Although at least one new translation of the collection of medieval Welsh narratives known as "The Mabinogion" has been announced (and parts are available on-line), Patrick K. Ford's "The Mabinogi, and Other Medieval Welsh Tales" is the most recent version to be published in book form, and, despite being a variant selection of material, is in some ways the most satisfactory. Patrick Ford gives a clear and vigorous rendering, with an excellent introduction and notes. He does not try to make the medieval texts sound up-to-date, but he doesn't strive for quaintness, either (the stories are quite strange enough!). Typically, he restores the correct "Mabinogi," instead of the enshrined scribal error in the nineteenth-century title of 'The Mabinogion." (According to Eric P. Hamp's "Mabinogi and Archaism," in "Celtica" Volume 23 , even the manuscript form "mabinogi" is problematic for other reasons!)
I have reviewed the nineteenth-century translation by Lady Charlotte Guest, whose failure to recognize a scribal slip created the collective title of "Mabinogion" for a diverse group of tales, and the standard modern translation by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, which, following a little-known predecessor from 1929, created the standard modern "canon" of these stories by dropping one of Charlotte Guest's selections, and evaluated these older translations there. The Jones and Jones list was followed in Jeffrey Gantz's translation for the Penguin Classics, which appeared about a year before Ford's translation of "The Mabinogi, and Other Medieval Welsh Tales," and I have discussed it briefly in comparison with the Jones and Jones version.
Although the Jones and Jones translation has been the "Revised Standard Version" of "The Mabinogion" for half a century, during which it underwent several revisions to keep the scholarship up to date, Ford's version has several advantages, not all of which are immediately evident; I would suggest that anyone with a serious interest in Celtic literature, or even a strong curiosity, read, and if possible own, both.
Patrick Ford, then at UCLA, and later at Harvard, dropped five stories, three of which were influenced by, if not copied from, French sources, and restored the missing tale, which he had re-edited from the manuscripts, and published separately. Ford's translation, therefore, contains stories in three of the four usual categories. (Note that preferred spellings of proper names vary, and I have not tried to be fully consistent.)
First, "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi," from which the collective title was derived, consisting of "Pwyll, Prince of Dyved," Branwen Daughter of Llyr," "Manawydan Son of Llyr," and "Math Son of Mathonwy." These begin with a story about the conception and birth of Pwyll's son, Pryderi, whose death is one of the early events in the "Fourth Branch," and concern a variety of heroes, and what are clearly rationalized gods. (Evangeline Walton turned each of the "Four Branches" into a novel; and other writers have done versions of one or another of them.)
Second, there are two "native tales," "The Dream of Maxen Wledig" and "The Story of Lludd and Lleuelys," about Roman ("historical") and pre-Roman ("mythical") Britain as imagined by the medieval Welsh. The 'Lludd" text, as we have it, actually belongs to the "Chronicle" tradition launched by Geoffrey of Monmouth's supposed translation from an "ancient British book." (Which, if any part of it ever had any existence, was NOT the "Mabinogion.") The name of Lludd seems to be Welsh variant of a Celtic divine name, "Nuada" in Irish, "Nodens" in old British inscriptions, and "Nudd" in other Welsh sources; the variation seems to be due to assimilation to his epithet, Llaw Eraint, "Silver Hand," which is explained in the Irish tale of how the physician of the Gods made new hand for Nuada Argatlam." (H.P. Lovecraft picked up "Nodens" for the Cthulhu Mythos, a use which is unrelated; but Tolkien, whose hero Beren also lost a hand, actually wrote an early article on the Nodens inscriptions, and the apparent offerings of metal hands.) He may be behind King Lud, the supposed eponym of London. As Ford points out, Lleuellys, usually given as Llevellys, and also modernized as Llefellys, clearly should be read as Lleu-ellys, and recognized as a version of the god Lugh: the name Lleu is also used for a character in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi.
"Maxen," in which a Roman Emperor seeks as his wife a princess seen in a dream, seems to reflect an even more garbled version of a story known to Geoffrey, compounding several real people, including Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. She was, in a medieval confusion compounding an honest mistake with local patriotism, believed to be British, and identified with "Elen of the Hosts." Ford drops this, as it seems to contain a rather high proportion of medieval hagiography and romance, and a very low proportion of archaic Welsh tradition.
