Monday, 23 July 2012

Summer reading: the Poetry Translation Centre

Now that summer’s here, at last.  In my garden: pink roses against pure blue sky.

The Poetry Translation Centre hosted one of the best readings at Poetry Parnassus – poets reading with their translators.  Everyone was particularly good aloud, but it’s the ‘reading with’, the collaborative nature of the event, that really made it special.  (Can collaborative relationships on stage raise the quality of a reading?)

I did know about the Centre but had no idea of its scope.  I’m writing about it partly because I think I’m not alone in this and want to share my discovery. The website is a great resource – texts of original poems with both the literal and final translations; audio too, in some cases; essays; and the pamphlets, which are parallel texts.  (The Arts Council is a supporter.)  The poets translated are all known in their own cultures.  The literal translations are done by specialists, and the final versions by well-known English language poets. Coverage is of Asia, Africa and Latin America.  I think many of the poets would be unknown here without the Centre’s work.  

Here are some lines from ‘Must Escape’, by Farzaneh Khojandi from Tajikistan, translated by Jo Shapcott and Persian scholar Narguess Farzad:

At last the word for scream bursts into my notebook.
Damn this sick society
where shadows boast about their own size…

No one understands the absence of meaning
in the guises of the chameleon…

Why do I always fall into step,
and say ‘Yay!’ to a demon showing off
a ring as big as Solomon’s.
Why do I make conversation with nothing
and stitch my words into the hems of the mediocre
like margin prayers or footnotes. 

Khojandi wasn’t there, alas.  When she did visit a few years ago, she went on a train for the first time in her life.  She’s famous in the Persian-speaking world.  Disconcertingly, her poems are in Cyrillic script – a legacy of Tajikistan’s membership of the USSR (the country suffered civil war for several years after the Soviet Union broke up).  Farzad says in an introduction that Khojandi is steeped in Russian literature as well as the long and rich Persian tradition.  The lyricism and sometimes surreal humour of her poems make Shapcott a good match as translator. 

You can hear them both reading this poem, here; and read the original, the translation, and Farzad’s literal translation here; along with several of Khojandi's other poems. 

At Poetry Parnassus, Khojandi’s Persian originals were read by Afghan poet Reza Mohammadi, who is so famous in his homeland that he once got kidnapped by a local warlord.  When he read his own poems he paused before declaiming each one, as if charging up.  The poems mingle themes of abandonment, separation and delight in life.  He can sustain a poem-length metaphor with ease.  This is the beginning of ‘Drawing’, whose original, we’re told, is in a classical metre.  Translated by Nick Laird and Hamid Kabir. 

There was a voice and it coursed
from a pair of parched lips,
drawing me out of my body.

The voice was despotic, uncurbed
as a horse dragging my soul
across rocks and up scree.

I don’t know why the voice,
the maker, drew me as unroofed,
as a vagrant, a fool..

How frustrating, not being able even to make sounds or a rhythm out of the Persian (Arabic script with variations); and I can’t find any audio online.  It’s always possible to guess something about the original, though.  This one is in couplets, and lines 1,2,4,6,8 etc appear to have the same ending.  So I think it’s a ghazal, which I didn’t guess from the translation.  I’ve just looked up the literal translation on the website which isn’t obviously a ghazal; there are several repetitions running through the poem and the radif could be any of them. 

Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq al-Raddi read with the Centre’s founder Sarah Maguire – I was thrilled to find there’s a pamphlet of his work, having heard him earlier that week.   

Ribka Sibhatu from Eritrea writes, and read, in both Tigrinya and Italian.  Her poems channel anger, humour, frustration, sadness and a translateable irony.  There isn’t a pamphlet by her but she’s on the website.  This is from ‘My Abebà’, a lament for an imprisoned girl:

So that the world may know:
while they were digging her grave,
cloaked in mystery and death,
she wove an aghelghel basket
and sent it empty of hmbascià bread.

