To showcase the fruits of a week’s hard work translating poetry at Newcastle University, and to bring together creative practitioners and translators from all over the UK, The Poettrio Experiment hosted a public event with a focus on collaboration.
[For the uninitiated: the poet-language advisor-poet trios work collaboratively and in person, and the poets are not necessarily experts in each other’s language. However, because of the contemporary hegemony of English as global lingua franca, the Dutch poets in this experiment were more familiar with English than the English poets were with Dutch. In our academic analysis, we explore how trios function, from the patterns of communication that arise between participants, to the strategies used to tackle problems of poetry translation and how moments of creativity arise in a trio setting.]
During the second half of the evening, the concept of collaborative translation was opened up to wider interpretation by poets, composers, artists and experimental translation practitioners visiting from University of Birmingham, University of Warwick, Roehampton University and beyond, as well as Newcastle University. This half brought in poets and creatives who had not previously engaged with translation in their own work to reflect on how they could re-imagine the process.
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.
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
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
I asked Delaina to respond to my initial piece and then sent both pieces to Line. Initially I had asked Line to respond visually but she asked if I wanted text as well which I hadn’t thought about, this was then left up to her & she added some text which I think enhances the whole piece & process. In terms of my piece I’d been looking to write a section of my book about being on holiday in Spain immediately before the planned birth of a baby that I knew would die. Although I spoke Spanish it was very rusty & I thought a lot about not having the words to explain easily in any language. Being able to do the piece in a kind of free dialogue with other people whose outcomes were unknown was really liberating & interesting. Writing the piece I had to translate ideas linguistically which was an interesting process & was really insightful in terms of thinking about acts of translation & linguistic spaces. Initially Delaina was unsure how she could respond to it, I suggested a list but the process was really open to us all individually & she went with what worked. I’ve since expanded the piece to include other unspoken elements (not in original due to timing restraints). We gave each other feedback on pieces but essentially decisions were left with the individuals.
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.
I have no previous experience in this area other than I write a lot in response to visual prompts (taken generally by me but also via projects such as Visual Verse & Spontaneity Art)
‘Ask me about my baby’ translates ‘Traduccion de mi mente’ into an alternative experience of baby loss. In the first part of ourcollaboration, Clare’s audio text searches for language to express a wish not to be asked questions. My response comprises four vignettes depicting the absence of a baby and how this absence influences dialogue with strangers. The experience of a presence and a wish not to be asked questions is translated into the experience of an absence and the desire to be asked questions.
Ourcollaborationisperhapsremarkable in that I have never met Clare or Line. Clare and I were put in touch by a mutual friend who knew we were both writing about baby loss, and who also told us about the Poettrio call for submissions. The inspiration for ourcollaboration came relatively easily. Clare was inspired by her experience of needing to learn Spanish to deal with a traumatic situation. For me, this quickly translated into my most difficult experience: finding the language to express something no longer visible. Clare suggested a list of questions that often get asked and their imagined, desired answers alongside the real answers: ‘Do you have children?’; ‘Yes, one but he died’; ‘No.’ But I was cautious not to appear to blame anyone for any questions that I may have been. Instead, I chose snippets of scenes which suggest the pain and loss. I’m used to writing longer prose texts, and Clare was instrumental in helping me cut this down to the bare minimum for the impact of suggestion.
I am a translator and a writer, and this collaboration combined these two functions. I most often translate sociological texts from French. Creating ‘Underflow’ was closer to my experience of writing experimental memoir and poetry than it was to my experience as a translator.
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.
Jessica Sequeira and Jessica Rainey both translate from Spanish to English. Their collaboration responds to the work of young Chilean poets and includes audio-visuals, translations and documentary poems sourced from Chilean news reports.
At the presentation (at which Jessica Sequeira could not be present, as she was in Chile) a video that she made with Jessica Rainey was screened while Jessica Rainey read over it.