Third are two Arthurian stories in native Welsh mode. "Culhwch and Olwen," is an elaborate quest, dragging in, at least by name, most of the gods and heroes traceable in Welsh material, and some of their Irish cousins into the bargain, mostly as part of Arthur's court.
"The Dream of Rhonabwy" is a visionary encounter with Arthur and his warriors (and anything else I could say would probably be controversial); a fascinating text, which, after a very grittily realistic opening, almost boasts of its authentically dreamlike obscurity. It breaks off in a manner most modern readers will find unsatisfactory -- and its arbitrary nature may have been part of the point. Ford does not include it; a pity, but it is probably the least readable part of the collection.
Ford also does not translate the fourth group, the three "Romances," "Owain" (otherwise known as "The Lady of the Fountain"), "Peredur son of Evrawc," and "Gereint the Son of Erbin," the first and last of which are clearly versions of Chretien de Troyes' Old French Arthurian Romances, "Yvain" and "Erec," while the second is related in a more complex manner to his unfinished and problematic "Perceval le Gallois." These seem to illustrate Celtic materials going out into wider European society, and then flowing back into Wales to enrich (and confuse) the native heroic and mythic tradition with ideas of chivalry.
The story missing from the three other modern translations was published by Charlotte Guest as "The Tale of Taliesin," but it is also found in some manuscripts as two separate tales. Although attested rather late, there are Irish parallels, and its tradition would seem to belong very much with the "native tales" like the "Four Branches of the Mabinogi" and "Culhwch." There seems to have been a real Taliesin, an early medieval poet, to whom much-later poems were also attributed, but this story-complex has more to do with the myths about the nature of poetry. (It is also behind Thomas Love Peacock's comic novel, "The Misfortunes of Elphin," and quite a bit of modern fantasy literature.)
The version of "Taliesin," based, as noted earlier, on the text Ford had re-edited from manuscripts, is restored to its two-story version, as "The Tale of Gwion Bach" and "The Tale of Taliesin," and includes reliable versions of the poems attributed to the variously-reborn hero. Again, there was a real Taliesin, a dark-age Bard, according to Welsh tradition; but these poems, like the stories, are pretty much independent of anything he may have actually composed. But they *may* reflect some very archaic ideas about the magical nature of poetry, which were old when the real Taliesin was alive.
The absence of the tale(s) from other twentieth-century translations seems to be due to the fact that Charlotte Guest's text for the story (with poems) had passed through the hands of the notorious Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams, 1747-1826). Iolo was a Welsh and local patriot, and a pioneering scholar who may have known more about medieval Welsh than anyone in his lifetime. Unhappily, he didn't hesitate to *invent* evidence to support his theories (and promote his own district in Wales), and Charlotte Guest was only one of the nineteenth-century writers he had led astray. Since the other copies of the Taliesin story were all obviously late, there had been little incentive to plunge into that thicket.
Unfortunately, the Guest version of Taliesin had been worked over by Robert Graves for his brilliant, and absurd, "The White Goddess," and a reliable version for non-Celticists was more than overdue. Ford's text edition was of value for another reason; there are close parallels between the stories of Gwion and the boyhood of the Irish hero Fionn (Finn McCool), investigation of which certainly needed a proper edition of the Welsh version to work from, even if they were considered examples of late borrowings instead of a common heritage.
As an added bonus for readers of his "The Mabinogi," Ford included as an appendix a translation of the notoriously difficult "Cad Goddeu," or "Battle of the Trees," also found in Guest's notes. It too had been given a splendid, and absurd, interpretation in terms of the Irish Ogham script by Robert Graves, who demonstrated his profound lack of knowledge of Welsh, and equally deep understanding of Irish. (Graves actually "improved" and re-ordered the translation he was using, without reference to the original....) Ford doesn't claim to understand its "real meaning," if any, only what it actually says, and it is very nice to have it. (By the way, "The Battle of the Trees" seems rather likely to have been in Tolkien's mind, along with Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, when he was writing about the Siege of Orthanc.)