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Poetry and Translation: North West Poetry and Poetics Network Gathers at University of Salford

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By Freddie Bruhin-Price & Rory Spencer

There is no doubt that the Manchester poetry scene is both vibrant and eclectic. With poets such as Carol Ann Duffy, Paul Farley and Deryn Rees-Jones all hailing from the area, it is easy to see that the North West is something of a poetic epicentre.

Last week, the North West Poetry and Poetics Network gathered at the University of Salford (UoS) for a discussion of Poetry and Translation. The event brought together a variety of poets and academics from the area, including lecturers from UoS, the University of Manchester (UoM) and  Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Met) and was hosted by Manchester Met Professor of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Anthony Rowland.

Firstly Anthony thanked guests for attending before introducing his fellow speaker, Judy, who gave the audience an introduction to the topic of Poetry and Translation. She said:

“We are only touching the surface. Poetry and translation is a huge subject. This is going to be a really rich day. It is great, in particular, for students to look into poetry translation. The role and purpose of translation changes drastically when we are not looking at it through the lens of a language.”

Next came the first of three guest speakers. George Szirtes is a Hungarian-born British poet who often translates poetry from Hungarian into English and who has published 23 collections and 18 translation books. George explained to the audience how he came to translation:

“I almost fell into translation. I started speaking English exclusively, but I then went back to my homeland of Hungary and began speaking Hungarian again… There is a cliche that ‘poetry is what is lost in translation’ implying that poetry is locked into a language… So why do we do it? Well to start with this cliché is false. In fact, many poetic forms such as the ballad and the Sonnet which we use in English are in fact imported from other European countries. There are many links between languages in this respect.”

He added, “I have always believed there is no point translating a poem if it is not a poem when it is translated… For this reason, in a poem I try and find the “happening” and to translate the happening, the event, not simply the words of the poem.”

George then answered questions from the audience, one person asking, for example, if it made a difference if he has met the poet he is translating? George answered:

“Yes! It’s a bloody nuisance! One poet was convinced he knew English better than his translators… He had to let go. The dead are so much more reliable!”

The second speaker was James Byrne, a British poet and translator. James has published the first ever collection of Burmese Poetry, Bones Will Crow, in collaboration with Burmese poet Ko Ko Thett. His own poetry has been translated into Arabic, Burmese and French. James told guests:

“We worked on this book for six years, on and off. I see translation as an alternative to war. Instead of our usual methods of cultural looting, we have translations as a means of understanding. Burma is a country which was emerging from a 50 year military dictatorship when we compiled this book. Writers have been restricted and heavily censored, and innocents killed. Some words were even banned, such as ‘sunset’ and ‘mother’, for use in poetry”

James also read from a poem by Zea Lin, in which the poet was forced to create an alter ego of a dead poet in order for his words to bypass censorship. “I am going to write my own history,” ended the poem. Questions for James really opened up his discussion. He said:

“Censorship can create a new poetics, as it has to avoid the censor. Poetry becomes very different because of the censor. This leads on to the question of self-censorship, and whether or not we, in supposedly free democracies, censor ourselves without even realizing.”

When James’ discussion had drawn to a close, the audience welcomed the final speaker, Professor Jean Boase-Beier of the University of East Anglia. She gave a presentation entitled ‘Reading and Translating Holocaust Poetry’. She said:

“When I think of translating Holocaust Poetry, people often ask ‘Why Would We? Who is it for? Is it different from translating mere poetry? Or does the translation also become a statement on the Holocaust?’ People often think Holocaust poetry is poetry that was written in camps, in ghettos. It isn’t. It was written afterwards by people who lived through it and lived to see the aftermath.”

She added, “I say poetry is a communication, so the translation must communicate with its readers. It is, most importantly, someone else’s take on the poem. The [poetry] translator’s practice is a creative one.”

Jean then went on to discuss whether it is appropriate to write poetry in the wake of such a terrible atrocity, saying:

“It is not, because a poetic state of mind is different from a normal state of mind. Like Bertolt Brecht would say, in a theatre, we know we are not in someone’s drawing room, for if we were, we would not be as comfortable observing them there; we know we are in the theatre. As such, we know when we are in a poem, that different things are possible than in a normal state of mind.”

“The important things in a translation of German poetry are not the images, but the words, and how they connect. As there are many shared etymological roots between German and English, this can be achieved, with a little work. Translation of poetry is about how the images tie in with the language.”

For more information about the North West Poetry and Poetics Network, contact Professor Anthony Rowland at A.Rowland@mmu.acuk

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