Sometimes, as writers, if we tire of the view from the small patch of earth we inhabit, we look to cast our nets wider. The poem in translation is a wondrous thing – self-contained, tardis-like. On a chill, grey November day, what could be better than to be transported to a place where…
… In this heat-struck street
no one is about, except the postman
with his breath-catching letters
and that girl who has forgotten
her childhood secrets.
This heat, which can swallow
whole rivers in a single gulp,
comes and sits silently, like a bird,
awakening the rocks and hills.
Children refuse to play in the sun
which rises each day steeped in blood.
A telephone rings, calling incessantly
from an empty house.
Women’s eyes float through smoke.
[Extract from ‘I have invited this summer for you’ by Kutti Revathi
Translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström]
The work of Kutti Revathi is suffused with the cultural and physical landscape of Tamil Nadu. Opposing the traditional values prescribed for ‘good’ Tamil women – fearfulness, propriety, modesty or shame – Revathi chooses instead fearlessness and outspokenness, and her voice has travelled far to reach us through the medium of translation. Reading her work, I ask myself ‘what do I write for?’ And what do I write against?’
My first experience of poetry in translation was the long poem ‘A Few Things Explained’, written by Pablo Neruda about his experience of the Spanish civil war. It begins:
You will ask: And where are the lilacs?
And the metaphysics muffled in poppies?
And the rain which so often has battered
its words till they sprouted up
gullies and birds?
And the poem ends:
… Come and see the blood in the streets,
the blood in the streets,
come see the blood
in the streets!
Until I felt the urgent breath in my ear of this poet from elsewhere, from half a century ago, I didn’t know poetry could be like this. It was a call to arms.
Poems from elsewhere, from other traditions, offer us limitless possibilities for what poetry can be, opening window after window onto other views.
In ‘Aleppo Diary’, The Syrian poet Fouad Mohammad Fouad writes:
I sit on the balcony. Aleppo spread before me black and deserted. The clatter of crockery in the dark means life goes on. No sound save sporadic gunfire from somewhere, then a single shell preceded by a peculiar whistle. Someone is leaving this planet with a dry throat. Aleppo before me black and still. These huge shadows might be trees or childhood goblins or black vapours exhaled by women waiting for children who are already numbers in a news report.
Aleppo. No oud plucked. No ‘Swaying Silhouette’. No drinks in The Nightingale. No drinkers. No song.
(Extract from ‘Aleppo Diary’ by Fouad Mohammad Fouad
Translation by Samuel Wilder and The Poetry Translation Centre Workshop]
Many of my poems have been inspired by poetry and prose in translation, which offers an unfamiliar starting point, another palette to what I would have chosen. In ‘Carandasi’, from my long poem sequence ‘The Courtesans Reply’, the first and last lines are taken from the poem ‘Two stranger birds in our feathers’ by Mahmoud Darwish, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah. I think of it as a sort of internal epigrah, and it is referenced accordingly.
Tell me I am necessary for you like sleep,
not like opinum which carries forgetting,
or pleasant as a breeze scented with jasmine.
Tell me what you see
behind my art, my bright cloth.
Look into my face and show me.
Tell me what you read in books
and hear in coffee houses,
at wedding parties. Teach me.
When our tired, gladdened bodies
drift onto the bed,
kiss me like a husband
and spread over me an endless blue wing…
Join me as we visit poems translated from Arabic and Amharic, Farsi and French, Korean and Tamil. Each session will generate new work inspired by our reading.
This course is in collaboration with Modern Poetry in Translation magazine, an invaluable resource for contemporary poetry in translation. As a special offer, all students will be entitled to a discounted subscription to Modern Poetry in Translation at £9.95 for 12 months.
Write poems inspired by poets in translation, from Sudan, South Korea, India and beyond, on Shazea’s new online course Hearing Voices: World Poetry in Translation. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.