Read the text and watch the video piece below:
Part 3: process and presentation
I collaborated with Jessica Rainey, another translator from Spanish to English. For the Poettrio Experiment, we wanted to focus on Latin American poetry that included but was not limited to “straight” translations of the text from one language to another. Over email we threw around ideas about how we might incorporate video and documentary poetry. As I happen to be in Santiago de Chile at the moment, we also thought this would be a great opportunity to incorporate some work by contemporary poets, more or less young (under 40). With four poets who work at the Fundación Neruda in Chile, I recorded a video that combines abstract images, the poets’ readings of their work in Spanish, and my English language translations of the texts. This came to just under five minutes. The poets were very enthusiastic about getting involved, as well as about seeing their work translated, having it presented abroad, and opening it up to further avantgarde or creative possibilities; they were also very curious about Newcastle and its literary and translation scene! Jessica then had the great idea of producing “found poem” responses to the original poems and translations, incorporating documentary material from Chile. She wrote several docu-poems which are timed to be read during the live performance, during gaps in the video between poems and translations. This has been a wonderful process, which involved chance (my pairing with another Jessica working SP > EN; my presence in Santiago for a poetry festival at La Chascona), “standard” translation (the rendering of four poets’ work into English), collaboration (the use of documentary material inspired by Jessica’s background, which I would never have thought to add myself) and modernist techniques (the incorporation of cut-up texts using non-fiction materials). The title of our project, “The difficult art of living in Santiago de Chile”, is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it was thought up in collaboration with the four Santiago poets, who all write urban literature that very much reflects their interests and concerns as poets in the capital.
The fact that Jessica Sequeira was in Chile working with poets was too good an opportunity to miss and became the obvious starting point for our collaboration. We agreed that the Poettrio Experiment was a chance to experiment with translation processes or presentation options that we might not otherwise have the opportunity to explore, and early on decided that it would be great to introduce a multi-media aspect to the presentation as a way to ensure the (otherwise physically absent) presence of the majority of the participants. Beyond that, the collaboration became quite an organic process, and effectively fell into two parts. In Chile, Jessica S. worked with the source poets, adeptly selecting, translating, recording and producing an audio-visual film. Meanwhile, I considered options for introducing documentary elements into the project – background information, news clips or article extracts – though it was not until I received the texts and video that my possible contribution became clearer. I decided to select key words, images or concepts from each individual poem and run an online search for relevant reports from Chilean media sources or organisations. Rather than translate these sources wholesale, I used the reports to create ‘found’ or ‘documentary’ poem-translations to give a flavour of Chile as portrayed by its media, yet accessed and processed by an outsider who had never visited the country. Although sentences or phrases do not necessarily appear in consecutive order, the translation of each unit can be described as faithful, with the exception of the fourth poem where some words or phrases were intentionally omitted. Wilful mistranslation or misrepresentation of facts, however, was never an aim of this stage. Rather, the aim was to support the original poems in concept and tone while providing an objective counterpoint to the lyric and translated poems. Among the initial ideas for incorporating the found poems was to include subtitles on the video; however, as the video was complete and neither of us were sufficiently techie to easily introduce them, the only other possibility seemed to be a live reading alongside the video projection. The reading of the found poems at times overlaps the source poems, at times the translations, in what is an imperfect but hopefully interesting polyphonic experiment. In keeping with the idea of translation trios and poetry experiments, then, we have somewhat inadvertently produced a three-tiered project (source poems, translated poems plus additional translation layer) that began in Chile with a live collaboration between poets and an initial translator, and ends in Newcastle with a live performance involving a second translator and finished film.
Composer and writer Martin Heslop and poet Helen Tookey collaborated to produce highly effective sound pieces, where sound and word were constantly re-translated across media.
They presented ‘Jitties’ at the event on the 20th July.
