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Why you should try poetry translation

In my earlier blog ‘Conversations with mountains’ I talked about a poetry translation I’m working on. Now I want to focus on why translating is a great exercise for any poet, and suggest how you might go about doing this.
It’s healthy for writers to read work that isn’t like their own, to take in ideas from a range of influences, and to encounter new ways of seeing the world. You can do this with every book you pick up, but the effect is multiplied when you read work produced in different times, different cultures and different languages. One of the reasons I read literature in translation is to extend my sense of the possible – to get a sense of what English-language writing might be missing.
About a century ago Ezra Pound translated a selection of ancient Chinese poems into English. Western readers were amazed by the precision of the imagery that Pound identified in the work of poets like Du Fu and Wang Wei, and via Pound these writers came to have a significant influence on English-language poetry. I recently took part in a series of workshops where I learned the wonders of these poets first-hand. The workshops, called Chinese Makars (‘makar’ is the Scots word for ‘bard’) brought together Chinese speakers and poets who write in Scots dialect, to produce Scots versions of Chinese poems.
We worked in pairs, going through poems line-by-line, aided by existing English translations. Chinese readers were able to clarify the meanings of words, demonstrate what the originals sound like, and explain the cultural context behind items of dress, references to wars, and so on. In return Scots-speakers were challenged to consider, for example, if there were any local trees which might carry the same significance as bamboo does in Chinese poetry. This was a wonderful way to learn about each other’s cultures. And the close attention required to translate the moods and meanings of the poems was like lifting the bonnet of a car to better understand how it works. Inspired by the workshops I wrote new poems which were put together a bit like Du Fu’s, including this one, in which a sequence of simply-stated images unfold and interact with one another.

Some people insist that you need to be fluent in a language to translate it, or that poetry simply can’t be translated. But, like Fiona Sampson in The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing, I disagree. Sampson argues that translation is ‘just like any other form of creative writing’, involving ‘skill, techniques and awareness’; it’s a ‘delicate, brilliant balancing act’ of form and content. Translation’s never an exact science – languages aren’t perfectly equivalent of each other, so there’s no such thing as complete accuracy in a translation. Many contemporary poets, including Don Paterson in Orpheus and Alice Oswald in Memorial, have written loose translations (or ‘versions’), and they’re not always expert linguists.
Willis Barnstone’s ‘An ABC of Translating Poetry‘ expands on some of the issues involved in translation. I’d encourage you to give poetry translation a go. Obviously it’s easiest if you’re one of the lucky people familiar with more than one language. But for the monolingual poet (like me) all is not lost. When I’m writing a version of a poem I often have three things in front of me: the original, a dictionary/glossary, and at least one other English translation. With these I can get a sense of how the original is structured, how its argument develops, and what it means. Then I put it into my own words.
If you know someone who reads another language, ask them to explain the nuances of a short poem to you, and see if you can roughly render those in English. Does it feel different from the poems you normally write? If don’t know where to begin, have a look at some of these Du Fu poems and try to put them into language that feels natural to you. You might want to ‘translate’ the context, too, so that your version takes place in the setting and culture in which you’re writing.
Image credit: Desk © Garry MacKenzie

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Posted by author: Garry MacKenzie
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