“Translation changes language and literature”: Manchester Poetry Library celebrates World Poetry Day with translator Peter Constantine and award-winning poet Eleni Kefala

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Featured image and gallery: Makenna Ali

Manchester Poetry Library celebrated World Poetry Day with a special event to encourage language learning and linguistic diversity with an esteemed translator of nine languages Peter Constantine and award-winning Modern Greek poet Eleni Kefala.

World Poetry Day is celebrated on 21 March and was declared by UNESCO “to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and increase the opportunity for endangered languages to be heard”. 

Eleni Kefala is a senior lecturer at the University of St. Andrews whose research examines modernity across periods, disciplines, and cultures. Her poetry collection Time Stitches received the State Prize for Poetry in Cyprus. Its English translation by Peter Constantine was selected as a New York Times “Globetrotting” pick and was awarded the 2022 Elizabeth Constantinides Prize.

Kefala has been a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, Early Career Fellow of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in the UK, and Dumbarton Oaks Fellow at Harvard.

The art of translation is an intricate process that is ever-evolving. Many pieces of classical literature were not originally modern English. Translation of literature enables untold stories to be read by a wider audience. There is a crucial bridge between understanding cultures not of our own, a sentiment that World Poetry Day aims to highlight. 

The event was hosted by Dr Brian Sneeden poet, translator, and lecturer at Manchester Met while poet, Eleni was in conversation with her translator, Peter.

Dr Sneeden highlighted the importance of translation in literature. He posed the question: “If we removed all translated works from the [Manchester Poetry] library, would we still have a library?”

He said: “Translation does not just bring important works into a language; it changes language and literature.”

Peter and Eleni discussed her anthology of poetry Time Stitches. The collection of poems was originally written in Eleni’s mother tongue, Greek, and was translated by Peter into English and German. They reveal that the translation process was not collaborative. Peter said: “I’ve always been frightened of authors because they could get in the way.”

Eleni explained that her poems are connected and create a bigger story. She said: “The book reads like a novel with intertwining poems”. It follows an unnamed man who the author reveals is her grandfather.

When Eleni was younger, she asked her grandfather to write out his memoirs. Her grandfather left Cyrus in 1939 and moved to London where he lived during World War II. The book follows his life. Eleni describes him as a ‘home-grown Odysseus’.

Peter said: “Although Eleni did not want to mention this was a personal story, I felt it important to share that which I then did an introduction in the translated versions.” He explained as a translator he needs to know every inner workings of the story because it can change the meaning of the novel.

As an anonymous man in the novel, Eleni’s grandfather represents the silence of history. Eleni comes from a small island in Cyprus. Describing herself, she said: “I am in exile linguistically and I’m between identities.”

As she exists within the margin of cultures, Eleni explained she wants to pay more attention to what is minor. She said: “There is a conscious effort to talk about the silences and the Indigenous perspective”.  Hence, within the book different subplots follow the narrative of the Spanish colonisers and Columbus arriving in the Americas. This narrative is told using Haikus.

The director of the Manchester Poetry Library, Becky Swain said: “It’s been lovely to host the translation series at the Manchester Poetry Library particularly because so many students have had a chance to translate poems literally and creativity.”

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Makenna Ali

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