LITERARY REPORTAGE: National Poetry Day Translation Summit: The Future of Poetry Translation, Pathways and Practices

In response to the demands of a few Londoners, Oxonians, Romanians, and Floridians that asked me to slam the details of the conference, below is a condensation.

On the 4th of October 2018, which is National Poetry Day in the United Kingdom, I attended the National Poetry Day Translation Summit at Senate House in London.

The morning began with collaborative poetry translation workshops. Participants were divided into two groups. I was in poet Sean O’Brien’s group, working on a poem of Elma van Haren’s, who was also present at our table, along with Dutch-English language advisor Francis Jones. The other group was led by poet W.N. Herbert with Hélène Gelèns present both in person and in poem. The language advisor for this group was Willem Groenewegen.

As I attended Fiona Sampson’s multilingual poetry translation workshop at the International Literary Translation Summer School at UEA Norwich this past July (an article on this experience will come out on Asymptote Journal on the 21st of November), I was familiar with aspects of collaborative translation, but I continued to encounter new anxieties while simultaneously making an effort to build my confidence as a translator in the course of this workshop. I gained insight into the importance of repeated revision: as opposed to translating solo, I was much more critical with my own potential suggestions, even at the stage of draft one, aware that this would be, in a sense, in competition with the work of other members. Knowing that the stakes were high improved my concentration.

I must say that I was proud of myself for overcoming my shyness and holding up my point of view, regardless of mixed feedback. In fact, I concluded that digression in collaboration can be a positive element beyond determining me to remain firm.

This was also my first time working with a literal translation. My lack of knowledge of Dutch led me to produce what I considered to be much more of an interpretation than a translation of van Haren’s “Aan de overkant”, and in fact technical lacunae were ultimately filled with metaphors that I had intuitively deduced from the poem’s context. In this sense, I found the poet’s presence absolutely crucial – and she told me she liked my version!

The summit officially started after lunch with an introductory “Innovators” panel discussion composed of:

Seeing Jen again after the UEA Summer School reminded me of an observation she made then about translation being a fitting domain for those who struggle with shyness, and her consequent encouragement: she suggested that we attempt to break out of this hermetic tendency by communicating with each other and among institutions. I was amazed by how many opportunities English PEN has for translators. I will also try experimenting with the Polish Spotlight of the Stephen Spender Trust, as I was inspired by the workshop and intrigued by the promise of resources meant to aid translators through the process. I will also certainly be joining the International Book Club of the Translation Outreach Hub at Oxford. Importantly, Jenny Stubbs introduced us to the PoetTrio Project, a collaboration between two poets (one from the source language and one from the target language) and a language advisor: more details are available here.

All in all, I must say that I appreciated the lack of a bombastic attitude: I felt a constructive tone dictated the conversation, not a competitive one.

The following panel was entitled “Translation after Brexit”, in which representatives from cultural institutes assured us that translation will continue to flourish with their support regardless of political changes. These were:

– Aušrinė Žilinskienė, Lithuanian Cultural Institute

– Petra Freimund, Austrian Cultural Forum

– Gabriela Mocan, Romanian Cultural Institute  

– Fiona Sampson, PoetTrio Project

– Elaine Feinstein, Poet and Translator

These presentations were practical, less honed on the theoretical aspects of translation and more honed on its practical facets. Having worked with the RCI myself, I did know that grants were an active possibility, but I didn’t know how encompassing they were, and the same can be said for the other two institutes represented. It seems to be the most convenient pathway towards getting a translation to completion. It is also worth noting that cultural institutes can sponser poetry events, which I, for one, did not know.

I add that Elaine seems not to be officially affiliated with anyone but Marina Tsvetaeva, but that her perspective on how poetry in translation has progressed in the last few decades made for a thought-provoking context.

