Translating poetry

I really enjoyed reading this post by Paul Stephenson about how he approached translating lines from a Jacques Brel song and incorporating them into a new poem ‘The Disposal.’  This is one of four wonderful poems Paul wrote about being in Paris last November during the terrorist attacks, published at The Compass an excellent online magazine.

I find literary translations, particularly poetry translations, fascinating.  It’s not enough, of course, to use a dictionary, or even to speak a language fluently.  A literary translator must also grasp a sense of what the original poet is conveying in tone and sensibility and must also consider other subtle nuances of place, politics, history, and so on.

There are sometimes – often, it seems to me –  translation projects when neither original poet nor poet-translator speak each other’s language.  An actual translator facilitates a literal, word-for-word translation, as well as conversations between poets about the ambition and vision of the poem.  Vicki Feaver wrote interestingly about this here when she translated work by  Kurdish poet Zhawen Shalai, with the assistance of Hoshang Waziri, a playwright and journalist.

For a few years now, I’ve subscribed to MPT magazine (Modern Poetry in Translation).  In the last few years I’ve read poems from Poland, Brazil, Iran,Uruguay and many, many other places. Each issue surprises  me in some way, and it’s exhilarating to be taken into the wider world and to feel the extensive possibilities of poetry and language.

As well as enjoying the magazine, the MPT website itself is a wonderful resource for poems and articles.  There is also the chance for you to try your hand at translation – even if, like me, you have no literary translation experience.  At the moment the poem available for translation is a poem in Catalan by Olga Xirinachs Diaz ‘Preparo el plat d’olives..’ Translation notes are provided, as well as a literal translation of the poem.

So far, there are 35 translated versions of the poem to read!  Poet Mark Russell mentioned his version at his blog and my own version is here.

There will be a new poem up for translation very soon as the next issue of MPT is on its way.  Also, look out for Centres of Cataclysm, a Bloodaxe anthology edited by Sasha Dugdale and David Constantine, celebrating 50 years of MPT magazine.

Bookings are also open for two translation study days in April and May, the first at Cambridge University, the second at Oxford.  Here’s a description from MPT of what to expect:

Open to students and the general public, we’ll be celebrating and showcasing the history of the magazine through a series of workshops and readings. Join us for the opportunity to work with and hear from leading translators, poets and scholars.

You can also lookout for the #TranslationThursday hashtag on Twitter where you might find poems in translation or links to interesting articles.  I think I’ll use it when I tweet this post.



5 thoughts on “Translating poetry”

  1. Thanks so much for this Josephine. Paul’s electric poems are a great starting point and led beautifully into the exercise in the MPT website (which for some reason I did NOT know — this is shameful of me) and where I loved the translation exercise thing. How marvellous. That bread! Those olives! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. I’ve translated a fair number of poems from and into French. Literary translation is far from being a piece of cake: even though I understand the poetry and know the right words somehow the poetry gets lost en route. I take my hat off to those who can do it with aplomb!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Just read Paul’s poetry…wonderful thank you for blogging. First met him at Arvon a couple of years ago. A really genuine inspirational guy. He travelled from Paris just after the attacks to read at Troubadour. Well done Paul.

    Liked by 1 person

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