Here’s another nail in the coffin of Robert Frost’s truism that poetry is what gets lost in translation.
The fabulous Poetry Translation Centre (PTC) is celebrating its first decade with My Voice, an anthology of poems translated from 23 languages (from Arabic to Zapotec) into English. You can hear them live in London, today at the City of London Festival and on Friday at the Southbank Centre’s Poetry International Festival. The multilingual book is published in collaboration with that bastion of international poetry publishing, Bloodaxe Books.
If you’re not in London, or you want to try before you buy, you can read and listen to many of the poems on the PTC website. The original poem, literal translation and finished translation are all published, along with sound recordings, so you can see and hear the process. It is very collaborative – the PTC matches poets with poet translators into English and holds workshops to create translations together. If you know a poet from Asia, Africa, or Latin America who isn’t well enough known in English, get in touch with them.
Here are two of my favourites from a vast selection of global poetry, one by a Moroccan man writing in French and translated by a Venetian and the other by an Afghani woman writing in Dari, translated by a Pole and an Iranian.
I had no idea that Satan – or Iblis to his friends – was a midget,
a gossip and a thief to boot.
I was at my desk in the middle of writing when he came and sat by my side, silently. I’m no giant, but I was a full head taller. I was easily able look him over, noting each and every one of his distinctive features. In profile, his nose appeared to be long. His one eye had no lashes. A seven-pointed star was tattooed at the corner of his lips.
Having thus examined and acknowledged him, I returned calmly to work. Well, well, a poem about Iblis, I said to myself. The minute I had this thought my companion reacted. I watched a very slender hand emerge from his pocket and place itself on my sheet of paper. For every word I wrote he added another with, I must say, a real sense of entitlement. But if I didn’t like one of his ideas and I deleted it, he immediately responded in kind to one of mine.
We wrote and re-wrote for a long time until the moment when the phone began to ring. I picked it up and waited for someone to speak. But there was no one there. I slammed the phone down.
Iblis had taken advantage of this interlude to vanish, taking our manuscript along with him.
Literal translation: Andre Naffis-Sahely; Final version: Poetry Translation Workshop
I’m left again with no one standing behind me,
ground pulled from under my feet.
Even the sun’s shoulders are beyond my reach.
My navel chord was tied
to the apron strings of custom,
my hair first cut over a basin of edicts.
In my ear, a prayer was whispered:
‘May the earth behind and beneath you
be forever empty’.
However, just a little higher,
there’ll always be a land
purer than any land Satan could wish on me.
With the sun’s hand on my shoulder,
I tear my feet away, a thousand and one times,
from the things I leave behind me.
Literal translation: Zuzanna Olszewska; Final version: Mimi Khalvati.