On an indelible night,
they took her from me in handcuffs!

Sibhatu was imprisoned for a year while still a teenager.  Maybe this tragedy is part of her story.  Now she lives in Rome.  Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan...

There are around 20 pamphlets: attractive, cleanly produced.  They’d make great presents.  Once I’ve posted this I’m going to lie on a rug in the garden, reading across continents.

Here’s a last link I can't resist putting in, to a poem by Iranian Azita Ghahreman, which I  found while browsing the website.  Translated by Maura Dooley and Elhum Shakerifar.  It’s a love/hate/love poem called ‘Happy Valentine’ and it starts like this! 

They say it was like the collision of seven mountains, six oceans and
         two hemispheres. Well, they lied.
Who told you I love you? I lament to the lilies, Actually, I hate you!
I will fill your rivers with limes, flood your sheets with ink….

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.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Poetry Parnassus – Zeyar Lynn

Poetry Parnassus could have gone on all month, and there would still be new poets to discover.  As it was, discoveries were random and personal.  One of mine was Burmese poet Zeyar Lynn.  A poem about owning (or not) one’s own history takes on a different dimension when written by a poet who lives in such repressive circumstances (but see below) and, as he told us, among various definitions of what history means.  I can’t quote from that poem without the latest issue of The Wolf.

Here is the beginning of ‘Next Slide’, translated by ko ko thett:

Life is back to normal

Next slide

In the West it's a different story

Next slide

Shall we also discuss the issue of the privileged

Next slide

Impossible, I have said it many times

Next slide

Maria Seow, Channel News Asia, Beijing

Next slide

It’s impossible to guess what might come next.. see The Wolf online to find out. 

I couldn’t find Zeyar Lynn in the visiting poets’ biographies until I thought of looking under Myanmar, the version of the country’s name adopted by the military dictatorship after they killed thousands of demonstrators in 1988.  See here for the politics of naming Burma.  

There’s an absorbing piece by Zeyar Lynn in Jacket about the recent history of Burmese poetry, which made me think (a) all such histories are basically the same, not that it will feel like that to people who have lived through them; and (b) it is a mistake to let one’s view of Burma be coloured entirely by the political situation, however shocking this has been for the last 20 years and more, however many artists have been imprisoned.  The Jacket piece does refer to politics but only occasionally, and as backdrop – as if to say, we will not let it absorb us and our literary history. 

James Byrne has edited a Burmese anthology, Bones that Crow, published by Arc, as well as publishing Zeyar Lynn and others in The Wolf.  There’s an interview with Byrne and co-editor and translator ko ko thett here – the latter says sometimes the impossibility of reproducing sounds means a poem written in Burmese just doesn’t work in English.  Byrne says that Zeyar Lynn is ‘more interested in “poetry of the brain” than of the heart’.  Might that make translation easier, at least with this poet? 

Zeyar Lynn has translated poets into Burmese who haven’t been known there before, including John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein and Wisława Szymborska, and has pioneered LANGUAGE poetry and Flarf in Burma, contributing to a move away from traditional Burmese poetry.  One of the impacts has been to bring women poets in to a previously male world.  

Here (at the end of the link) is an extract from ‘The Ways of the Beards’, translated by ko ko thett:

In the history of chin, beard is the defeated truth
The world burned down at Marilyn’s beard
The mediocrities look elegant in media beards
Honoured with flexible beard awards
The beard of the capital decorated with electric lamps
O...the beard of dreams beyond form
The beard of the desert whirling at the end of my vision
A small red mole (still running) on the beard of social realism
We have emerged from the raincoat of the famous Bluebeard
Beard sobbing over my shoulder

Zeyar Lynn’s translation choices make sense when one reads his poems.  There’s a surrealism about them that could take one to Eastern Europe, and a wacky humour that goes with all three poets mentioned above.  Burma, New York, Poland – poets from the most and the least repressive places (but see above) – this was the sort of connection that Poetry Parnassus enabled us to make.