Popescu Prize 2015 winning and shortlisted translators describe their craft

Archaeology, bric-à-brac, tadpoles and dyes: Iain Galbraith on translating Jan Wagner

Iain Galbraith. Photo: Kevin Lake for The Poetry Society.
Iain Galbraith. Photo: Kevin Lake for The Poetry Society.

A short while ago I attended the setting of a friend’s gravestone at a Berlin cemetery. My contribution to the ceremony of music and memoirs was to read out Edwin Morgan’s ‘Clydegrad’ from his Sonnets from Scotland. It was a fine autumnal afternoon, with accents of vermilion, russet and lemon barely flickering in the branches above the little group gathered around the year-old grave. The headstone was a slab of Caithness flag, a durable, fine-grained Middle Devonian siltstone, laid down some 370 million years ago. I had expected a rough grey, but on this stone saw instead a pattern of fawn silt nodules or algal stromatolites on a mud-green ground, with – where the heart might be – an ochre or ferrous stain.

Caithness flagstone paves Glasgow’s streets and Morgan’s sonnet, also set in Glasgow, contains the line: “The long broad streets shone strongly after rain”. The stone is cut from a sedimentary formation, and palaeontologists, with a far-sighted view of our early ancestry, have been known to persuade the City Council to re-excavate flags that host the fossils of Devonian fish. With the deceased, a lovely man called Martin Chalmers, I share ‘Clydegrad’ as a place of birth, and while reading the poem I felt an urge to draw our little party more closely around the stone, to follow the words down to the shared ground of Morgan’s streets – as Martin himself, a literary translator and historian by training, might have done.

In finding the place where paving stones really do shine after rain, translators often need to be historians or archaeologists or palaeontologists. They must be aficionados of bric-à-brac and tiny animals, too, of mirrors, dyes and tadpoles, if only for a day. It is often said that a good translation will give you a particularly close reading, but if that is so, then the translation must go beyond the constraints of vocabulary equivalence, seeking to re-enact or re-textualise the sensations and associations that are part and pattern of the reading experience. The shape gradually inscribed by the emerging translation will be aware of itself as a reader’s construct, a topology of signalling nodes, sensory puzzlers like the stromatolites on the surface of a flagstone.

The translation brings about a moment of connectivity that has been long in the making, leading everything to conjunction in a space where “the very ground seems on fire with tongues of running time” (Edwin Morgan, ‘The Welcome’). No word can afford to relax, except as enacted relaxation; each earns its place by association alone, and the whole becomes more than its sum of tiny decisions. Moving again and again through the complex couplings activated by rhyme and stress and sound pattern, the translator writes his or her reading experience into the marrow of the rising text. It’s a space where the tailor will not “unroll his cloths” (“seine stoffe entrollen” as my author poet, Jan Wagner, has it), but has been seen “unfurling his stuffs / like a general his maps”. It’s a space where Wagner’s “zigaretten” in context might better be “woodbines”, where ears might better be “lugs”, where “stumpf” (Wagner too), as the attribute of a mirror, would lose too much by being merely ‘dull’. There is always a word that releases the experience of reading the German text into the emerging English: that mirror has long gone “cloudy”. Strangely, though, I can see it more clearly now.

Iain Galbraith won the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize 2015 for his translation of Self-Portrait With A Swarm Of Bees by Jan Wagner, published by Arc Publications.

“I must describe everything here”: Anne Stokes on translating Sarah Kirsch

Anne Stokes. Photo: Kevin Lake for The Poetry Society.
Anne Stokes. Photo: Kevin Lake for The Poetry Society.

Sarah Kirsch was a post-war German lyric poet of immense talent and integrity. Born Ingrid Bernstein in 1935 in Thuringia, which became part of East Germany in 1949, she adopted the name Kirsch when she married fellow poet Rainer Kirsch. Then, ahead of publishing a volume of poems with him in 1965, she changed her first name to Sarah to express solidarity with the Jewish people murdered under National Socialism. But this name change, too, had a personal dimension; it was a protest against her father’s anti-Semitism, which was intensified after he encountered difficulties getting an Aryan certificate on account of his Jewish-sounding surname, Bernstein, and the prevalence of the name David in the family.

Thematically, Kirsch’s early poetry bears witness to Germany’s troubled past and gives voice to contemporary political concerns, such as travel and writing constraints in East Germany. But while her poetry never loses sight of these and other political issues, the increasingly dominant and most enduring theme of her work, as the title of her debut solo collection Landaufenthalt  – A Stay in the Country – already signalled, was the natural world.

