Follow the progress of our investigation into poetry translation trios here!
Coming up 30th May- 2nd June we have workshops in Rotterdam at Poetry International Festival where poets and project co-investigators Bill Herbert and Fiona Sampson and poet Sean O’Brien will be working with three Dutch poets Elma van Haren, Hélène Gélèns and Menno Wigman and language advisors Karlien van den Beukel, Willem Groenewegen and Rosemary Mitchell-Schuitevoerder to translate poetry collaboratively, in real time.
The poets, who are not experts in the source languages, will choose which of each other’s poems to translate, and work together with the language advisors to produce translations. Afterwards they will be interviewed about the process of choosing the poems and translating them.
There will be a public presentation performance at the end of the week in Rotterdam of the poems translated in the workshops. More details soon!
Poet, translator and research associate on the Poettrio Experiment Sergio Lobejón Santos worked with Newcastle academic Fionnghuala Sweeney to produce translations and versions of Sergio’s poetry.
Watch the performance
Fionnghuala could not be present but sent in the following recordings of two translated ‘versions’ produced in response to Sergio’s poems.
(Sergio Lobejón Santos)
Cuadros emborronados desfilan
sobre un muro de tela porosa.
Tratan de romper su estatismo
en un alud cromático de fotones.
Son sólo juegos de luces, lo sé,
pero aun así no dejo de pensar
que esos actores de la inacción,
esos parajes ya abandonados,
son tan míos como las puertas
de las que intento huir cada día.
(Translation by Fionnghuala Sweeney)
Blurred pictures parade
On a wall of porous fabric.
In a chromatic avalanche of photons.
They are just games of shadow, I know,
But I still cannot stop thinking
That these artists of inaction,
Those places already abandoned,
Are as mine as the doors
Through which I try to flee every day.
(By Fionnghuala Sweeney)
pictures figure the wall
in all the pageantry
of impervious text, breaking
in lost logic;
in the fall of metaphor
a game of light,
in knowing mastery of the glance
at the site of inscription –
the door of escape
to shallow civility
all ready already for i
with my needle
to sew into ground
– a stitch in the ditch
where the bones and the stones once laid
side by aside, for
so much depends, doesn’t it,
that you have wandered
on the greyness of stones,
the certainty of lapse, the slight weight of memory, only
a gram or two,
or three – enough, at least, to frame
an ending that is mine
the absolute of your singularity,
(a turco, for all i know, a dog),
further west than even suspicion would allow
in the crook of an eye,
the turn of a tongue.
no blue here.
no easy cradling.
(Sergio Lobejón Santos)
Parado frente al mar,
afina sus ojos para observar
las fuerzas que dan forma
a esa masa furibunda
que no conoce a nadie.
Las olas saltan al compás de Selene,
poniendo fin abrupto a su camino
al romper contra la roca desnuda,
gramófonos de aguja caprichosa
que degustan melodías polvorientas.
Los promontorios se elevan orgullosos,
aun en su impotencia, como testigos mudos
que acusan con pruebas a las mareas
de incontables años de desgaste.
Pesqueros abandonados reclaman un puerto
en el que poder soltar su cargamento
de reproches y suspiros sin razón ni dueño,
de agravios que ya nadie recuerda si acaso serían suyos.
En la orilla, un canto rodado se separa
con violencia de una sombra diminuta,
deslizándose por la superficie
mientras busca un lugar
en el que recuperar
como si ignorase que el único camino posible
conduce a la fosa abisal, última parada a la desidia.
El océano no conoce a nadie.
Jamás hará distinciones
entre visitas primerizas,
viejos amigos que, en su fidelidad,
siempre terminan regresando
a su cadencia sincopada,
entre quienes están de paso
pero jamás volverán.
(Translation by Fionnghuala Sweeney)
Standing in front of the sea,
Sharpen your eyes to remark
The forces that reshape
That furious, unknowing mass.
The waves start to the compass of Selene,
Abruptly ending their path
In the break of bare rock,
As gramophone needles
taste dusty melodies.
The promontories rise proudly,
Even in their impotence, mute witnesses
To the tides accused
with the evidence of countless years of wear.
Abandoned fishermen claim a port
To release their cargo
of reproaches and sighs
without reason or title,
of grievances unremembered even in the heart.
On the shore, a stone skips
Along its tiny shadow,
Sliding across surface
looking for a place
In which to recover
As if to deny that the only possible path
Draws downwards, an idling last stop.
The ocean knows no one,
never making distinctions
Between first visits,
Old friends who, in their fidelity,
Always end up coming back
To its syncopated cadence,
Among those passing through,
never to return.
