Blog Our Sweet Old Etcetera

Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

The Thursday Post: Trans-Europe Expression

Image: Mária Ridzoňová Ferenčuhová

I fell into conversation with a teacher of French after a poetry event the other night. We discussed reading styles, and the particular effect produced by a poem known by heart  - what’s the word for that? ‘Recited’ doesn’t quite cover it. There’s a hint of ‘rote’ learning inside ‘recite’.  Heart-spoken? (Do send in your suggestions!)

As the train idled at a station, the conversation turned to translation, and she said that she was puzzled by the practice of poets translating from a language with which they weren’t familar. ‘Surely,’ she said, ‘you have to know about sound and nuance and the connotations of words in order to translate successfully?’

She was lucky that the train journey was a short one, as both these topics are much on our mind at the SPL and I could have expatiated on them at some length… With Poetry By Heart Scotland successfully launched this year, Georgi is refining the procedures and working towards a second competition opening in the autumn, with strong support from our Makar, Liz Lochhead. Meanwhile Jennifer and I are preparing for an exciting weekend of translation with visiting poets from Slovakia, Jan Garvura,  Mária Ridzoňová Ferenčuhová and James Sutherland-Smith, and Scottish poets David Kinloch, Gerrie Fellows and Juana Adcock, supported by the Edwin Morgan Trust.

When Maciej Wozniak, our Polish poet in residence, was with us in November, we tried out a translation workshop with anyone who wished to attend; participants varied from being bilingual to having no knowledge of Polish. We worked with literal translations, asking Maciej lots of questions, hearing the poem read several times, gaining a sense of the construction and associations. Maciej was particularly open to the process, encouraging people to be creative with his metaphors and similes, relishing the different kinds of life his poem could have in English. 

And now we have held the same kind of workshops with Gaelic – with Aongas MacNeacail’s generous participation – and with Swedish poetry, being fortunate enough to have a native speaker and a writer on our own staff in the person of Jess Johannesson Gaitan. What excites the participants is being asked to extend the limits of their own practice: to dig deep into their Anglophone capacities, to consider sound, structure, language in new ways, to find ways of producing the same effect on the reader as the poet did on his or her original readers: surprise, recognition, comfort, laughter… and in a voice that isn’t their own, although it may have affinities with their own.

The process will be the same for our poets next weekend, I’m sure, with the great advantage that we have James Sutherland-Smith, present in his own right as a poet but also as an esteemed translator and long-time resident of Slovakia. I believe he’ll be bringing the dictionaries! You’ll be able to hear what has been forged in the intensity of the weekend process on Monday, at Tell It Slant bookshop, and in Edinburgh this summer.

Webster’s dictionary gives the definition of translate as ‘to bear, remove, or change from one place, state, form, or appearance to another’ – so of course the SPL itself has been translated! Here’s what the collection looks like at Orchard Brae, where it is currently housed:

And this is what the SPL building looks like at the moment; there’s more to come on the outside as on the inside – we’ll keep you posted.

Robyn Marsack
SPL Director

Category: translations