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Transreading Central Europe

When I mention I translate contemporary Polish poetry, I’m often asked: ‘Do you translate Szymborska?’ ‘I might, but I don’t,’ I explain, ‘there’re so many other poets who deserve equal attention.’ By now Szymborska, Różewicz, Herbert, Miłosz and Zagajewski have become household names also in English; they’re fortunate to have some poems in more than one version. I say ‘fortunate,’ because these differing versions record patient readings of particular readers. They show us that someone was intrigued enough to spend a lot of time in their company – they were read, re-read, contemplated, analysed, parsed, put together again, read, re-read, given another life, another chance to be read more widely.

Translation, many would agree, is the most concentrated form of reading. Daniel Weissbort, the founder, with Ted Hughes, of Modern Poetry in Translation, wrote that it’s the most acute reading. Can we bring similar concentration and acuteness to reading a poem whose original language we don’t know? I believe we can – in the creative re-reading of its translation (a crib or a more polished version) that leads to rewriting, which, in turn, allows us to inhabit the poem.

Poets have always claimed poems in such a way. By imaginative rewording and reworking, new versions of Homer, Catullus, Sappho, Dante, Rilke, Neruda, Ritsos have entered the English language. Some of them deliberately upset the norms of fidelity (‘faithfulness’ in translation is a paradox in itself); some have been purposefully collated from existing versions by translators who may or may not know the original languages. I speak of ‘version’ interchangeably with ‘translation’ here, although I’m well aware that in the UK poets such as Don Patterson have argued for their different status (see, for example, Patterson’s ‘Fourteen Notes on the Version’ closing his rewritten Rilke sonnets, Orpheus). Yet, if we accept that any new poem is a translation of sorts, because it has come into being thanks to our linguistic decisions, the distinction between ‘versioning’ and ‘translating’ becomes a matter of degree.

I choose to accept the opinion expressed so aptly by Octavio Paz: ‘Each original poem is the translation of the unknown or absent text.’ I choose to ignore the largely misquoted Robert Frost statement that poetry is what’s lost in translation. I’m interested in Marilyn Hacker’s description of creative rewriting as ‘a battle between the literal and the pleasing,’ though I consider it in less belligerent terms. I opt for Derek Mahon’s approach as explained in his preface to Echo’s Grove: ‘the best plan may be to approximate with zest, to refuse pedantry and intimidation.’ I choose to repeat, after Clive Scott, a translator of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, that any translation is ‘an autobiography of the reading self.’

Therefore, in our course, without pedantry and intimidation, I hope, though with imaginative acumen, we will read together: not Szymborskas, but other poets who merit similar recognition. We could have easily focused exclusively on Poland; however, I thought it might be revealing to look at Central Europe. Can we spot affinities between these poets and poems? Can we recognize common preoccupations? Can we pinpoint difference and idiosyncrasies? Sometimes after readings I’m told that Polish poetry has specific qualities not usually found in English-language poems. I even tried to investigate such impressions in a short essay published on the Modern Poetry in Translation website after our launch of the Polish issue at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 2013. I would be interested to know how these qualities can be better described and which of them may be shared by other Central European poetries.

Every fortnight we will look at a few poems selected from recent anthologies (e.g. New European Poets or The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry), magazines or individual collections. One discussion thread will be devoted to our close readings of these texts: to better appreciate them and to test which elements – original images, word choices, formal solutions – we would like to transfer into our own poems.

Additionally, every fortnight I will upload examples of one rewriting strategy typically used in translation. In our second discussion thread we will comment on the ways poet-translators have employed it to their advantage. In translation certain elements are frequently omitted (erasure) or added (annotation) or changed (recontextualization). Naturally, English versions sound differently, but their aural transformation doesn’t have to be seen as loss. Our awareness of such differences can spark versions which will play with our (mistaken?) perceptions of how the original sound may migrate into English: we’ll see how Louis Zukofsky approximated Catullus in his homophonic translation or how Philip Gross wrote a whole poem around one Dutch word.

Each written assignment combines the two discussion threads. We will see how the formal constraints defined by the rewriting strategies will help us to shape our thoughts, emotions and words prompted by the selection from Central European poetry. We will define for ourselves how literal or pleasing our versions may be. Transfiguring the unknown texts composed by unfamiliar poets, we will create new autobiographies of our reading selves.

Fancy trying your hand at ‘transreading’? Book your place on Transreading Central Europe with Elzbieta Wójcik-Leese* via the Poetry School website or ring 0207 582 1679.

*Transreading Central Europe the first in a new series of International Courses, online poetry courses suitable for international students, as well as those based in the UK. They are the same as our interactive online courses; however there are no live chats (all feedback is written) and the courses can be completed from any time zone.


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Image: Untitled (sign. XIII/XV) Blue Abstraction

Image credit: Jerzy Nowosielski