Friday 13 July 2012

Listening to poetry in other languages

Foreign language poets reading in the UK tend to assume their audience won’t want to hear more than a poem or two in the original.  Does this happen everywhere, or is it linked to the monoglot reputation of Anglophones? 

Ideal reading of a poem in another language:

1. Poem in original language. 
2. Translation. 
3. Poem in its own language a second time. 

First the sounds, with no meaning attached. OK, not none: there’s always context – the reading itself, who’s presenting it and where/why, the poet and how he/she presents self, body language, clothes, etc…  But the minimum possible.  Pure listening is good – hearing how someone works the sounds of another language. So is trying to understand what sort of poem it might be. There are usually a few clues, or rather guesses – an emotion, long / short lines, free / formal verse, repetition, alliteration, a trajectory, a familiar word that’s jumped through language barriers this way or that. 

Then the translation, not a mirror but maybe a key, or a riff. The poem isn’t there but if it’s a good translation, another poem is there instead. It may not be what (if anything) is expected, but it’s hard to describe that anyway.  Any expectation from the original poem is more a feeling, similar to what happens when someone asks ‘did you read that x poem, in magazine y?’ and one did, but can’t remember anything about it beyond a trail the poem left behind.

Then the poem again. Second listening, with the difference that brings, and with the meaning (or at least some meaning) understood. If the language is already half-familiar, then some of the poem itself may be understood. Either way, the listener has got a lot closer to the poem, the poem to the listener.

At Poetry Parnassus there was a Balkan reading, where all the poets read a little in their own Slav and non-Slav languages. I’d have liked more, more chance to hear how poetry from the same region sounds in such different tongues.  It was a great reading anyway, though.  A lot of the work was surreal, and I revelled in not having the faintest idea what would come next – from poet to poet, poem to poem, line to line.  The surreality went well with the view, from high up in the Festival Hall: Big Ben in the distance half obscured by one of the mauve plastic cow-legs of the Udderbelly, twitching in the wind. 

One of the poets was Doina Ioanid from Romania, who writes prose poems.  You can hear her read some of them on the PoetryInternational website. She read this, translated by Florin Bican.  From Chants for Taming the Hedgehog Sow.

Oh the glamour of being the visceral type, the unaffordable luxury of it all! Viscera aren't meant for display in a showcase. That's where ordure builds up – the meanness, the hatred, the fear. That's where Grandmother's meat grinder is, the proverbial box…

Luljeta Lleshanaku read one poem in Albanian.  She can be heard reading in Albanian here, and here (start 32 minutes in), but mostly in English.  I love listening to Albanian – its difference, its mixture of liquid and crunchy sounds.  (I went to Albania several times in the 1990s, and resolved to learn it; I haven’t yet.)  Trying to find more Lleshanaku in Albanian, I found instead a long, excellent interview with her in 3:AM magazine, and one possible answer to why she reads mostly in English.

I think Albanian language has the dolcezza of Latin… but enamelled with the toughness of Balkan temperament. It is a language rich with natural sounds of onomatopoeic words… the Albanian language, in my opinion, created its own code of communicating with nature, perhaps as the only way to survive as a verbal language (only) for centuries… But, sometimes I feel that my poems sound better in English, for example, than in my language. Why? The long words… especially the verbs, give some solemnity to the poem, appropriate for a philosophical or rhetorical poem. But, for an imagistic poem like mine, the short words and the simple grammatical forms of English are better. The length of words in English corresponds with the speed of visuality, of observation and thoughts.

This is the end of her poem, ‘The Cinema’, translated by Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi.  From Haywire, published by Bloodaxe.

When the lights came on
and we saw our faces
and shook out our frozen limbs
we were an allegory for desire and disappointment
pale faces in our backyards
on which mother used to dry the laundry –
fences that were once full of colour and life.

Lleshanaku isn’t on Poetry International; there’s only one Albanian poet, and no audio.  This website is a mixture of feast and famine, especially for audio.  But it’s a great place to listen to poetry in a foreign language – in  Georgian, Hindi, Japanese, Lithuanian...  Each audio page shows the poem in the original language (and script) and, next to it, the translation.  For poems in Arabic, the English translation forms a reflection, a visual poem-as-mirror. Both languages start from the middle of the page and move in opposite directions.  For non-Arabic reading eyes, the Arabic looks like a sound-graph of the English.  I wonder if that works the other way too.

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