Menno Wigman (1966-2018)

It is with great sadness and shock that we have to announce that the eminent Dutch poet Menno Wigman passed away suddenly yesterday in Amsterdam. He was just 51.

Menno Wigman’s prizewinning poetry combines a return to traditional forms – tight rhythm and full or half-rhyme – with a modern, big-city bite that goes to the heart of the turn-of-our-century human condition. This gained him not only enormous respect from his peers, critics and editors, but also popularity among a wider poetry-loving public.

On the PoetTrio project we had the privilege of working with Menno Wigman during our translation workshops. He was one of the three Dutch poets who co-translated their UK counterparts’ work into Dutch, and whose work was translated into English.

IMG_0028 Menno workshop

The rest of the team of poets, translators and researchers remember with affection his quiet, quizzical insights. And not only the energy of his own poems, but also the tight, incisive poetic skill that he brought to bear while translating. We will miss him enormously.

Menno Wigman has one published volume in English: Window-cleaner Sees Paintings, translated by David Colmer (Arc Press). Poetry International Web hosts an English-language selection of his work, translated by John Irons. Here is a video of Menno reading after our workshops in Newcastle last July. 

Los Angeles Review of Books | What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation

This article originally appeared on the Los Angeles Review of books on the 11th January 2018

visit the original article here:  What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation – Los Angeles Review of Books

by Deborah Smith


OVER THE PAST few years, literary translation has enjoyed a surge in popularity in both the United States and, perhaps especially, in the United Kingdom, and it’s this new climate that saw the Man Booker International Prize revamped to give author and translator equal recognition. When its inaugural year awarded Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, literary translation was thrown into the spotlight in South Korea, too. Naturally, there’s no consensus, with some South Korean critics bemoaning others’ tendency to treat foreign prizes as some sort of referendum on the quality of Korean literature as a whole. But there are two anxieties at play in The Vegetarian’s reception at home and abroad: over the cultural politics of prize-giving, and over the nature and status of translation. The increased attention and appreciation afforded both translation and the translator undermines the myth of unmediated access to an original, a fantasy in which both readers of the translation and of the original have a stake. To put it plainly, people like to believe that they’ve read War and Peace, not “an English translation of War and Peace,” and that the thing they love — be it an individual book or a culture — is really the thing being acclaimed. All of these anxieties are compounded by the fact that translation is a profoundly strange and often counterintuitive art. It’s also perhaps the only art that can be not just bad, but wrong, and will never not be flawed.

To say that my English translation of The Vegetarian is a “completely different book” from the Korean original is, of course, in one sense, entirely correct. Since there is no such thing as a truly literal translation — no two languages’ grammars match, their vocabularies diverge, even punctuation has a different weight — there can be no such thing as a translation that is not “creative.” And while most of us translators think of ourselves as “faithful,” definitions of faithfulness can differ. Because languages function differently, much of translation is about achieving a similar effect by different means; not only are difference, change, and interpretation completely normal, but they are in fact an integral part of faithfulness.

To imagine that The Vegetarian must have been improved in translation because the original didn’t garner anywhere near the same level of success involves a level of selective thinking. After all, its middle section won the Yi Sang Literary Award, South Korea’s most prestigious literary award. More than anything else, there simply is no success comparable to that bestowed by the Man Booker brand; the Korean literary establishment puts far more stock in international than domestic literary prizes. By most other standards, Chaesikjuuija (The Vegetarian’s Korean title) was a success, with 20,000 copies sold (and in its 14th reprint) by the time my English translation came out, a full seven years after the Korean original. In that time, translations were published in China, Argentina, Poland, and Vietnam — highly unusual for a Korean book. But again, cultural imperialism means that none of those non-English translations, however well received, could catapult the book to international success. More significant in my eyes is that each resulted, just as my English version did, from a translator falling in love with the book sufficiently to want to dedicate their time to it.