WATCH a film of Martin and Helen’s presentation
Listen to the collaborative piece “Jitties” here:
Here is Helen’s text:
aren’t on the map but you’ve always known them the dogleg through to the playschool the library the cuts through estates the tunnels that bring you out differently you have always wanted this to move unseen to cut passages able to slip through the cracks like the streams along the field edge the housebacks the narrowways the creosote fences overhangs of trees the gardens’ wild endings not overlooked not comprehended another life under this one humming with motorway a kind of code you slip away you’ve always known it danger under culverts circling spikes to stop you crossing by the pipeline watercourses older ways the body can read can know their presence motorway humming with escapes not speaking turning inwards creosote wood hot slabs tiny observation posts world expands to fill the space allowable constraint produces meaning under pressure it codes heightens you are aware the wires the tracks humming for miles concentrated here where you must be not speaking but knowing everything is there in the spaces between
Read their account of the collaborative translation process they forged:
The process began with conversations between Martin and me about what I had wanted the poems to convey or how I had wanted them to work as poems, and what he envisaged being able to do with them as sound pieces. Martin recorded me reading the poems, then he took the sound files away to work with and I waited to see what he would come up with. It was exciting for me precisely because he was creating new objects from the poems in a way that I couldn’t do myself. Many of the poems use fragmentation to try to convey a particular experience; in ‘Jitties’ I wanted to convey a sense of the language sliding, piling up, and in ‘Beautiful Error’ a sense of a mind going over and over a question, trying it out in lots of different ways. But I could only do that to some extent, because the text (printed or read) is fixed in one layout, one order. What I really love about the collaboration with Martin is that he’s been able to bring what I imagined into being through recorded sound far more than I could do it on the printed page – cutting up the vocal track, layering it over itself, so that you really get the sense I wanted of a kind of urgency and slipperiness. And the sound also enables the build-up of a mood, a texture – of eeriness, say, in ‘Beautiful Error’ – far more effectively than just the printed words could. So what I have found really exciting about this process is that on the one hand I’m giving the text, the poem, to Martin with a completely free hand – I want it to be entirely up to him what he makes from it, so that it comes back to me, as it were, as a new object; but on the other hand, with these poems that has actually resulted in a more complete realisation of what I wanted the poems to be able to do, because sound recording adds so many possibilities, particularly that of being able to make the language move and track over itself in ways that a fixed text can’t.
These particular poems of Helen’s, as opposed to some of our other work, were presented to me as finished pieces, and so in order to make something new I immediately decided that I was going to cut and splice the words, to repeat them, layer them, reverse them. Helen very kindly gave me free rein in this. The recordings of the text already had an immediacy and pace to them and I wanted to encourage that. I began by noting down sounds from the real everyday world that the poems reminded me of, then started exaggerating them or bastardising them until they sounded like something completely different. Sometimes these sounds that I’m looking for are in an instrument or a synthesiser, but equally can be found in the noises of a building site or in a long breath or in the clatter of metal. I go around hitting things, pressing buttons, listening until I find the right sound or mood.
It’s always a strange process, translating poetry which is able to describe all the senses, into a recording that is only experienced by the ears, and the challenge, as always, was to find the right tone; to work with the words but not be prescriptive or predictable; to find the right pacing and in some cases rhythm, and particularly in this case as these are short pieces, to set the mood quickly. There are also the odd times when I feel the need to disrupt the words, to impose on them, and the key is to know when to do this, and with Helen’s delicate yet precise writing I have to be careful. A lot of my music is written in collaboration with poets, playwrights and visual artists, and the style and tone of each project is different, but the joy of working with Helen is the care in which each word is placed on the page, their flow, but also how often the poems end up in unexpected places, and consequently this gives me plenty of room to experiment with sounds.
I recently read a book called Animalinside by the wonderful Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai with drawings by Max Neumann, and reading about their process afterwards was particularly interesting. The writer first responded to one of Neumann’s images and then Neumann, inspired by the words, made a further set of images, to which Krasznahorkai then responded by writing more texts. This back and forth, this cross-pollination of ideas and art-forms is exciting, and the projects myself and Helen are planning and developing are moving towards this way of working.
Helen Tookey is a poet based in Liverpool, where she teaches creative writing at Liverpool John Moores University. Her debut collection Missel-Child (Carcanet, 2014) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney first collection prize. Her pamphlet In the Glasshouse was published by HappenStance Press in 2016, and the CD/booklet If You Put Out Your Hand, a collaboration with musician Sharron Kraus, came out from Wounded Wolf Press also in 2016.
MartinHeslop is a composer, writer and sound artist based in Newcastle. He has written musical scores and lyrics for short and full-length theatre shows and film, and has worked on many collaborations with poets, playwrights and visual artists for live performances, recordings and installations. He is currently studying for an MA in creative writing at Newcastle University.