SWAN SONG (Fionnghuala Sweeney)
seek the splash of monsters, the furtive
power of ‘here be’
mapped in anticipation –
Beneath, Elatha, still playing
the line, til three turns down it comes to a stop
and a generation of flesh
breaks on barren rock
– in the spent fury of tide on feathers
a song worn mute through
years of wear,
as, in the dust of a note
the promontories rise, the cliff edge
sharpening to accusation
and the pride of countless years
waits again on time and tide-
In the face of this new quickening
fishermen claim a port,
forsaking that cargo
of grievance unremembered
400 years and its over
in a blink, in the sigh
of the shore, where, out of sight,
a grain of sand
sheds its shadow –
A break in time
in search of a surface
a surfeit in which to recover
its moment –
What do you want, sibyl?
Not what you think. Not at all.
Not that inertia, that paid for innocence
Is mise en abyme
the last stop –
Comments on the collaborative process by Sergio Lobejón Santos:
These poems are taken from a collection of poetry and short stories written between 2010 and 2013. Each story is complemented by a poem exploring similar motifs. The two poems chosen for this presentation, “Frames” and “Ocean Caves” are part of a series linked thematically by the ideas of individual identity and loss. The translation was negotiated between the two collaborators, establishing an agreement in which the translator would have the freedom to insert her personality and style into the text. Rather than doing that purely via translation, two sets of texts emerged from that process. On the one hand, the translator rendered the two source poems into English, with feedback from the original author. On the other, she created new poems based on the source texts, turning some of the imagery and wordings in them into purely novel compositions reflecting her idiosyncratic style. Just like the original creation, both the translated texts and the new poems complement and expand each other to create a textual landscape in which the personalities of the two authors appear interweaved.
Comments on the collaborative process by Fionnguala Sweeney:
Sergio’s work has an intimacy of articulation that makes it a pleasure and a challenge to encounter. I am very grateful to him for his generosity in trusting me with his beautiful work. And in being willing to tolerate what will inevitably be an act of violence. This because the movement across languages is always a breach of some kind of contract, and any encounter is an act of intimacy and of course of interpretation.
The translation, the interpretation, is always provisional, dependent and unstable; while the original work is always itself, always prior, always the maker of meaning, always at the hub of every dialogue in what may in effect be an infinite number of poetic conversations.
We are presenting two of Sergio’s poems today, but I was lucky enough to be able to read and begin to translate many more, and to read some of the short stories they sit alongside. The scale of the body of work available inevitably, and rightly, inflects what will become of meaning in translation. It also provides a clue to the interior of the poem, or the intention of its writing: to the understanding of desire and the operations of metaphor.
These things are of course entirely untranslatable, and it is only in conversation with the poet that the structures of thought that sparked the words can sometimes come to light. In this regard, translation itself is always metonymic – partial, often half baked, and always in some way completely missing the point, because it produces its own metaphors and they resonate across the host language in uncontrolled and unanticipated ways. Translation is its own metonymy – it makes language subject to the desire of the translator, and this is irrespective of how close the translation cleaves to the original.
The first poem here, Fotogramas/Frames, I met, because it is so long since I have used Spanish as a language of intimacy, as a wall of words. Because of this, the objectness of the words was always present, and the act of translation, which revealed their subjective qualities, was a surprise.
The improvisation is an attempt to engage again with to qualities – the metaphor as it re-materializes in translation, and the object-ness of the words of the original as matter that is somehow irreducible. There is a stolen line from William Carlos Williams.
The second poem, Grutas oceánicas/Ocean Caves was, despite an apparently greater simplicity, more difficult to unpick. I made several mistranslations. It is still somehow impervious to assault in this English version.
The improvisation tries to tackle the problem of naming and the ways in which the poetic somehow takes shape mythically around the utterance of a name. How may myth and the nomenclature of myth be translated? The improvisation tries to think this through, by considering translation also as a mode of historicization, as marked by the inscription of meaning and the loss of some kind of symbolic integrity – in the translation, of course, not the original.
Poet Denise Saul and translator and writer Di Zhao collaborated between English, Mandarin and visual translations.
Watch Denise and Di present their work
“If we wait in silence for a while, we should see the apples that you talked about,” I say to Eris. She nods. The afternoon does not arrive in the way that I hoped. She points at the tree. Yesterday, and this morning, she kept on repeating the same word but I did not understand why she would mention fruit when the tree was bare. I met Eris at a conversation group last week where she talked about apples. I sit with her on the lawn and watch wood pigeons. “I still can’t see them,” I tell her. I sip a cup of green tea. She talks about persistence, daisies and other flowers.
