How Do You Translate a Poem With Which You Don’t Agree, Politically?

This Monday, the new collection This Room is Waiting: Poems from Iraq and the UK will launch in Edinburgh. The collection features new works produced at the Reel Iraq poetry translation workshops in 2013. The workshops brought together four Iraqi poets, four British poets, and Lauren Pyott working as a bridge:

As Lauren Pyott writes in her introduction to the new bilingual collection:

As each poet spoke little or none of the other’s language, and as they all brought their own style and sensibilities to the verse, we consider these literary outcomes as ‘versions’ rather than pure translations.

“Bridge” translations are hardly new, but they seem to be experiencing a renaissance; they are at the core of how the Poetry Translation Centre works, and the big collection of Palestinian poetry that Freight Books recently brought out —A Bird is Not a Stone – also functions by means of bridge translators.

The editors of both A Bird is Not a Stone and This Room is Waiting stress that these are not translations so much as versions, and indeed the poems sometimes change a great deal when moving from language to language.

Over at the Poetry Translation Centre, they talk about the bridge as a “literal translation,” although of course there’s nothing “literal” about it, and the bridge translator must make decisions as they put together their work.

Pyott said over email that she tends toward “‘deeper’ translations, with loads and loads of footnotes suggesting various contexts, tone, different synonyms (to act as a kind of rudder, steering the recipient poet in the right direction when they come to think of their own new choice of words), or perhaps some significant background information which might not be clear.”

She says she tries not to interpret the poem herself — even though this can be “hugely frustrating” — and even tries to avoid discussing the work with the author, leaving this to the poet-translator who will write the final version.

“It actually works to have a rougher (perhaps more confusing) bridge translation,” Pyott says, “as it encourages more discussion between the poets themselves. I want them to ask questions of each other, of the other poet’s work rather than simply recreating what I myself have conveyed of the original poem.”

The bridging process, Pyott says, can really bring out the politics of translation in a way that they might not appear when just one person is struggling with the work.

The process, she says, has “raised some really interesting questions: How do you write your own version of a poem which you don’t necessarily agree with (politically)?”

It raises other questions as well, such as: “How faithful to the idea of the poem do you have to be, as well as to the style of the original? And so where does the essence of the original poem lie if the content and style have changed?” Pyott adds that “the beauty of it is that different poets respond to this in entirely different ways.”

For the poets involved in This Room is Waiting, translation was an intensive process. It happened not just during the workshops, but also “during chats about how you prefer to eat yoghurt over dinner, over fierce matches of table-tennis at night, or over breathless stories of how you first came to poetry, whilst hiking. For me it really reminded me how alive and engaged translation should be!”

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