Posts tagged love

Untranslatable worlds – not words

Exquisite food, pleasant talk and wine flowed on Tuesday afternoon under the gingko tree and fat-bellied blackbirds in the garden of former Poetry International board member Jan Hendrik van Dorp and his wife Elisabeth. An excellent opportunity for the festival poets and the staff of Poetry International to get to know each other and to exchange views on topics such as poetry translation.

The act of writing is firstly the wording of the poets’ inner voice into a language nurtured by a specific understanding of the world. And translating this inevitably demands some effort when relocating a concept into a language in which it does not exist. Take for instance the use of the polite form of the second person, “vous”, in French. How do we find an equivalent in English if its most straightforward translation – “thou” – has fallen into disuse? To what extent does this lack of a direct translation imply the absence of the concepts linked to it? Do poets differ from other people in the way they see the world?

© Sarah Ream

Amina Saïd (who is from Tunisia and writes in French) commented, “I did not choose the language I’m writing in; my mother tongue chose me instead.” Doina Ioanid (Romania) argued that “the difficulty of translating one’s own poem lies in not creating a new poetical composition from it”. “Indeed”, answered Ion Mureşan (Romania) to my objection that a greater distance from my mother tongue gives me more freedom to express, for instance, love, to someone in Dutch or even in Arabic in a way that I would never dare to confess to myself in Catalan or Spanish. “However”, he added, “you only can bring forth the nuances of what you are saying when using your first language.” Perhaps he was right. Nevertheless, whether distance from one’s words might further or hamper the translation of poetry, it seems from Bakhyt Kenzjejev’s request for simultaneous translation of his poems in Russian when reading earlier in the day at the Rotterdam town hall that what ultimately matters is to be understood by your audience.

(I might add that foregoing conversations were held in French and hence, my translation of these into English may be as incomplete and idiosyncratic as my own memories of them.)