Conversations with mountains | The Open College of the Arts
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Conversations with mountains

I’m Garry, a new Open College of the Arts (OCA) creative writing tutor, and this is a brief introduction to a poem I’m working on.
I’m translating In Praise of Ben Dorain, which is a long, eighteenth-century poem, about a Scottish mountain and its herd of red deer. It was written in Scottish Gaelic by a poet called Duncan Bàn Macintyre. He composed the poem orally, and as a result it’s intensely rhythmical, has a strict rhyme scheme and makes heavy use of alliteration. In terms of its sound, you could say it’s an early ancestor of rap.
Previous translations of Macintyre’s poem tend to emulate the original’s metre and rhyme. But this comes at the expense of what I really love about it: the vitality with which he writes about the natural world. If you have any preconceptions about nature poems involving mountains, you probably expect a lone male, standing proudly on a summit, surveying the world below and holding forth in elevated language. But Macintyre doesn’t mention the mountaintop once, and hardly brings himself into the narrative at all. My translation is an attempt to emphasise the immediacy and biological specificity of Macintyre’s descriptions, producing what might today be called an ‘eco-poem’ (here’s an article if you want to find out more about ecopoetry).
Rhyme and metre are notoriously hard to translate, and I think most translations of In Praise of Ben Dorain are held back by their attempts to create an English version that sounds like the original. When you go down this route, you risk mangling English by inverting standard word order and choosing jarring vocabulary, all in the name of making it rhyme. So I decided to focus on the poem’s ecological content, and create a different form for it in English. My version is formally open, with line breaks and other pauses determined by the breath and motion of the poem (Charles Olson’s essay ‘Projective Verse‘ influenced my thinking). When Macintyre admires a mountain stream, the words are arranged like water flowing down the page. When young deer are described playing, single-word lines are spaced out from left- to right-hand margins, as if they too are leaping around. I hope to produce a poem that is full of light and life, that is itself an ecosystem made up of many different sights, sounds, creatures, memories and ideas.
My poem isn’t simply a translation, however. Macintyre wrote in a form resembling the pibroch, bagpipe music in which a theme is repeated with increasingly elaborate embellishments. Taking my cue from this structure, each page of my poem is divided vertically down the middle, with translation on the left and poetic embellishments down the right, in response to the original. My response incorporates contemporary scientific research into deer behaviour, ideas relating to ecological interconnectedness and deep time, and a range of voices reflecting modern experiences of Highland landscapes. It’s a conversation between the 250-year-old poem and the modern world. Hence my version is titled Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain.
I’ll be writing another blog in which I suggest why you might want to give poetry translation a go, even if you’re not fluent in two languages. But for now I want to finish with this thought. I’m interested in how the form of a poem, as well as its content, can create the sense of movement, light, dynamism and biodiversity. What do you think – is this possible? How would you go about writing a poem that does this?

Image credit: Ben Dorain © Garry MacKenzie

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Posted by author: Garry MacKenzie
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3 thoughts on “Conversations with mountains

  • What an exciting project! I have been asking myself similar questions lately, about how to bring not just a theme into my work but a living, breathing sense of something that expands beyond the boundaries of subject matter and into the structure of the work itself. If I come up with anything I’ll let you know. Also, if you come up with anything, it would be lovely to hear your thoughts, either in response or in your next article.

  • Fascinating ideas, Garry. Good to bring the idea of translation and form together. It would be good to make room for translation somewhere in the OCA poetry course materials, not to mention more emphasis on the sound and shape of poems.

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