Found in Translation: The Art of Approximation

Forays in poetry translation

The package appeared on my doorstep without explanation, postmarked France – a curious arrival in faraway Singapore. It was the year of my A-Levels, when everything beyond the classroom seemed a world away, and university only a distant possibility. Inside, I discovered a road-worn issue of the journal La Traductière, which had run a special edition on poetry from Singapore, and included one of my poems, translated into French. After months of somewhat erratic correspondence with someone continents away, it had finally taken shape. Here was my contributors’ copy.

It was my first serious encounter with poetry in a different language, let alone a translation of my own work. Wrapped in a different tongue – which I struggled to pronounce, and did not understand – the lines I had painstakingly crafted took on a life and fluency of their own. The idea that someone could bend those lines into beauty, in a language (and cultural world) totally beyond my grasp, brought an odd, humbling sort of pride.

Translation can strike modern, cosmopolitan readers like ourselves as an arcane art: the preserve of linguists or anthropologists dedicated to the study of the parochial. Given the monolingual global mainstream many of us inhabit, the thought that there are whole worlds of meaning bound up in other languages can seem quaint, and by definition inaccessible. Here in Oxford, where English-language interviews are a precondition of university entry for many international students, it is all too easy to fall in to the assumption that language shouldn’t be that much of a barrier.

This misses the point. Other languages are valuable in themselves as carriers of other ways of seeing, and are a powerful symbol of the diversity of thought that our world accommodates. Other languages are especially precious in poetry, where individual ways of seeing the parochial or the personal are distilled in highly particular words. Insofar as poetry consists of ‘best words in their best order’, distinct languages provide their own logic to the words we use, and how we use them.

Such complexity provides ample ground for considering the translator’s role in bringing poetry into a different word-world. In his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Bernard O’Donoghue speaks of lending it the currency to “stand outside its traditions”, as a poem that “speaks to all ages”. Other translators take issue with this universalizing impulse, and strive instead to recreate a whiff of the world in which the original existed. Whether in transformation or preservation, however, translation can be seen as the invaluable means by which we seek to extend the bounds of beauty.

In the summer, I worked on several Mandarin-to-English translations for UNION, a new anthology of writing from Singapore, surveying fifty years of the country’s history. Though I’ve been based in the UK since 2013, and the pieces I translated came from the mould and milieu of an older generation, the work brought me into an imaginative landscape I recognized as being, somehow, my own. As I considered various permutations in the English, I reached towards the voice in which, I felt, the pieces hit closest to home, that of my late grandfather patiently narrating his childhood into mine.

It is possible that this is, after all, what characterizes the translator’s role: the self-searching required to draw what is (to readers) a second-language text, into the close, painful intimacy of their first. Even for the polyglots among us, there is a feeling of truth about one’s first language that is nearly irreplaceable in all the others. A translator must find words in one language to capture what is bold and vulnerable about someone’s writing in another. But are such linguistic and empathetic leaps unique to translations?

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Paul Muldoon at Oxford University Poetry Society

I found my answer at two poetry readings held in Oxford later in the year, by Micheal O’Siadhail and Paul Muldoon. Both poets read fluently and powerfully in English. But listening to the unmistakable Gaelic lilt in their voices as they referred again and again to a sensitively remembered Irish landscape, I began to understand that even our poems in our first languages can be translations themselves from other, inner languages — not least the languages of childhood or experience. Indeed, it is often precisely the translator’s impulse that guides poetry: the desire to convey what one recognizes as beauty in one’s most keenly-felt language. 

Over the past month, I’ve been helping to oversee a forthcoming anthology called Flight, which aims to present poetry which speaks from, and responds to, the refugee crisis. We were fortunate to receive, for the project, translations of Arabic poetry on the themes of exile and homelessness by Oxford-based poet Yousif Qasmiyeh. Though these pieces, like their authors and translator, have crossed seas and languages, they express in English some of the truth and urgency in which they were first written. The distance narrows as I read them.

If our translations, as exercises in empathy, begin to reach for glimpses of humanity which connect us, despite our different languages, then perhaps we can begin to trust each other more. Even in difference, language can afford us a window into other worlds. It is an opportunity too precious to let slip.

Theophilus Kwek

Theophilus Kwek has published two collections of poetry, and is President of the Oxford University Poetry Society. 

This article was amended on 11th January 2016 to remove quotes from translations prepared specifically for publication in Flight. The author apologizes unreservedly for sharing them prematurely.

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