From the early 1980s in particular, when the threat of nuclear annihilation and environmental destruction fuelled the Green movement in West Germany, Kirsch’s main concern was her natural surroundings, and the setting of many of her poems from this point forth became the sparsely populated, stark landscape of northern Schleswig- Holstein – characterised by fens, marshes, tidal basins, and the screams of geese – where Kirsch relocated to be closer to nature in 1983, around five years after she left East Germany as a dissident. “I must describe everything here, it’s like I’ve taken on that task,” Kirsch said at the time. “I’m grazing on everything here like a sheep, eating it all up until there’s nothing left.”

For Kirsch, however, as this statement suggests, political concerns are always personal and never laboured. Before turning to writing in her late twenties, she had studied forestry and biology, and this experience combined with her painter’s eye – she did watercolours from an early age, and very kindly permitted one of them to appear on the cover of Ice Roses – is reflected in her ability to evoke larger issues through closely observed specifics. Indeed, the main impetus for her writing, she explained in 1979, was visual stimuli that called forth a line, and uncovered something that had been stored. Her fluid use of syntax and restricted deployment of punctuation, furthermore, create meaning gradually, allowing multiple interpretations to emerge.It was in fact Kirsch’s use of form that led me to return to her poetry, which I’d first discovered as a postgraduate student of German literature. But although intending to analyse her free-verse lines in an attempt to break my own habit of writing in fixed forms, I soon became hooked by the poetry and life of this leading German lyric poet who was little-known in the English-speaking world despite the fact that between1967 and 2001 she published ten volumes of poetry and received numerous awards, including the Petrarch Prize (1976), the (West) German Critics’ Prize (1981), and the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize (1996) awarded by the German Academy of Language and Literature.

Ice Roses: Selected Poems, which is arranged chronologically and contains poems from the Sämtliche Gedichte (Collected Poems) issued in 2005 by Kirsch’s publishing house, the Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, to mark the poet’s seventieth birthday, is representative of the range and expressiveness of Kirsch’s poetry from the appearance of her first solo volume in East Germany in 1967 through 2001, when her last volume of poetry appeared, although she continued to write prose, for which she was also renowned, until her death in 2013.

When translating Kirsch, I simply felt my way forward at first but soon settled on the aim of functional equivalence, i.e. of producing texts that were as close as possible to the originals but worked as poems in English, in order to bring the sound as well as the sense of Kirsch’s verse to the wider Anglophone audience it deserves.

Anne Stokes was shortlisted  for the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize 2015 for her translation of Ice Roses – Selected Poems by Sarah Kirsch, published by Carcanet.

“Just the thoughts and the attitude”: Tom Kuhn on translating Brecht

Kuhn square portrait -12
Tom Kuhn. Photo: Kevin Lake for The Poetry Society.

Bertolt Brecht is one of the great poets of the twentieth century and it is an extraordinary privilege to be involved in translating his poems into English. I have been writing about Brecht for many years, and so got to know his great English mediator John Willett (who died in 2002), his archivist Erdmut Wizisla, and so too his daughter, Barbara, who died just recently, at the end of August. She was a curmudgeonly and interfering task-mistress, but ultimately happy to entrust the work of the poems to David Constantine and me. She felt, so she said, her end approaching, and she wanted to see something in print before she died. That really is how this preliminary little volume of Love Poems came about. Rather perversely, given her great loyalty to her mother, Helene Weigel, Barbara liked the image of her father as a lothario. So there is the nostalgic sentiment of a daughter in this collection.

Brecht is indeed, but probably undeservedly, famous for his loves. By many people’s standards, he did not in fact have that many and was in some way faithful to each of them, though inevitably there were conflicts. The poems themselves are only for the lesser part real love poems, or to real people. Many are role-poems from plays, and others might more properly be called ‘sex poems’, or ‘poems about the relationship between the sexes in late capitalism’. Neither Barbara nor the publisher thought such formulations as those would cut it as titles. So Love Poems it is, and a strange collection of major and minor poetic statements they are, from all periods of Brecht’s exceptional and exemplary life.

They come in many forms and tones and styles, light and serious, long and short, balladesque and aphoristic, sonnets and rambling formless songs. And, like all poems, they are untranslatable. There is no limit to the elements of a poem to which one would like to, and should, pay attention in a translation, and consequently no real limit to the sense of failure at what one has missed. In some sense, Brecht looks easy, in comparison with many another poet: he is direct and communicative at least. But there is nothing casual about his forms and formulations. He is a practised and relentlessly practising poet, writing almost every day. He tried perhaps to make it easier for us: he once wrote that the fault of much poetry translation was that it tries to do too much; “one should”, he said, “perhaps content oneself with the translation of just the thoughts and the attitude of the poet”. If only we could divine what they were!

David Constantine and Tom Kuhn were shortlisted  for the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize 2015 for their translation of Love Poems by Bertolt Brecht, published by Liveright. (Bertolt Brecht, Collected Poems, translated by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn, is due from Liveright/W.W. Norton in 2018.)