Explanation of collaboration
Denise Saul is a writer, poet and visual artist. She is a PhD in creative writing researcher at University of Roehampton. Denise is currently poetry pamphlet selector for Poetry Book Society. She is the founder of Silent Room: A Journey of Language, a collaborative video poem project funded by the Arts Council. http://www.silent-room.co.uk
For the first ‘translation as collaboration’ text, Di sent me her untitled poem and also her iconic translation of that poem. The first poem written in Cantonese ‘mirrored’ its iconic translation, both written by Di. I felt that another translation of these texts ‘from text to text’ or ‘poem to poem’ would create further distance between myself and her poems. My decision to photograph an object, that is, a shoe, allowed me to create a closer relationship between a visual image and Di’s work.
Di Zhao’s translation of my prose poem, Other Flowers was my first experience of collaborating with a translator. Our collaboration involved a lot of trust as I cannot read or speak Mandarin Chinese. I was interested in Di’s interpretation of my creative work. Her initial response was to create an iconic translation of Other Flowers, a prose poem written in response to my experience of my late mother’s speech disability, aphasia. The new shape of my poem translated by Di, captured the prominent theme of language breakdown as well as the restriction and also freedom of language between the carer and the individual who is cared for.
I am the founder of Silent Room: A Journey of Language, a collaborative video poem project funded by the Arts Council. I work with filmmaker, Helmie Stil and individuals who have the speech disability, aphasia, to create video poems using prompts, writing and hand gestures. So, my creative approach to translation has changed a great deal during my collaboration with Di. For the ‘Translation As Collaboration’ project, using a photograph to translate’ a text or poem was a new experience.
其他的花（qí tā de huā）is a combination of visual art and poetry, translated from Denise Saul’s Other Flowers.
The original text was a prose poem, whose intention was ambiguous when the context was not given. I decided to literally translate it to preserve all the possible interpretations. Furthermore, since Denise is a visual artist, I chose to reshape the translation to form an image.
The most challenging part was the interpretation of the original text. Her intention was to respond to her late mother’s speech disability. However, I decided not to limit the possibility of other interpretations. It was a very beautiful poem, leaving room for imagination.
The productive part was the combination of visual art and poetry of course. The original text was not a concrete poem, so I chose the image that first popped up in my mind after reading this poem. It was also the most fun part reorganizing the Chinese characters, which was like building a Lego castle.
I had translated several English novels into Chinese, in collaboration with other Chinese translators, but this translation experience was brand new. It was more of a creation rather than rewriting, so I was able to fully express myself instead of hiding my existence.
‘Vaccine’ is a short film by Kate Sweeney, made in collaboration with poet Christy Ducker. ‘Vaccine’ was written as part of Christy Ducker’s residency at York University, working alongside scientists at The Centre for Chronic Diseases. ‘Vaccine’ explores the power of narrative and how the dialectical image works in a poem. The film begins with a recording of a conversation with Dr Mohamed Osman about his research and fieldwork in Sudan. His words are accompanied by free flowing animation. The film moves from this loose conversational style to draw on the imagery and the rhythm of the poem using stark black and white ink drawings.
The film-making process is one of translating the space between words and language into a visual representation or interpretation that allows the poem to breathe within the film. The poem itself is a distillation of language and imagery encountered by Ducker in the laboratories and in conversation with the scientists, whose research centres around the search for a vaccine against the leishmaniasis disease that ravages parts of Africa. Translational medicine is biomedical research translated into a syringe containing a vaccine – something that can be used. It is often referred to as a ‘bench-to-bedside’ approach.
Kate Sweeney is a visual artist and video-maker using animation and drawing in her work. She has a collage-like approach to editing and making videos and tries to utilise video’s capacity to bring together various technical and creative mediums and approaches. She works collaboratively with poets, writers and musicians. Kate has screened and exhibited nationally and internationally including Sydney International Film Festival, London Lesbian and Gay film festival, Zebra Film Festival in Berlin, Manchester Animation Festival and The International Poetry Festival, London.
She is currently undertaking a funded PhD at Newcastle University. Kate teaches and facilitates art, film and animation in a variety of academic and education contexts.
Christy Ducker is a poet and tutor. Her first full-length collection, Skipper, was published in 2015, and includes work commended by the Forward Prize judges. Her pamphlet, Armour (2011) was a PBS Pamphlet Choice. Her commissions include residencies with Port of Tyne, English Heritage, and York University’s Centre for Immunology and Infection. Her most recent publication is Messenger (2017) and she is currently a research fellow at Newcastle University’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice.
