Friday, 26 June 2015

Translation Day in Oxford

The first session was on translation from Arabic to English.
On reflection I discovered new elements in the whole process of translation and writing poetry:


(with apologies to the lecturer, I hadn't gone to google and didn't realise he is already published, and what is more, is already in an anthology on my bookcase)

At what point is the translator moving towards writing his own poem?
At what point do you need a poet to write a translation of a poem?
At what point does a translator realise that writing a translation of a poem is in fact writing from his own poetic voice?
At what point does the academic exercise fall away and the writing of poetry itself start?
At what point does the translator realise that he is a poet, and start to take part in the poetry world?



Why do I say I think it's ok for this particular translator to use a slightly old-fashioned word, one I wouldn't and couldn't use, because it says something about the translator's own history of learning English? That is moving away from accurate translation to something more personal.

Why is discussing translations in a group so easy? We get to all sorts of layers of meanings quickly, but in a different way to Mod Po or the Sunday poetry group I used to run. Those groups looked at published poems by well-known names. 


Discussion could go further, to the wishes and choices of the translator as a writer, who is doing a double revelation, of their own life and knowledge plus the original writer's.
The space for revelation of the translator's poetic voice is incredibly narrow, because of the intense restrictions placed upon it by the requirements of the original poem, but that is enough.
I can only hear that voice if I know their own work already. 


Here's something else: if I can't read a poet's original work properly yet, comparing several translators' own work in English to the translations they have all made for that one poet helps. The elements which are constant in the translations are the ones I am searching for.  

At what point is it ok for me to want a translation to show knowledge of contemporary English poetry? Where does a translation of a contemporary Arabic poem stand in respect to contemporary English poems?
How much can I demand of a translation? I want to remove the capital letters, can the translation world cope? If it is at the suggestion of a stranger, but not from the translator's own heart, can it be right? No, it has to be what the translator can stand behind. But every single bit of a poem is up for grabs. What does that actually mean?

There's more:

The Back Room Poets group I go to sometimes includes poets sharing translations they have made, without the originals I now realise. We workshop them in exactly the same way as with poems written in English. We treat them as poems written by the writer and have the same expectations and reactions to them, though the subject matter is not theirs.


Do translators know of the process of workshopping freshly written poetry with others? It is a formal, yet intimate process. We all undergo the scrutiny and appreciation as we go round the table in turn over 1.5 hours. We are open about our problems with a poem's words here and there, we disagree with each other, there are so many ways to read and respond to a poem, particularly when the poet is right there with us. Or rather we are all there with each other.

We also get to all sorts of meanings in workshop evenings, but that is utterly different, the poets are there, we mention the tiny details we are tripping over and need to be altered. The poets offer alterations and we the readers say what works better for us. There is a need to communicate and be received by the listeners. The poem may then be ready for submission for publication, or for a public reading. The poet works out what they are able to alter and what one word they just have to keep.


Translation as a group is a much more invasive process. We query everything, or rather by the end of the session we were getting towards changing everything in the bridge version. I did wonder, who gets the credit for the end result? We gave new words and new word orders. We had to hand in all our notes on the handouts, that was a surprise. I wrote far more notes once I knew they would be read and used in some way :)


Within the poetry world there is a strict convention that shared unpublished poems are taken away by all participants, never to be shared outside the group, but allowed home with each of us, printed on a sheet of printer paper.

We hear each poem read by the poet, but in a translation exercise we don't hear the original poet. They are so very absent. It is as if they are dead, unless someone in the room has met them or knows them. Mm, that is a big problem, how can anyone get over that?


Last point..I am a chopper and love to get rid of excess words (hard to tell from the length of this post!) and that can't be done with a translation, so I am made to stick with the original, accept it totally. Then wrap it in my language, put my whole mind onto it. This is an entirely different process, mind to mind. I now need a translation group to be part of.

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