The final panel was entitled “From Page to Stage”, with a foundation focused on the performative aspect of poetry serving as the centrifugal point for quite lengthy conversations. Speakers were:

The remarkably intensive nature of this final discussion made it the culminating point of the day. I was particularly interested in learning that the MPIT website has been revamped and, enticingly for fellow critics, will likely include more book reviews in the future. I was generally pleasantly surprised by how many resources are available through the Poetry Translation Centre and, overall, how many projects have sprouted up as literary translation has become increasingly innovative. There are more and more possibilities to get involved with both performative and research projects. Remaining in the poetry network seems to be the best way to keep dialogue alive.

The evening closed with readings by:

– South Korean poet Jeongrye Choi

– Romanian-Canadian poet Diana Manole 

– and the Poets from the PoetTrio project; Fiona Sampson, Sean O’Brien, W.N. Herbert, Hélène Gelèns, Elma van Haren, and Willem Groenewegen reading the work of Menno Wigman.

As someone who would like to think of herself as inhaling poetry and exhaling translations, I’m genuinely enthusiastic about the boom of popularity in both literary realms that we are living in. I would love to hear your thoughts on translation, poetry, and translation of poetry!

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Translation: Lucian Blaga, ‘The Earth’

Lucian Blaga – Pamantul

Pe spate ne-am întins în iarbă: tu şi eu.

Văzduh topit ca ceara-n arşiţa de soare

curgea de-a lungul peste mirişti ca un râu.

Tăcere apăsătoare stăpânea pământul

şi-o întrebare mi-a căzut în suflet până-n fund.

 

N-avea să-mi spună

nimic pământul? Tot pământu-acesta

neindurător de larg şi-ucigător de mut,

nimic?

 

Ca să-l aud mai bine mi-am lipit

de glii urechea – indoielnic şi supus –

şi pe sub glii ţi-am auzit

a inimei bătaie zgomotoasă.

 

Pământul răspundea.

 

Lucian Blaga – The Earth

On our backs we laid on the grass: you and I.

Melted ether like wax in the scorch of sun

Dripped across stubble like a river.

Pressing silence mastered the earth

and a question fell to the bottom of my soul.

 

Had the earth

nothing to tell me? This entire earth

ruthlessly large and murderously mute,

nothing?

 

To hear it better I pasted

my ear to the land – doubtful and submissive –

and from under the land I heard your

noisy heart beating.

 

The earth was responding.

Translation: George Bacovia, ‘In Happiness’

Original: George Bacovia – In Fericire

Sunt clipe cand toate le am…

Tacute, duioase psihoze –

Frumoase povesti

ca visuri de roze…

Momente cand toate le am.

 

Iata, sunt clipe cand

toate le am…

Viata se duce-n sir de cuvinte –

Un cantec de mult…

inainte…

Momente cand toate le am…

 

George Bacovia – In Happiness

There are moments when I have it all…

Quiet, tender psychoses

Beautiful stories

like dreams of roses…

Moments when I have it all.

 

You see, there are moments when

I have it all…

Life with words goes on in its stead

A song from long ago…

Ahead…

Moments when I have it all…

 

28.02.2018

When it snows, it’s an event. How could it be anything else, when silence settles on rooftops in glimmering powder? Even your steps grow solemn, tiny geisha steps, and you and the stray puppies draw gasps at every slip backwards on the slush, like rocking horses.

“It rains all the time in London, doesn’t it?”, small talk when I return home. It would be no use to tell them – the ones back home – that it’s beautiful after it rains, that the puddles on the Strand are afternoon mirrors, that the sky itself seems to emanate steam and that the gargoyles seem close to touching it, the sky, as they drip drops from their balcony perches.

When it snows in London, I think I’m in a Bucharest of an alternate universe. Surely black and white. Surely antebellum, in an alternate universe. I don’t know why, I just know that there is no language in which the word for ‘snow’ isn’t beautiful.