This English-to-English translation collaboration between Mark Byers and John Challis examines the boundaries between critical and creative text, literary analysis and poetic practice. Mark’s short critical essay on Jo Shapcott’s ‘found’ poem ‘Electroplating the Baby’ provides the impetus for John’s poem ‘There may be thawing damage’. Echoing and reduplicating Shapcott’s own use of textual appropriation, the poem gathers and transforms language from Shapcott’s poem, Mark’s essay, and a third source: Robert Ettinger’s The Prospect of Immortality. Closing the circle, Mark interprets John’s poem through an act of critical erasure, creating a new text from the original and foregrounding its crucial themes of evolving identity, physical transformation, and the passage of time. Together, the three works dramatize the instability of the literary text, its tendency to proliferate, reproduce, cannibalise, and translate.
WATCH the reading
There may be thawing damage
Our inclination is to make do with imperfection.
This practice is derived from an article entitled
Several Types of Death. The rich alone are capable
of investing in the absurd and the impractical.
But we must be in no doubt of our direction.
Let us review the findings. Upon a patient’s death,
which we define as ‘clinical’, perforate the body
to assimilate the material. Enclose it in an envelope
of copper, bronze or nickel, of nitrogen or gold.
Dr Parkes defines the second type as ‘biological’.
If it is beyond us to resuscitate a subject,
he encourages experiment. This seems only logical:
our progress does not depend on any special
timetable. If practiced accurately, the patient’s blood
is substituted. The third and final type we fear
is sadly irreversible. We must work fast to prevent
the degeneration of the body’s cells. Such tragic
alterations temper a subject’s character. Or soul.
Although it is impossible to suspend the narrative
entirely, by storing the body at a very low temperature
deterioration is arrested. We grant ourselves
the chance to taste the wine of centuries unborn.
Unless instituted immediately, full recovery
of any mammal after complete freezing will continue
to be unattainable. But our insufficient processes
cannot stop our mettle. There is still much to achieve.
On ‘Electroplating the Baby’
‘Electroplating the Baby’ is the title poem of Shapcott’s first collection, published by Bloodaxe in 1988. Comprised of sixty unrhymed couplets, the poem offers a meticulously detailed description of modern mummification as practiced by one Variot, a French scientist whose proposals for electroplating the dead were widely reported in the 1890s. The language of the poem is derived (often verbatim, or nearly so) from an article entitled ‘How to Electro-Plate Your Baby’, published in the English magazine Science Siftings in April 1895.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker regrets that ‘in our time the art of embalming / has not made much advance’, at least compared to the ancient Egyptians and their ingenious ‘antiputrescible baths’. This leads to a pair of rhetorical questions: ‘are our processes so imperfect / as to dull our inclination? // Or do we relish the privacy of dust?’. At this point, Variot’s ‘way / to obtain indestructible mummies’ is introduced, with step by step instructions on setting the ‘body of a child’ into an electrically conductive frame, spraying the cadaver with a ‘nitrate of silver’, submerging the frame in an ‘electro-metallurgic bath’, separating the ‘silver salt’ from its oxide, and finally immersing the frame in copper sulphate. The result: a preserved and metallised body with a ‘coating of copper’. At the close of the poem, the speaker asks what the ‘future’ of such a process might be, finding it ‘infinitely probable // that metallised cadavers / will never figure // except in small numbers / for a long, long time to come’.
The longest poem in Shapcott’s first collection, ‘Electroplating the Baby’ is distinctive of Shapcott’s early inclination towards bizarrerie and the surrealism of fact (including the facts of history and science). Rather than attributing metaphorical significance to Variot’s strange procedure, the poem gains traction from the glaring contradiction between the scientist’s rigorous methods and his absurd and impractical objectives. The rendering of the source text into orderly couplets (both open and closed) functions as a kind of formal reductio ad absurdum, underlining the irrational rationality of Variot’s grotesque experiments.
Shapcott’s debts to her source are such that ‘Electroplating the Baby’ constitutes a ‘found’ poem. However, Shapcott does make minor alterations to the original text. For instance, ‘In our time the art of embalming / has not made much advance’, appears in Science Siftings as ‘In our time, the art of embalming has not made much progress’ (8, emphasis mine). Similarly, Shapcott’s stanza, ‘are our processes so imperfect / as to dull our inclination?’, derives from a much more involved question in the source text: ‘Must we look to the imperfections of the processes for the little inclination that we seem to have for mummification or embalmment?’ (8). However, some stanzas are reproduced verbatim from the original prose, with the addition of a line break.
