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….

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