Something else happened during those seven years — South Korea criminalized marital rape. So it’s not difficult to see why a book that exposes this pervasive structural violence might have been received differently by the (mostly older male) literary establishment than by the many Korean women who didn’t consider it “extreme and bizarre” at all. Perhaps the overwhelming focus on The Vegetarian’s aesthetics is a way of avoiding talking about its politics?

Han Kang has received extraordinarily high praise for things that have nothing to do with the translator, such as The Vegetarian’s “potent images” (the Guardian), “[brilliant] three-part structure” and “crushing climax, phantasmagoric yet emotionally true” (Publishers Weekly). Structure, plot, themes, characterization, et cetera, are all the work of the author. Translators, in the great majority of cases, do the language: style, tone, rhythm. And Han Kang’s Korean readers have always singled out her “poetic” style. A 2011 article introduces her as having “received attention for her lyrical style and detailed structuring”; a 2017 article in the Kyunghyang Shinmun comments that Han’s fiction “resembles poetry,” which is appropriate for the prose of someone who is also a published poet, and speaks of her “characteristic delicate and sensual style.” It’s true that this lyricism is less pronounced in The Vegetarian than in Human Acts, and especially than in her latest work, The White Book, which is almost a series of prose poems, but it’s still definitely there — a subtly poetic style that’s also spare and understated. I certainly wasn’t trying to produce an overblown, ornate style in English (though novels tend not to be one-note, but have moments of greater and lesser intensity), and I don’t think it happened unconsciously, either. Readers and reviewers described the writing style of the translation as “subtle” (Independent), “precise and spare” (Irish Times), and “bone-spare” (New Statesman). They spoke of its poetry, too, with no sense that these might be mutually exclusive — the author Deborah Levy called it “poetic yet matter-of-fact.”

Still, some people believe that my translation “overly poeticized” an original that was spare and understated rather than, not as well as, poetic. As translators, we’re usually our own harshest critics; I think there’s plenty to criticize in my translation. What makes me worry is when the desire to prove a particular argument about a translation encourages a misleading view of the original — in this case, overlooking the poetry I and many others see in Han’s writing. Literary style is not simply a mark of identity, like a fingerprint — it also has a function and a significance. Function is the easy part: the cool, understated prose of The Vegetarian functions to offset the feverish violence, to prevent it from seeming sensationalistic and over-the-top, a reminder that the darkest horrors are found in the everyday. Significance is trickier, because it depends on context: What styles are used by this author’s contemporaries? What’s the mainstream? What tends to garner praise, get labeled “modern,” “original,” “experimental,” or even just “literary”? Translating from Korean into English involves moving from a language more accommodating of ambiguity, repetition, and plain prose, to one that favors precision, concision, and lyricism.

This is simultaneously a gross generalization and an observable phenomenon. Because each author’s individual style distinguishes itself by the degree to which it diverges from this middle ground, and because the significance of style is therefore inextricable from language, translating it seems impossible. What we can do, at least, is to recognize that the “pole” of what registers as, for example, repetition or poetic prose is set at different heights in the source and target languages — and also that if source language conventions are transferred just as they are, they will likely be mistaken for authorial idiosyncrasy, or worse, simply bad writing. Quality is yet another thing translators can choose to be faithful to; many also believe that we ought, where possible, to resist domestication, and Madhu Kaza’s editorial for Kitchen Table Translation is a must-read on the generative politics of “errant, disobedient translation.” With The Vegetarian, I was mindful that straying too far from the conventions of English literary language would diminish and distract from the force of the writing as a whole, which itself has considerable disruptive power.

