A series of Poetry Translation workshops are being held by the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, University College Cork over the coming weeks, hosted by writer in residence, Matthew Sweeney. I attended the first of these workshops on the 08th March 2013. Several texts by Spanish, German and French poets were provided, the aim being that participants would translate a text in the language they are least familiar with. The workshop presents translation as a skill that is accessible to those who are not specialists in certain languages.
Sweeney opened with a brief introduction to the workshop, the poems and poets selected. We watched video clips of the poets reading in their native languages. Despite not being able to follow the languages, all participants agreed that witnessing the sounds, intonations and performances of the poets gave an interesting context and to their work.
Then, armed with dictionaries and blank paper, we were encouraged to approach our chosen poems in any way we felt comfortable with. Among the participants were fluent speakers of the three languages represented to help with any tricky linguistic issues that the dictionaries didn’t cover. This was a very engaging and informal session; partipants were free to ask questions, talk about the poems and give/receive advice. It reminded me in some ways of the Shut Up and Write method – this workshop was more Translate and Collaborate though!
When it came to choosing a poem I was in a bit of a fix as I am familiar with all three languages. I decided that the best strategy was to choose the language that felt the least connection to and began translating a sonnet-style poem by a French poet, Valérie Rouzeau. My process was as follows:
- I first read through the poem, taking note of the few words and phrases I understood, as well as punctuation and structure.
- I then directly translated the poem line by line with the help of a dictionary.
- Following this, I had a rough, legible text. I began to pick over awkward phrasing and poor grammar, attempting to work the translation into something that makes sense.
I encountered some sections that were difficult to translate due to socio-cultural differences, and simply because some words/phrases do not translate into other languages. For example, one line of the poem refers to the CE1 exams in France: tests taken by 7-8 year olds. Assuming that non-French readers would not know about this, I chose to translate “CI1” as “exams” and possibly provide a footnote explaining the French exam system. I am almost certain that such issues are encountered by fluent as well as non-fluent translators and it would be interesting to discuss this further during the next workshop. This issue encourages my opinion that activities like translation are most rewarding when collaborative.
Thus, after the first of three poetry translation workshops I have drawn a number of brief observations:
- Translations of texts can be produced without extensive knowledge of the original language of the text in question.
- Knowledge of sociocultural issues related to the country and language of origin of the text may be necessary.
- Engaging with texts the company of other translators is rewarding and provides a supportive social space to work.
- Keeping in mind that the rules of one language do not always apply to the rules of another can take the sting out of working with difficult material.
- In the case of poetry, watching a poet read/perform in their mother tongue can provide useful insights into the atmosphere and emotional trajectory of their work.
- Never be afraid to ask for help.