Shapcott’s alterations of the source text were made for several reasons. The substitution of ‘advance’ for ‘progress’ seems to have had a metrical motive: ‘has not made much advance’ makes a regular iambic trimeter line, even if the result is grammatically non-standard (unlike ‘progress’, ‘advance’ is a countable noun and should not, strictly speaking, take ‘much’). In other cases, Shapcott’s alterations temper the formal tone and address of the original fin de siècle text. For instance, the article’s arch (and conspicuously gendered) question, ‘Does he wish to know how Dr. Variot proceeds’ (8), becomes ‘Do you wish to know / how Dr Variot proceeds?’.
In an interview published in 1990, Shapcott noted that she encouraged her own workshop students to experiment with ostensibly non-poetic diction, including the ‘“language of expertise”’ (29). However, ‘Electroplating the Baby’ does more than draw upon specialist vocabularies, contributing to a genre of found poetry which has its roots in the early twentieth- century avant-garde, particularly the ‘readymade’ practices of dada. Shapcott’s poem is suggestive of the belated assimilation of experimental practices into more popular poetic production.
The poet sent her own copy of Science Siftings to Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley and the article’s illustration was used for the cover of the book. A photocopy of the article is preserved in the Bloodaxe Archive with correspondence between poet and editor. Corrected page proofs also show that Shapcott wanted to avoid the two-line stanzas being divided by page breaks.
Shapcott’s second collection, Phrase Book, was published by Oxford University Press in 1992. Her essays on American poet Elizabeth Bishop, co-edited with Linda Anderson, were published by Bloodaxe as Elizabeth Bishop: Poet of the Periphery in 2002.
‘How to Electro-Plate Your Baby’, Science Siftings (20 April 1895), 8−9.
Kay Parris and Jo Shapcott, ‘Language, Truth and Sheep’, Writers’ Monthly (August 1990), 28−9.
Underflow was a performance by Scottish writer Clare Archibald, translator and writer Delaina Haslam, and Danish artist and writer Line Toftsø. Underflow is a tri lingual text & audio-visual exploration of the linguistic spaces left by the loss of babies. It looks at the tongue that cannot be universally translated.
The trio met on Twitter and conducted much of their work via direct messaging on Twitter. They had never met in person until the event on July 20th 2017, with the exception of Line, who was not in the UK. Find them on Twitter here: Clare @archieislander Delaina @delainahaslam Line @linetofts
WATCH the performance:
Ask me about my baby
‘It’s a bad time. It’s the funeral today.’
I don’t know if this woman – it’s a different one each time – knows of my circumstances. They’ve come every few days; they phone me when they discover I’m not in. But I’m not a new mother at home with my baby. I’ve been out visiting funeral directors and cemeteries.
‘Do you feel you’ve had enough opportunities to talk to about what happened?’
‘No, not really … Our friends … they were amazing, um, over the period … But now, I don’t think they know if we want to talk about it.’
‘They perhaps don’t want to upset you.’
‘You seem, if you don’t mind me saying, more upset this week. I wondered if that might happen. It’s perfectly natural, and normal, really … Last week, well … I was quite surprised to see you arrive on a bike, to be honest.’
‘So there’ve been two miscarriages, is that right?’
‘And an extremely premature birth …’
‘Ok, so how many children do you have now?’
‘None. He died.’
‘Oh that’s awful!’
[I thought you said you’d looked at my history.]
The woman from Transport for London is sitting across from me. I’ve given her a cup of tea. I should be working but I’m answering survey questions about how I get around the city.
‘Do you have any children?’
‘No.’ [He died.]
[Ask me more. I want you to ask me more.]
‘So just you and your partner live here?’
I long to tell strangers my story. But no more questions come.
Line Toftsø Nyholm
Explanation of collaboration
We collaborated solely by Twitter DM and email (none of us know each other or have spoken outside of online interaction). There were no real challenges and it was a pretty straightforward, very positive process.
Clare Archibald is a Scottish writer interested in the interplay of forms and the potential of collaboration. She has previously been chosen to read at Storyshop at Edinburgh International Book Festival, was longlisted in the 2016 Lifted Brow/RMIT international prize for experimental nonfiction and is currently completing her work of experimental narrative nonfiction The Absolution of Shyness.
Delaina Haslam is a translator and writer. She translates from French and Spanish to English in the field of sociology. Before going into translation she worked as a journalist and editor for publications in Madrid and London including le cool. She’s writing her first novel about the experience of a mother’s grief after the death of her baby in 2014.
Line Toftsø (born1969) Danish artist and writer. Published ‘Jeg bevæger kun øjnene’ (poetry) in 2015. First solo exhibition in 1992 in Copenhagen. Lives & works in Copenhagen, Denmark.