REVIEW: ANA BLANDIANA, The Sun of Hereafter and Ebb of the Senses

Poet Ana Blandiana, since the 1989 Revolution, has represented an elegant ideology in an era when Romanian political debates have been so fraught and so heated. Through her work with her husband, Romulus Rusan, in the creation of the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance, she has become quite a figure of grace, but it is worth noting that she has been an encompassing poet with a distinct voice since her youth. In this discussion specifically, we situate The Sun of Hereafter (2000) and Ebb of the Senses (2004) within the contemporary political current that they encompass through their overarching preoccupations. This collection of two poetry books, translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea, appeared in the autumn of 2017.

Nearly all of the poems compiled share a simplicity of form, as well as a causational, implicit attention to linguistic harmony. This is emphasized by a repetition of certain words, such as ‘light’, ‘seed’, ‘sea’, and ‘lord’. Language is quite plain, favoring substance over opulence – though many have noted that English is something of a utilitarian, even stark language, as opposed to Romanian, which possesses a natural, even inescapable embellishment. With her finesse in simplicity, Blandiana is decidedly post-modern, but it may also be the merit of the translators that there is never a word in surplus. Derrick and Patea are to be applauded for their successful adhesion to rhyme schemes and musicality, although there is a tendency of a passive voice, which may be forgiven as a choice made out of thematic rather than formal motivations.

In her projection of a pervasive political scheme, Blandiana presents a reaction to the socio-historical events occurring around her in the form disturbing revelations. Often, the poems possess a sense of the indefinable, not presenting anything more than a feeling of vague terror, with the obvious intent of conveying that feeling and no more. As a result, there is an occasional strangeness or opacity, a barrier of ambiguity and bitterness and of negation: the deliberate lack of resolution reflects the larger feeling of hopelessness felt by an entire country. In tune with political stagnation, the poems mirror static reflection and static emotion. This in itself speaks to the theme of human agency, or lack thereof. A sense of geography is implicit in Blandiana’s poems: the feelings of outrage and of disappointment are central to the current political scene in Romania; although we are in physically universal locations like the sea, there is a stronger tendency towards a metaphysical space of a perceived paradise or an interiority, absolutely central to the poet’s self-definition. Indeed, an overarching tone is one that yearns for self-expression, an attempt to define aspects of the self as a woman, as a citizen, as a human being in the grips of passing time. The poems are self-directed (Kahlo’s self-portraits come to find) and possess a distinctive voice that the reader feels, at times, can be physically heard. This self-defining sensitivity offers a unique perspective: it is often a struggle for a woman, as a writer, to reconcile herself between the strictly political and the strictly personal. In this sense Blandiana has the courage to attack traditionally male discussion, and appropriates and even owns what is stereotypically masculine self-confidence and power of expression. Thus, geography is much more of a sentiment or a strong feeling for Blandiana, more of a sense of place than a spot on the map.

The poems are worth reading for the occasionally remarkably surprising words and phrases that necessitate a double take, sometimes seeming to have something of a folk song in them (take, for instance, the phrase ‘Cherry trees murmur cherries in reply’ from the poem ‘The Knell of Fruit’): Blandiana is contaminated by symbolism. Images of biblical salvation are repeated, invocations to God and to gods. Such primordial, mystical themes applied as responses to the modern world and its grander schemes give her poetry a singular complexity, as we see in ‘Plea’:

             Help me to weep; help me to pray

            Help me to observe my unicorn’s fate          

            With the plaited star of a horn on my head 

            Stared at in dreams by silent crowds

She often relies on visceral imagery of the sea and its fauna, of the seed to present a contrasting and honest presence of sexuality, of fertility or lack thereof, which contribute to this being a book of both personal and national disappointments – sincere, brave, and weighted.

