Hearing and reading translated poetry opens audiences to new worlds of experience, gives poets fresh inspiration, and creates international communities of poets and poetry users. It dissolves barriers between cultures – crucial in a world that is ever more globalised, but also marked by misunderstanding between cultures. And producing translated poetry is a modest but important part of the cultural economy.
Researching how experts translate poetry gives understanding of how these benefits come about, which can in turn improve practice. Existing research focuses on poetry translating by solo translators, who can read an original ‘source-language’ poem and convert it directly into a ‘target-language’ version.
Increasingly, however, poetry is also being translated in collaborative workshops – but no systematic research has been done into how these operate. Hence our project aims to find this out by analysing the working processes and outputs of poet-advisor-poet trios (the most representative workshop format).
Here, poems are translated by three people working face-to-face: the poet who wrote the source poem, a target-language poet (who does not know the source language), and a language advisor (who knows both languages).
We set up two 4-day expert workshops, where 3 poets from the Netherlands and 3 poets from the UK, helped by 3 language advisors, worked in 3 simultaneous trios to translate each other’s poems. Each workshop – one in May-June 2017 at Poetry International Rotterdam (the Netherlands’ biggest poetry festival), and one in July 2017 at Newcastle University – ended with a public reading of poems and draft translations, and talks by participants. All poets were eminent, widely-published poets (most with translating experience), and all language advisors were translators with strong poetry experience. We videoed all working discussions and written translation drafts, and held videoed interviews with participants after each workshop.
These video recordings, now transcribed, form our raw research data. We are using them to draw a rich, multidimensional picture of how expert poet-advisor-poet trios work: what poems they choose to translate, the translation challenges they meet and how they solve them, interpersonal relations and talk patterns within working trios, what principles poets and advisors try to follow, and what motivates their work. We are also examining how trios tackle key poetry-translating issues, such as the tension between conveying a source poem’s exact content and making the translation into a poem in its own right, and how far translators are willing to make creative changes to source-poem meaning.
Finding this out will increase knowledge of collaborative poetry translation, but also of poetry translation and experts’ translation processes in general. We will communicate this to academic audiences via a monograph, academic journal articles and conference papers. The project will also benefit non-academic users: translations from the workshops have already brought Dutch and UK poetry to new audiences; and project findings are generating guidelines for good practice, and will inspire and inform future poet-advisor-poet ventures. To enable this, poem translations and project findings have reached – and will continue to reach – poets, translators and poetry audiences via reading events, poetry journals and artwork, websites, social media and professional translation associations.
This interdisciplinary project is led by a translation-studies scholar, Francis Jones (Newcastle University) and two poetry-writing scholars W.N. Herbert and Fiona Sampson (Newcastle and Roehampton University), all specialised in poetry translating as translators and researchers, helped by Research Associates Rebecca May Johnson and Sergio Lobejón Santos (Newcastle University). We are working closely with two project partners (Dutch Foundation for Literature and Poetry International Rotterdam), and two university research and public-outreach centres (Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts and Roehampton Poetry Centre).