 “Who I am to organize the flight of the Poem?” On translating Adélia Prado by Ellen Doré Watson

Ellen Doré Watson.
Ellen Doré Watson.

Round about 1980, I was living in Florionópolis, Brazil, writing my own poems, enthralled with Brazilian Portuguese and hanging around bookstores and libraries searching for the poet I longed to translate – someone whose work had not yet seen English and said straight at me: this one. Finding Adélia Prado felt just like that – a revelation. How can I not bring this poet to English-speakers? I was taken with the way the poems follow an unpredictable zig-zag path to an inexorable conclusion. How totally she inhabits her body, while simultaneously embracing a transcendent spirituality – one imbued with an abundance of eroticism: “It’s the soul that’s erotic.” How often do we encounter a poet who can dig deep and rise high into our physical and soulful realms?

Naturally, meeting Adélia Prado was irresistible and necessary. When I arrived at her door in 1984 in Divinópolis, the inevitable awkwardness of our first meeting dissolved within minutes and we were eating rice and beans and trading life stories. It felt altogether natural, and at the same time somewhat unreal, to be sitting in the kitchen of one of Brazil’s most celebrated poets. Little did I know that I had found not only my poet but my Brazilian family.

Over decades, I visited nearly every year. Adélia was always more eager to cook, eat, laugh, and watch movies than to sit down at the table with my heap of questions, but would help me to excavate the meaning of a phrase, the nuance of a word. We lived out the rhythms and the spaces that would become The Alphabet in the Park, published in 1990, poems gathered from Prado’s first three volumes, and in 2014 a second collection, Ex-Voto, drawn from her subsequent three books. It was gratifying but not surprising to me that this new voice from Brazil was welcomed with open arms. It’s fair to say that her work has been hailed and circulated from poet to poet as something of a sensation. Readers responded to Prado’s deeply human world of street vendors, herds of butterflies, and the terror of both doubt and grace. The Mystical Rose, from Bloodaxe, brings together the two collections of translations: a rare look at the poet’s range over thirty years.

Throughout this journey, reading each new book with hunger and curiosity, I re-encountered Adélia’s hallmark voice, by turns entranced with the tangible world and distracted by a desire for the union of flesh and spirit. By book five she was writing love poems to a Son of God! I was at first a bit uncomfortable as the religious material came more to the fore. The daughter of a Methodist minister, I had in my twenties given up on the idea of God for a much more diffuse sense of the spiritual. But here is a poet – admirable, stunning – who flies to great heights of faith and fancy and also struggles with the abyss of fear and loss and mysteriously emerges again and again through language to a humble and very human place of exuberant joy. If these years of our working together have not made me a believer in any practicing sense, they have in untold ways shaped me as a woman and a poet. As different as we are as writers, each time I set down our translation project to turn for a spell to my own next book of poems, I’m brought up short by stirrings and deepenings of ache and swoon and appetite for which I am surely indebted to Adélia.

Ellen Doré Watson was shortlisted  for the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize 2015 for her translation of The Mystical Rose by Adélia Prado, published by Bloodaxe.

 Talking Vrouz: Susan Wicks on translating Valérie Rouzeau

Susan Wicks. Photo: Kevin Lake for The Poetry Society.
Susan Wicks. Photo: Kevin Lake for The Poetry Society.

I feel so privileged to have met Valérie Rouzeau’s work, and to have spent a good part of the last ten years translating it! I never had any firm intention of becoming a translator, especially of poetry – but I am a poet, and I do think it would take, not just a linguist familiar with French and a brain that enjoys being teased, but also someone with a certain confidence as a writer of poetry, to enjoy working on poems as verbally playful and tonally elusive as Valérie’s often are.

Our first meeting was very lucky. We were both invited to take part in the 2004 Festival franco-anglais de poésie in Paris, an unusual gathering which involved not just small readings, but also, and more importantly, an exchange of short poems in French and English for mutual translation. There were about eight or nine of us – poets from France and Quebec and Kurdistan writing in French, and poets from the UK, Ireland, the US and Australia writing in English. We had all been asked to submit a short poem a few weeks beforehand, so that we could each prepare a translation of all the poems in the other language. When we finally met, we spent several mornings round a table in a basement room near the Centre Pompidou, discussing the merits and shortcomings of our respective drafts.

It was a wonderful experience. Even in our own creative workshops here in England, that intense shared concentration on a single poem is quite rare. By the end of those few days I was already aware of the originality of Valérie’s poetic voice, as well as some of the difficulties likely to be encountered by a would-be translator! One day she gave me one of her earliest books, Pas Revoir. Back in my hotel room, I opened it at the first page and read it straight through. It took my breath away. It seemed to me like nothing I’d read before – linguistically experimental, and yet packing a huge emotional punch. I wanted to show it to everyone I met. A pity, I told myself, that it couldn’t be translated.

