Was My Valley opts for a Welsh fascism with distinctly Nazi overtones as a solution to masculine and cultural decay. Mining is wrecked by the workers, seen as ‘lice’, ‘pigs’, ‘monkeys’ and ‘dogs’, subverted by Marxist agitators: there’s no serious economic analysis. The hero, Huw, relocates masculinity in individual craft labour, chivalry, resistance to cultural and physical decay – fairly standard stuff. But then one day he gets his first erection, and life is very different. Sex with women is dangerous to him: ‘soft’, curvy, rounded women are a trap: young women in the novel are essentially whores (Ceinwen) or symbolic of Welsh cultural ruination, doomed to an early death. It’s not sex that makes Huw a man – it’s the masculine power that comes from puberty. Huw starts having visions, mostly modelled on Nazi art and rallies: men in armour, carrying flaming torches. He learns from these visions that ‘real’ men aren’t miners, don’t join unions. Real men are militaristic leaders, scourges of Jews, bankers, half-breeds, socialists and proletarians. Real men must be higher up and separate, looking down on the rabble from the mountains.

One wonders, therefore, what a committed communist such as Jarmila Urbánková would have made of that kind of imagery as she began the translation of it into Czech? Likewise Anita Rho, whose anti-fascist politics would have made her obviously sensitive to this sort of imagery? There is a problem in following this reading completely: the novel is never translated for fascist audiences – no translations are carried out in Spain, Italy, or Germany, during this period. For all its apparent fascist influences, the novel is not welcomed by its masters. Instead its translations are taken up by the very opposite: by anti-fascists and by communists. What is there in the novel that made it so attractive to them? Is it simply the nostalgia? Or is it something more tangible? This will undoubtedly benefit from further research – collaboratively with those with the linguistic competence – and so I leave these questions here to think about.

What is undoubtedly clear is the popularity of the novel amongst English-speaking audiences. It was an instant bestseller in the UK: albeit on beaten by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in its first month of publication and by Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship a few months later. In Derby, the novel was even marketed in Christmas 1939 as a perfect ‘blackout gift’ for men (women were encouraged to read such classics as The Bride by Margaret Irwin). Nor was the popularity limited to the UK. In May 1940, the Toronto Public Library Service reported that it was amongst the most popular novels it held with demand far outstripping supply. Four years later, the naval library service based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, reported similar interest in the novel. It was one of the most frequently borrowed books alongside Franz Wefel’s The Song of Bernadette (1942, filmed in 1943), Grace MacLennan Grant Campbell’ Thorn Apple Tree (1942) and Howard Spring’s Fame is the Spur (1940, filmed 1947). In fact, the novel was so popular with Canadian service personnel that copies of it were shipped to almost all units in Canada’s army, navy, and air force, all from a warehouse in Toronto. In 1941, likewise, a donation of 1700 books by George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the Red Cross for distribution to prison camps in Italy and Germany, also included a number of copies of the novel.

If we step back from the content of How Green Was My Valley, then, and consider it as a piece of writing that has been translated from English into at least 15 different European languages, from the major to the minor, and by individuals whose politics would seem to be in contrast with the imagery and political implications of the novel itself. There was, I think, a reason why How Green Was My Valley was appropriated in the way that it was – and that reason lies in its congruence with Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann, and, for different reasons, with AJ Cronin. These were writers who looked back to a different time and saw a more comfortable way of living (at least for them!) and wished to return to it. For none of these writers is Llewellyn’s final sentence out of place: ‘how green was my valley, then, and the Valley of them that have gone’. What is absolutely clear is that there is a need to place this novel, perhaps above all others in the Welsh writing in English canon, into its global context. Films do make a different, they do make things popular, but I’m not sure that convinces a communist Czech translator, who has lost her husband to the Nazis in Buchenwald concentration camp, turn to this novel as something to work on. Nor, indeed, does it convince someone who has been battling fascists in northern Italy. Perhaps, in the end, we need to look at the novel again.