My only qualm was that endings tended to occasionally falter in comparison to the early-established crescendo in several poems (one such example would be ‘Lanscape’) but perhaps it is this very feeling of dissatisfaction, characteristic to reality, that Blandiana wants the reader to feel. I felt that, importantly, she gives voice to the ‘negative’ feelings that we, in western society, are often encouraged to suppress, and validates them. One poem that exemplifies these merits as a whole of her presented work is ‘Within a Pod’:

            Because I haven’t hulled myself

            Into other similar beings

            All ages are still enclosed in me

            Like seeds asleep in a pod,

            Too happy to try to break free of their coffin.

All things considered, The Sun of Hereafter and Ebb of the Senses are thought provoking… thought provoking and unique.

 

FILM REVIEW: OCTAV

In a sphere that has long preferred to showcase the post-communist, impoverished Romania, Serge Ioan Celibidachi’s OCTAV is like an open window, breathing a different sort of cool air into a loaded atmosphere.

The film follows the story of Octav Petrescu, played by Marcel Iureș, an elderly man that returns to his childhood mansion in Romania with the intention of selling of it. Arriving there after an decades-long absence, Octav is confronted and transformed by the memories and spectres of his childhood, as his soul is thawed and made young once more.

Marcel Iureș is a remarkable countenance. Throughout an empty domain, his is a voice that resounds, as you would expect from an actor who played Richard III. Initially walled-up and enigmatic, although heavily intense as the elderly Octav, Iureș enters a child’s personality in an old man’s body without being absurd or repulsive.

Alessia Tofan, as the little Ana, played remarkably expressively and spontaneously, defying an age where children usually play in a bland manner. Lia Bugnar is memorable as the mother, resisting the urge to overly dramatize a stormy character and remaining understated but at the same time, haunting.

There are many characters in the film and I found some others a bit wooden and lacking in expression. This may be a result of restricted character development.

Attention to detail pervades the cinematography, as the viewer usurps the artist’s eyes through panes of glass and wild summer plains. It is a slight twist of the Italian style that has served as a successful art house alternative to Hollywood in the past few decades: director of photography,  Blasco Giurato who is famous for his collaboration with the director Giuseppe Tornatore, calls this film his ‘testament on 35mm’. The Romanian-British co-production, like these others films, is accompanied by an enchanting melody composed by Vladimir Cosma.

The cinematographer is not the only commonalities with Tornatore’s films: OCTAV, like Malena and Cinema Paradiso, leaves in its wake a reverberating impression. This is in part due to the heavy presence of biographical elements: the name is no coincidence; director Serge Ioan Celibidache is the son of Sergiu Celibidache, the renowned conductor. As such, Iures bears a physical resemblance to the elder Celibidache and plays a character that has spent a life in exile. A scene in which Octav’s father (played with much finesse by Ioan Andrei Ionescu) likens a life to a piece of music quite touchingly seems to be a personal testimony to an extent.

The idea of traveling to an ‘inner time’ brings to mind a film adaptation of Mircea Eliade’s short story, ‘Youth without Youth’. It is troubling, very troubling. Considering the film as I watched it, I was overcome with a notion that has struck me fleetingly looking at old family photos: the past is present within us, present somewhere, and therefore is never really past. This film makes that idea seem almost palpable, and the viewer finds him or herself rather surprisingly hoping for that extra stretch: please let it be real, let it be real again…

In my admitted gushing, I don’t intend to imply that the film is perfect. Some structural perfecting would have made it a true masterpiece, and the artificial manner of speech adopted by some minor characters did occasionally jar the viewing experience. What is remarkable is the lack of vulgarity in an age so sexually oriented.

After seeing it in the cinema, I thought about this film before I went to sleep. I am intrigued, and enchanted, by the idea that people and places may exist indeed forever, by the fact that someone was there to witness and remember them. It awakened something in me. There is no plot, it is definitely a film for connoisseurs, and in essence a beautifully spoken tale, bearing the aura of a confidence or rare intimacy between its creators and the viewers.

