A day of translation and exchange

A workshop on poetry translation that didn’t require participants to have a second language. I was intrigued. Run by Sasha Dugdale of MPT Modern Poetry in Translation, it revolved around a close reading, then individual attempts at translation, of an untitled 1915 poem by Marina Tsvetaeva. After an introduction to her life (such a tragic, and incredibly Russian, story), we were given a word-for-word transliteration (e.g. the opening line started as I am glad, that you are ill not with me), and sent off for an hour to see what we could come up with. Obviously we weren’t looking to produce perfect offerings in that time, but it did show how different each writer’s output was, though starting from the same input. Some, myself included, took a fairly literal approach (that first line became I’m so glad / that you’re not sick with longing for me), while others waxed more creative. It was interesting to see how the translators’ poetic voices came through, and how this would be balanced against remaining faithful to the original. As Sasha said, it’s important to be clear about the process – essentially to explain the approach and any changes made, and take care to respect the ethics of translation (I’d never thought of it like that). Having a smattering of Russian, it was a doubly fascinating process as my previous experience related to highly technical scientific texts on entomology which left little room for interpretation. This was very different, not only in terms of vocabulary (not much call for bits of insect anatomy), but in having no ‘right’ answer (how to translate a neologism meaning ‘not-stroll’, hmm).

Tea and translation in the park

Also, not being very familiar with Russian poetry (I have just a few of Tsvetaeva’s works in anthologies such as my old Penguin Book of Russian Verse, Scanning the Century, and 101 Poems Against War), I wasn’t aware how influential she was, with a chanson-style version of this poem being sung in The Irony of Fate, a popular film shown on Russian TV at New Year (just as we get Bond films at Christmas). Nor was this the only broadening of cultural horizons. Also in the workshop was Faisal Javed Khayal, a poet who writes in Urdu, and is involved in Southampton’s Unity Arts project (here he is reciting on radio). After the workshop, we joined him for a meeting of Halqa Sher o Adab (‘Company of Writers’) for an introduction to the ghazal (pronounced ‘guzzle’) form. Essentially, ghazals consist of five or more couplets where the lines of the first couplet rhyme (or share a longer end refrain) with each other and the second line of all the other couplets. The first lines do not rhyme, so the pattern is aa ba ca da ea etc. The couplets can be linked to form a story, or can be unconnected apart from the rhyme-scheme. Obviously I started writing a ghazal on the bus home… I may share it here when it’s done.

The session was also an opportunity to share our experiences of different poetic communities. Faisal explained how, at Urdu- (and other) language events, the audience make hand-waving gestures with ‘wa-wa’ sounds to indicate approval and ask the poet to repeat a favoured line. Apparently this can happen a lot with each audience member requesting a personal repetition while the poem’s still ongoing – very different from the ‘Western’ experience, although we do sometimes get encores and those finger-clicks. Also, there is a much stronger emphasis on the romantic – love poems basically – something seen as sentimental and old-fashioned in contemporary British poetry, at least at publication level. It’s interesting to think why this might be – are we simply too cynical? Too Britishly repressed to be truly honest above love? Whatever the reason, it did make me think – and you know, maybe write…

Proud to wear the badge, and we got to write our names on the wall!

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