Modern Poetry in Translation Workshop

MPT : FIFTY YEARS OF MODERN POETRY IN TRANSLATIONimage1

Fifty years ago in 1965, the poets Ted Hughes and Danny Weissbort started ‘a passionate affair with the outside world’ through their new newspaper featuring English translations of poems by great international poets such as Yehuda Amichai, Miroslav Holub and Czesławn Miłosz. They aimed to collect poems directed at the current problems in the world, as the world of 1965 was a world of ‘enforced diaspora’. Much has changed over the 50 years, the style of the magazine as well as the themes addressed but the main objective of MPT has not changed; to share beautiful poetry from every language in the world.

On Saturday MPT held a translation study day, to celebrate the launch of their new website and offer a series of workshops to poets, students and professors alike. In the morning, there was a selection of workshops to choose from on translation, editing and close reading. We first chose the ‘Editing MPT No.1’ workshop with MPT’s current editor, Sasha Dugdale, where we discussed the decisions an editor must make when presenting poetry, and meet the needs of everyone in a diverse audience. One of the most interesting topics discussed was the difference between reading poetry online compared to in paper form, as MPT will be launching a new website to make previous publications more accessible for academics, students, or simple poetry lovers. Many felt that reading poetry in the physical form was a much more rewarding experience, and that online it was all too easy to get distracted and switch between the poem and searching for the context and therefore the rhythm of reading often gets interrupted. We also went out into the gardens of Pembroke College and read some of Yehuda Amichai’s poems (in the sunshine!) from the first 1965 edition of MPT and decided what ‘tags’ we would assign them if we wanted someone to find the poem when searching online.

After that we went on to our second workshop, which was a close reading of Brecht’s poem ‘Von Allen Werken’ with the previous co-editor of MPT, David Constantine. The session was focused on what we could learn from the shape of the poem – the length of lines, use of enjambement or caesura, any repeated patterns in words or stresses, and how these features were useful to keep in mind when doing translation. What was surprising was that we learnt some translators do not speak the original language of the poem, and rely on linguists for a translation. Therefore these elements of poem that we analysed in David’s workshop are key to retaining the rhythm and sense of it.

The afternoon focused on the new edition of MPT. It focuses on the theme of refugees, a pressing issue in the current world news. The magazine focuses especially on the poetry of the Assyrian community driven into camps by ISIS in Northern Iraq. The Assyrian community live in Iraq, Turkey and Syria and their culture has a very long history of literature. Language provides a ‘homeland to the people’ as they have been reduced to a minority throughout the many targeted genocides their community has suffered. Writing poetry in Modern Aramaic gives poets a chance to express an act of defiance. A chance to tell the world that their language is alive and therefore their culture is still thriving; especially as Modern Aramaic is classified as an endangered language.
Before the 50th edition of MPT was released, there was no translation of Assyrian poetry; partly because it is such a niche and partly because the linguists involved in Modern Aramaic are descriptive linguists. Descriptive linguists focus on rescuing the dialect’s syntax and grammar instead of supporting the language and encouraging the spread. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a huge rich literary library not getting translated and so unknown to most of the world which makes MPT’s edition even more special!
Nineb Lamassu, part of the Assyrian diaspora in England, has many friends in refugee camps throughout Iraq which he contacted and asked to write poetry. Many poets had become depressed, after they were forced to flee their homes with only the clothes on their back. Once arriving at the camps, they had no choice but to live in makeshift tents, tents which flooded in the winter leaving the Assyrian refugees with no running water, no heating, no hygiene facilities, no education facilities; an affront to human rights. Whilst Nineb only focuses on four poets in detail, it was clear that their stories were in no way unique to them. The stories their poetry was telling was universal to all diaspora, refugee and traveller; poems of leaving home, leaving people you love, searching for an identity and making a statement that you are alive and fighting. These weren’t poems of sadness and grief, yes grief was present of course that was a given when writing poetry about the crisis in Iraq, but the emphasis was on love and celebrating the towns that ISIS had defaced.

Abdullah Nahti was one poet that struck the whole audience as being incredibly moving. Even in the translation, the rich confrontational vocabulary was an honest eulogy to the past. After listening to the translated version, we were honoured by being given the oppurtunity to hear a recording of the original poem, read out by the poet in Modern Aramaic. Whilst the English version was undoubtedly beautiful, there was a song like quality that could not be heard in the translation; one which made the poem exotic and different. The message was clear and powerful: We are alive and have witnessed the atrocities of ISIS, you cannot mute us – we have a voice and we shall tell the world the truth. This was a theme that was carried through in many of the poems of Beyda Hadayah and Aulu Abdelgadir, including looking at themes of identity, whether they were still the same person even if they weren’t a member of the Assyrian community anymore. The most heart-wrenching poem was ‘A Mothers Heart’ by Balzam Abdelgadir. The poem delicately spoke about his hometown, and his love for his hometown even though it has been flattened. The most striking thing was how full of love the poem was; it did not focus on the terrible things that he saw, but rather how joyful he was for the things that he still had : his family.

Dasha and Anastasia

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