Every translation’s raison d’être is the readers who couldn’t otherwise access the original. And so, as Daniel Hahn, shortlisted for the 2016 MBI and a judge in 2017, explains, judges “aren’t comparing the original and the translation and evaluating the process (the decisions, the ingenuities, the slips…) of going from the one to the other,” but are attempting “to evaluate the finished English-language work on their own terms.” This is one way of assessing translation quality; it is not the only one. Literary translation can both resist and perpetuate cultural imperialism; as translators, we need to stay aware of our own biases, and of the plurality of approaches advocated by those whose biases and aims are other than ours. Winning a prize doesn’t make my approach to translation the best or only way, and there’s politics, too, in the fact that it will have been largely shaped by living and working in the United Kingdom, where that coveted (by some) success is determined.

Partly because assessing literary translations in South Korea does usually involve comparison, some people couldn’t understand why those “slips” that Hahn mentions hadn’t disqualified my translation from praise and awards. All translators care deeply about accuracy; all translators slip up, because we’re human. For a first-timer, being bombarded with mistake-listing articles and emails left me pretty shaken. Was it true that I’d betrayed Han Kang’s work through negligence or arrogance? Not consciously, because I love her to the point of reverence and think her work is stone-cold genius, but by daring to translate from a language I hadn’t yet mastered? It’s now four years since I translated The Vegetarian, seven since I started learning Korean, and I understand now what I didn’t then: that learning a language is not a progression toward “mastery,” and that nothing teaches you to translate like actually doing it. I’m glad to have brought the work of a brilliant writer to an international audience, in sufficiently faithful a way for a qualitatively, if not quantitatively, similar reception. Some people tell me I ought to be proud, but to be honest I’m happy to feel conflicted — such an attitude is more useful for those of us in positions of privilege, encouraging us to act responsibly and generously towards texts, authors, and other translators.

Still, if I’d at least gotten closer to that impossible perfection, would critics have been forced to engage more with the book itself? Will they, now that Han and I have finally found time to correct the text for future printings? Perhaps, perhaps not, given that some of what was filed under “mistake” was actually just difference. Han herself has consistently taken the time to explain that translators consult both with editors and the author themselves, and that she has read my translation and loved it most for capturing the tone of her own writing — yet that hasn’t stopped some people from talking over her. 

Translations should be critiqued, absolutely; lively, informed critical engagement is all part of a flourishing translation culture. But without taking into consideration how translation norms vary between countries and contexts, and how this might shape individual approaches, it’s hard to move on to the point of difference rather than just pointing it out. At this stage, what a given critic pronounces as admissible doesn’t tell us much beyond personal preference. It’s also difficult, and almost certainly misleading, to assess effect by back-translating into the language of the original, or by comparison with an imagined literal translation; after all, both of those alternative methods involve just as much subjectivity as a translation deemed especially free or creative.

I hope we all keep talking about translation, because there’s always more to say, especially about what a joy it is, and because we need to put our heads together if we’re to ensure that it lives up to its potential — to disrupt hegemonies, work across difference without erasing it, and challenge the myth of the lone genius — while also enabling new audiences for voices and perspectives that might otherwise be silenced or spoken over, and works of art without which all our lives would be diminished. As translators, we must build on these recent gains, which have a direct impact on our ability to command a living wage, rather than being bullied back into our lanes. It’s this combination of low wages justified by dismissal of creativity and an insistence on “humility” that means translation is often spoken of as a feminized profession. Humility does not equal self-effacement; it’s not arrogant to be proud of your work.

There’s no best way to translate, but there are a few propositions regarding translation that, if generally accepted, might make for more constructive conversations: change is not betrayal; editors exist, generally with quite firm opinions; to praise the translation is not to devalue the original. Finally, no translation is definitive — it’s simply a way to “Fail again. Fail better.” I think I failed okay.


Deborah Smith is a British translator of Korean fiction. Her translation of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian won her and the author the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. In 2015, Smith founded Tilted Axis Press, a nonprofit publishing house focusing on contemporary fiction specifically from Asia. Her book-length essay on translation, Fidelity, will be published in the UK by Peninsula Press.

