Archive for the Translation symposium Category

Translation symposium: “They wouldn’t mind minor mistranslations”

© Michele Hutchison

Wednesday, 15 June

This year the festival is increasing the amount of attention paid to poetry translation in the programme. A translation symposium for around forty professional translators was held for the first time on the opening day of the festival. In his opening speech, Bas Kwakman called translation “the backbone of the festival”, while colleague Jan Baeke described it as “the best way of reading a poem”. This year more than five hundred people (mainly Rotterdammers) were invited to try their hand at translating poems by the festival poets beforehand. As a way of inviting involvement in poetry, there certainly is a lot to be said for it.

Nevertheless, there is still a huge gap between the professional translator who must combine linguistic ability, expertise, sensibility and skill, and the amateur whose grasp of the language translated and prosody in general may be limited. How to bridge the gap and bring the two together in an experience from which both parties might benefit? The question was left open with many ideas for improving the programme next year.

Translator Mariolein Sabarte Belacortu outlined the many difficulties she had faced with the complex, often abstract poems of Uruguayan poet, Eduardo Espina. His poems did not include rare or archaic words; no dictionary could help her with the problems his cryptic style posed. She could often only guess at the meaning. Hearing that the particular poem used as an example was based on his experience of his mother’s death, Mariolein wished she’d had this information beforehand. But still, professional translators do often have to rely on their intuition and on reading the poem many many times.

Mariolein Sabarte Belacortu © Michele Hutchison

Eduardo Espina noted that it was difficult to write his poems too, and that they had made his translators look good: “If you can translate this, you can do anything,” he said. His English translator had won prizes. When the audience urged Maroilein to ask him about the very tidy form of his poem, a column of even-length lines, which she had yet been unable to reproduce (her translation was an ongoing work on progress, and she was pleased there was no publisher in sight), he explained that he counted the number of letters in each line. This extreme precision was something his translator currently felt unable to reproduce. Perhaps by getting to know him at the festival, her knowledge of his technique and aims will facilitate the revision stage. Not everything can be picked up on by close reading and intuition.

Canadian poet Erín Moure gave a talk which reminded of me of my previous experiences of poets translating poets. While professional translators tend to be tidy-minded people with good analytical skills, poets find the act of re-creating the poem more exciting than understanding it. They often translate using sound association and feeling, as though there might be a universal poetics, in the way some believe in a universal grammar. Moure explained her own translation technique: “the body responds to the text”, “at the moment of writing, there is no possible theory”, “all translation is creative” – an equally valid approach at the festival.

Finally, Norwegian translator Roald van Elswijk outlined the set of tools he’d used to translate Øyvind Rimbereid’s 2004 masterpiece Solaris Korrigert (Solaris Corrected) – an impressive futuristic epic poem which combines various dialects with old Norse, borrows from English, Danish, Scottish and Dutch and includes hybrids and neologisms. You could see the translators pricking up their ears all over the room. By putting together an equivalent tool packet made up of standard Dutch, old Dutch, dialects, Frisian, Afrikaans, Flemish and Dutch-English, van Elswijk was able to create an inspired translation. The freedom he had to mix sources was clearly beneficial: he’d had more trouble translating some of the poets more traditional work which left less room for manoeuvre. Rimbereid praised the translation, adding “a translator’s role is to remake, not to transport, you need to be a poet at the other end as well.”