DOUBLE Book Review: Sonnets from the Spirits and Petals of Vision by Christopher Villiers

Christopher Villiers strikes one’s interest. In Sonnets from the Spirits, a young theologian undertakes an ambitious project: I am reminded of a contemporary philosopher who noted that nothing coming after the New Testament has achieved its beauty. A tiny gameshow host appears on my retina asking, ‘will this guy live up to the challenge?’.

The answer is yes, tentative only out of piety. The medievalist Orthodox in me rears her head, thinking inevitably of the iconography dispute.

Formally speaking , poems such as ‘My Eve’ wear a mantle of angelic harmony. I feel these poems to be mimetic, functioning in an almost didactic way as an impetus: reconsider the Bible, the book tells me. There is a mixture of high and low sentiment, presumably catering to the contrast between man and God, which most of the time plays out pleasingly. Sometimes I would have liked a departure from that almost naive style clearly usurped from the Old Testament, but the poems have substance and are representative. Particularly powerful is the verse from ‘Abraham and Isaac’: ‘God will give us a lamb,” I speak kind lies/Or desperate hope, faith beyond reason’.

First person narrative makes the experience tense and heavy with the aura of stone millennia on one’s shoulders. ‘Samson’ is such a powerful poem, and has the quality of being more than reflective.

Cavafy’s historical poems come to mind, particularly Cavafy’s ‘Caesarion’ in comparison to ‘Saul’, although Villiers lacks the artistic preoccupation and prefers a sober tone. I am certain that things get complicated when it comes to such a delicate subject as Christianity, but I do wonder if Villiers will develop in this direction. His frankness when describing lust is a positive element in his writing, and he glows in the moments of expression that transcend ‘re-telling’. Evidently, the best poems by far are those in which you see the poet immersed absolutely in the communicated episode. Some are more remarkable than others in this sense, and the one that strikes me in particular is ‘Bathsheba’:’I see her bathing, her hills and valleys /Are ripe for conquest, Bathsheba thrills me.’

I cannot have the pretension of a contemporary work adding something to the most-read book in history. Villiers, I think, is conservative too in this sense, but he aims for something mimetic rather than impressionistic. His writing is like a prism: a bit of angular mirror reflecting light in many colors, quite lovely.

 

Petals of Vision is a collection that brings you close to the man inside. In a manner quite different from his previous collection, the poet weighs petty and momentous topics with the same sweet, meditative voice. Take a  ‘A Park Revisited’, which, like many other poems in Petals of Vision, possesses a piercing simplicity:

Where are you now? Do you remember me?

Can you still remember our summer here

And hereabouts?

Have years been kind to you?

There is both sadness and wonder well encased within this poet’s microcosm. No fanfares are present (though indeed sometimes I would have liked a bit more aplomb and even a sort of aggressiveness). Villiers possesses, however, a certain old-world elegance in word order and choice, sprinkled among a quotidian world of amorous deceptions and…the occasional presence of animals. Unusual, perhaps: it seems to signal an introvert who is in quiet communion with owls and dogs, and sometimes less so with people.

The book is a work not lacking in labour. As it progresses the reader finds him/herself sinking into aquatic introspection, as one does before the stars and the sea. Villiers’ poems are not elusive, but sincere and sensitive. The complex imagery indicates understated passion, a voluptuous and candid confession.’Morning was an unripe plum’: the poet bewitches us.

Some poems are remarkably intense, heavy with feeling in a strangely surprising way, like ‘Episode’:

I sit on the rim of my sanity,

Gazing down into the stony basin

As if expecting some new calamity;

A vineyard shrivelled into a raisin.

Value lies in the unexpected: the baby in ‘NewBorn’ is likened to a beetroot. Phrases like  ‘Can some time tell out the spring?’ are eyebrow-raising and effective. Also singular is the formal consistency of his poems: rhyme is so natural that you don’t notice its presence unless you look for it.

Christopher Villiers will flourish. I look forward to it.