Ocean Vuong awarded TS Eliot Prize by judging panel chaired by PoetTrio poet and researcher, W. N. Herbert

– as reported in The Guardian

TS Eliot prize goes to Ocean Vuong’s ‘compellingly assured’ debut collection

Night Sky With Exit Wounds, the debut collection by a poet who is the first literate person in his family, hailed as ‘the definitive arrival of a significant voice’

Ocean Vuong Forward Arts Prizes 2017 Royal Festival Hall London UK

After becoming the first literate person in his family and a prize-winning poet festooned with awards, Ocean Vuong has now won perhaps his most prestigious accolade yet for his debut collection: the TS Eliot prize.

Reflecting on the aftermath of war over three generations, 29-year-old Vuong’s first collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, has already landed the Forward prize for best first collection, as well as the Whiting and the Thom Gunn awards. The book has also been critically acclaimed, with Observer critic Kate Kellaway describing it as “a conduit for a life in which violence and delicacy collide”, and the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani praising Vuong’s “tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work, combined with a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like appreciation for the sound and rhythms of words”.

Vuong is only the second debut poet to win the TS Eliot prize, two years after Sarah Howe became the first, winning for Loop of Jade in 2016.

Before announcing Vuong as the winner at a ceremony at the Wallace Collection in London on Monday evening, chair of judges Bill Herbert called Night Sky With Exit Wounds “a compellingly assured debut, the definitive arrival of a significant voice”.

“There is an incredible power in the story of this collection,” said Herbert. “There is a mystery at the heart of the book about generational karma, this migrant figure coming to terms with his relationship with his past, his relationship with his father and his relationship with his sexuality. All of that is borne out in some quite extraordinary imagery. The view of the world from this book is quite stunning.”

READ the rest of the article here: 

PoetTrio Poets and Language Advisors

If you are submitting a proposal for our art commission, below is the list of British and Dutch poets who were members of our poetry translation ‘trios’, or PoetTrios.

For examples of them reading work produced during workshops, visit our YouTube site HERE.

British Poets

Sean O’Brien

W. N. Herbert

Fiona Sampson

Dutch Poets

Hélène Gelèns

Elma van Haren

Menno Wigman

Language Advisors

Karlien van den Beukel

Willem Groenewegen

Rosemary Mitchell-Schuitevoerder

** DEADLINE EXTENSION ** Paid Art Commission Call for Proposals

ART COMMISSION Call for Proposals 


midnight FRIDAY 19th January 

Fee: £3000, inclusive of materials

The PoetTrio Experiment, an investigation into collaborative poetry translation, wants to commission an innovative artwork in response to poetry from the PoetTrio project in its original and translated languages.

The form of the work will be decided by the artist, but digital and filmic submissions are especially welcome.

Submit a written proposal (about 300 words) describing your planned artwork – including how it would use poetry from the PoetTrio project in its original and translated languages, and how it would engage audiences with the PoetTrio concept.

Collaborations are admissible. However, the fee remains fixed.

Consult this website and our YouTube channel to find stimulus material:

Send queries and submissions to and

Selection will be made by a panel of researchers and practitioners from the Universities of Newcastle and Roehampton, led by director of the NCLA Professor Sinéad Morrissey

All entrants will be informed of the decision on 1st February 2018.

The winning commission must be delivered in a suitable form by 1st May 2018.


If you are submitting a proposal for our art commission, below is the list of British and Dutch poets who were members of our poetry translation ‘trios’, or PoetTrios.

For examples of them reading work produced during workshops, visit our YouTube site HERE.

