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.
For the 48th Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, we took The Poettrio Experiment’s British poets, Sean O’Brien, Fiona Sampson, and Bill Herbert over to the Netherlands to carry out translation laboratories with Dutch poets Menno Wigman, Hélène Gelèns, and Elma van Haren and language advisors Karlein van den Beukel, Willem Groenewegen and Rosemary Mitchell-Schuitevoerder.
Over three days, the British and Dutch poets worked with language advisors in threes to translate the British poetry into Dutch. We filmed and recorded the trios working together, with researchers (Dr Jones, Dr Johnson and Dr Lobejón Santos) sitting in and observing how the trios worked to resolve ‘untranslatables’ and ambiguities, teased out the nuance in the British poems and interacted personally.
After each day’s translating, we interviewed trio participants about their experience of that day’s trio – as the next day, they’d be working in a new trio.
The trios produced a lot of exciting translations and we gathered a large amount of data about how the trio structure worked, as well as how the laboratory worked – remembering that people’s bodies were as important as their minds. Heat, hospital visits, appetites and seating positions all became factors in how trio participants felt that the translation process worked.
As part of the festival programme on Friday, the Dutch and British poets read a selection of their translated poetry, and one trio of Professor Fiona Sampson, Dr Karlien van den Beukel and Hélène Gelèns discussed the process of working together.
Principal Investigator Dr Francis R. Jones and Research Associates Dr Rebecca May Johnson and Dr Sergio Lobejón Santos discussed the trio laboratories with Jan Baeke on stage in front of an audience of festival attendees, commenting on the kind of quantitative and qualitative data we’ll be looking at for our analysis.
See a link to our Poetry International Festival page here. Video of our presentation to follow.
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.