Months later, back at home, I found my brain still teased by a single poem from the book-length sequence – the one about visiting a local greengrocer’s in a state of grief and being asked how things were going. Can you imagine a crossword made up entirely of clues suggestive and intimate enough to bring tears to your eyes even as you tried to solve them? I worried at it – for a few days, a week, a month – I don’t remember. And in the end I came up with something that seemed, in not-quite-standard English, to be pretty close. I tried another one, and then another, until in the end I’d translated the whole book. Cold Spring in Winter was the result.

More recently, with Talking Vrouz, the one book has become two. I rented a cottage on the Devon bank of the Tamar, so that day after day I could listen to Valérie’s original voice and try to be true to an English voice that seemed to come ever more easily. Afterwards, of course, numerous emails full of questions and suggestions winged their way back and forth. But Valérie, who is a translator herself, understands the translator’s need for the poet to ‘let go’. Any interpreter of her work in another language has to be allowed, not just to find verbal ‘equivalents’, but, and more importantly, to reproduce the strain of playfulness that sparkles across the dark background of her work – and this she has always fully endorsed. If and where my translations are successful, it is largely because of that generosity in Valérie herself.

Susan Wicks was shortlisted  for the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize 2015 for her translation of Talking Vrouz by Valérie Rouzeau, published by Arc.

“The Labour of Uncovering”: Elzbieta Wójcik-Leese on translating Krystyna Milobedzka

Wojcik-Leese square portrait -12

“I dream about the word extended instead of the hand, and the hand instead of the word.” The Polish poet Krystyna Milobedzka (b.1932), author of thirteen volumes of poetry and writer of plays for children, has parsed down her words into near-silences. Her interest in theatre stems from her conviction that gestures and objects, unlike words, adhere to life. In her writing – I should say, in her jottings – she seeks out each of her words anew, suspicious of their glib readiness to name. Or, rather, she sheds them in order to come closer to the world not divided into the human and the non-human.

I lose verbs quickest, nouns, things remain
now only personal pronouns (lots of I, more and more I)
and names? lost, conjunctions lost
three words, two words
finally my – mine in me
mine with me –

I in the first and last person

“Losing is in the nature of language and in the nature of my relationships with others, with the world. Losing, that is, imperfection, awkwardness,” explains Milobedzka.

Her jottings draw also on Eastern traditions of poetic thinking. They rely on incisive yet tender observation; they are born out of intimacy and hesitations. Hers is “a language that is ‘being thought’” (early reviews rightly note “dramatic ungrammaticalness”). Her sentences stray from the beaten path, aspire to reach further by means of ellipsis, slight syntactic distortions, grammatical inaccuracies: “If a record, a text, wants to be as close to life as possible,” claims Milobedzka, “it has to be imperfect, it has to be a rough draft.” As her translator, I search for this roughness, subverting the English syntax and occasionally introducing lineation into prose poems.

Trzyma mnie w swoim wnetrzu, nisko od korzeni do ciemnosci drzewa mój cien jego ruchem cieniem, a pory roku pedza w gestwine. Dotykam pierwszych scian przez grubosc lat, przez zycia ubiegle do kory, miedzy kolyska i drzwiami w twarde drewno wryty przyplyw. Ze skraju, z drgnienia ma wejscie jedyne: wysoko po skórze drze plomien do szumu w kolowrót zieleni, az skrzypia ramiona. Gdzie dotknie polany, wyrebu w pamieci?

The house
holds me in its interior   low from the roots to the darkness
of the tree my shadow becomes its movement its shadow
and the seasons rush headlong into the thicket.
I touch its first walls through the thickness
of years   through lives gone into the bark   between cradle
and doors the tide cut deeply into hard wood.
From the edge   from the quiver it has one entrance only:
high up the flame tears along the skin towards the whirr
in the windlass of green   until the arms creak.
Where will it touch the meadow   the clearing in memory?

I place these two texts next to each other, because somewhere between them, the poem-in-translation comes into being: not through finding equivalents, but through losing words.

But my translations are not only imitations of Milobedzka’s poetic practice. They hint at her word environment: the Polish language, with its flexible syntax and varied grammatical endings, allows its speaker small alterations, which can turn into valuable imperfections. Searching for means to overcome the rigidity of the English syntax in order to guide the English-speaking reader towards Milobedzka’s awkward silences and broken-off phrases, I sometimes usher visual gaps into her lines. In this way, I’m hoping, I can hint at Krystyna Milobedzka’s own ingenious manipulations of her originals. To her, the birth of the poem is the labour of uncovering; however, her old age grants her the realization that “there is less and less to write down, and more and more of the world to live.”

Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese was shortlisted for the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize 2015 for her translation from Polish of Nothing More by Krystyna Milobedzka, published by Arc.