British Poets

Sean O’Brien

W. N. Herbert

Fiona Sampson

Dutch Poets

Hélène Gelèns

Elma van Haren

Menno Wigman

Language Advisors

Karlien van den Beukel

Willem Groenewegen

Rosemary Mitchell-Schuitevoerder

Professor Francis Jones reads translation of poet Mak Dizdar on television in Bosnia and Herzegovina

On 14th December Poettrios principal investigator Professor Francis Jones appeared on the Public Service of the Federal Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina reading his translations of work by poet Mak Dizdar



Poettrio at IATIS Hong Kong 2018

Three members of the Poettrio research team, principal investigator Francis Jones, and research associates Rebecca May Johnson and Sergio Lobejón Santos will be presenting two papers at IATIS (International Association for Translation & Intercultural Studies) 6th Annual conference. The conference will take place in China at the Hong Kong Baptist University, from 3rd-6th July. 

See you there!

Fiona Sampson’s new biography of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, published in January

The poettrio experiment co-investigator Professor Fiona Sampson has written a new biography of Mary Shelley in time for the 200th anniversary of the publishing of Frankenstein. Published by Profile on 18th January 2018 in the UK, and by Pegasus in May 2018 in the US.

Read the publisher’s blurb below to get an idea of Shelley’s dramatic life. Pre order here:  

Mary Shelley was brought up by her father in a house filled with radical thinkers, poets, philosophers and writers of the day. Aged sixteen, she eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, embarking on a relationship that was lived on the move across Britain and Europe, as she coped with debt, infidelity and the deaths of three children, before early widowhood changed her life forever. Most astonishingly, it was while she was still a teenager that Mary composed her canonical novel Frankenstein, creating two of our most enduring archetypes today.

The life story is well-known. But who was the woman who lived it? She’s left plenty of evidence, and in this fascinating dialogue with the past, Fiona Sampson sifts through letters, diaries and records to find the real woman behind the story. She uncovers a complex, generous character – friend, intellectual, lover and mother – trying to fulfil her own passionate commitment to writing at a time when to be a woman writer was an extraordinary and costly anomaly.

Published for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, this is a major new work of biography by a prize-winning writer and poet.

Francis R. Jones’s translations of Serbian poet Ivan V. Lalić in Modern Poetry in Translation

The poettrio experiment’s principal investigator Francis R. Jones has had his translations (Serbian –>English) of three poems from Pismo by Ivan V. Lalić (1931 -1996) published in the new issue of Modern Poetry in Translation 2017 Number 3 – War of the Beasts and the Animals

Here is one of the poems, shared for free on their website. Visit their site and buy the issue for more.

In Praise of Sleeplessness

Unsleeping eyes which do not only see
Wallpaper patterns and the morning’s stain
Can read a future summer’s history
Painstakingly hand-written by the rain –
For each leaf’s destiny a single line
Attests to form: each drop’s semantics dream
The future garden’s shape, or the design
Of empty skies which sparkle, skies which scream.

The dreadful blessing of a waking night
Is felt when patience unbraids, from inside,
The eyes, then shifts the broadened roots of sight 
To form new roads where new images ride –
A star is bursting into blooms of sea,
And in a glass of water, silence glitters,
Time after time your pasts keep breaking free, 
No sea could taste as beautiful, as bitter.

Insomnia brings a fresh sleep into play:
Your waking self works on another plane – 
Made in the old day’s image, the new day
Has grown a shadow, so is not in vain;
You take your coat, your keyturn still ignites 
The engine – acts exact but other-led – 
Polysemy sings at the traffic lights,
Weaves a new fabric with three hues of thread…

All those who feel by night that time’s unsure 
Will give a different structure to their day, 
From hour to hour; bound by its simple law, 
They ask ‘Is there a structure anyway?’ 
Insomnia spawns another sort of sleep:
The waking state which recreates you teems
With this new sleep, just as rainwaters seep 
Through desert sands. And in it, freedom gleams –

For those who stay awake, nights are elsewhere, 
A star is bursting into blooms of sea,
Primeval forests, choking, drink the air
And water of a summer still to be;
Last image: sleepless eyes, just like a rear- 
View mirror filled with road as it’s unrolled 
To nothing, glimpse at Eden as they peer 
Into the final sleeplessness, the fold.


%d bloggers like this: