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My voice : a decade of poems from the Poetry Translation Centre by Sarah Maguire (editor) (Bloodaxe Books, 2014)

For many immigrant communities within the UK, poetry is of overwhelming importance. Our July 2015 Poetry Library Book Club as part of Poetry International looked at the anthology My Voice: A Decade of Poems from the Poetry Translation Centre - which was launched at last year's Poetry International Festival.


An introduction to the  Poetry Translation Centre and the My Voice anthology:

Sarah Maguire who edited this anthology, founded the Poetry Translation Centre (PTC).  Maguire was born in west London in 1957 and left school early to train as a gardener.  Her horticultural career has had a significant impact on her poetry: her third collection of poems The Florist's at Midnight (Jonathan Cape, 2001) brought together all her poems about plants and gardens, and she edited the anthology, Flora Poetica: the Chatto Book of Botanical Verse (2001). Her most recent collection of poems is The Pomegranates of Kandahar (Chatto & Windus. 2007). Maguire was the first writer to be sent to Palestine (1996) and Yemen (1998) by the British Council. As a result of these visits she developed a strong interest in Arabic literature (her first attempt at co-translation was in Palestine) and this led to her becoming the Royal Literary Society's Writing Fellow at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) 2001-2003. Inspired by her own translation attempts and by an issue of the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation called Mother tongues; non English-language poetry in English edited by Stephen Watts, she decided to mine the expertise of the students and faculty of SOAS. She set up fortnightly poetry translation workshops. The format of the workshops was as follows:

1. A workshop member brings along copies of poem they like in their language which they provide a very basic literal translation of.
2. Other workshop attendees then attempt to make a effective poem in English from the literal translation. They try to stay as close to the original poet's intention as possible.
3. The participants would then learn about the poetry/language/customs/landscapes of many different cultures.

From these workshops Maguire discovered the majority of poets that have gone on to be translated in this anthology.  Workshops remain the core activity of PTC. It doesn't have its own building but it has a great website and you can contact them via the website or by writing to them at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon. They are funded by the Arts Council.

The centre invites established UK poets to work with native speakers (who often know the poet) on the translations. The aim of the PTC is "to translate leading contemporary poets from Africa, Asia and Latin America, all of whom are highly respected in their own culture. By translating their poetry we aim to introduce them to new audiences in the hope that their work will have an impact on poetry written in English". To date, they've translated 400 poems written in 27 different languages by 89 poets from 39 countries.

The anthology My Voice was published in 2014 to celebrate the Poetry Translation Centre's 10th anniversary.  Many more translations can be read on their website (including literal translations and final translations). In her introduction to the anthology Maguire states that she has tried to arrange the poems on a journey "from exile to ecstasy".

We looked closely at the following poems:

1. 'My Voice' p21 by Partaw Naderi &  The 'Football' p by Reza Mohammadi p89 (both Afghanistan)

We began by looking at two very short poems by two Afghanistan poets of different generations who write in Dari. 

Dari Persian language
Dari is one of the two official languages of Afghanistan, and it's the native tongue of about half of the population. The other official language is Pashto, spoken by about 35 percent. In addition, about 11 percent of Afghans speak a Turkic language (either Uzbek or Turkmen) and there are numerous other languages as well, such as Baluchi, Pashai, and Nuristani. Many Afghans are bilingual, often speaking more than one language as well as several dialects of those languages.
Written Dari
Dari uses a modified version of the Arabic alphabet, with thirty-two letters as opposed to twenty-eight in Arabic. Dari does not have capital letters, but uses an adapted form of Western punctuation. Written Dari has the following characteristics:
It is read from right to left, except for numbers, which go from left to right.
Dari letters are distinguished by one, two, or three dots, which are placed above or below the letter -or, in some cases, by the lack of dots.

Partaw Naderi was born in Badakhshan a northern province of Afghanistan in 1331 [1953]. He studied in his birthplace and graduated from the Faculty of Sciences at Kabul University in 1354 [1976]. He was imprisoned in the notorious Pul-e-Charki prison by the Soviet-backed regime for three years in the 1980s shortly after he'd begun to write poetry. He is now widely regarded as one of the leading modernist poets in Afghanistan, the lyrical intensity of his work coupled with his bold use of free verse distinguishing him as a highly original and important poet, and has published 10 books or poetry and 8 books of criticism. After years in exile he recently returned to live in Kabul where he is president of Afghan PEN.
This poem is translated by Sarah Maguire and Yami Yara a Dari speaker.


1. In her introduction to this anthology Sarah Maguire says that in the act of writing the poem 'My Voice', "in mourning the annihilating loss of his voice... the poet once again reclaims his voice". Do you agree?
2. Do you know the story of Jonah and the Whale?  If you do, what does that bring to the poem? Has the whale saved the poet's voice or stolen it?
3. This is the title poem of the anthology.  Do you think My Voice is a good title for this anthology?

Move on to "The Football"

The prize-winning poet, Reza Mohammadi, widely regarded as one of the most exciting young poets writing in Persian today, was born in Kandahar in 1979. He studied Islamic Law and then Philosophy in Iran before obtaining an MA in Globalisation from London Metropolitan University. His three collections of poetry have gained him many awards, such as from the Afghan Ministry of Culture in 2004 and prizes for being Iran's best young poet in 1996 and 1997. Reza Mohammadi is also a prolific journalist and cultural commentator. His articles have been published in journals in Afghanistan and Iran, as well as in English by The Guardian.
The poem is translated by award winning Irish poet Nick Laird with Dari speaker Hamid Kabir. Laird has 3 collections with Faber. He was born in 1975, so is a similar age to the poet.

4. What does the ball represent for you? Both of these poems feature rivers - what do the rivers represent?
5. "My Voice" has punctuation, "The Football" doesn't. Would "The Football" work as well without punctuation? Would "My Voice" benefit from punctuation?
6. In his essay on translating Reza Mohammadi's poems Nick Laird says that he was having real trouble with his translations but when he heard the poet read in Dari, "It was almost irrelevant that I couldn't understand a word he was saying. I got the tone, the style, the import. He read in this unembarrassed, enthralled, rather grand voice and if that was how the poet read them, that was also how they were written" that he shouldn't try "to tame or domesticate his poems into western ideas of order or neatness".  Has Laird achieved this? Isn't punctuation, compressing the poem (getting rid of the spaces between some of the lines) taming the poem?
7. Should a translation try to mimic the layout of the original?

You can read the literal translation of "The Football" on the Poetry Translation website here: http://www.poetrytranslation.org/poems/the-football/literal 
 

2. 'Marks of Time' p255 by Coral Bracho (translated by Katherine Pierpoint and Tom Boll) (Mexico)

Coral Bracho was born in Mexico City in 1951. Her first collection Fish with fugacious skin came in 1977 while her most recent collection Hotel room came in 2007. She is acknowledged as one of the most prominent and exciting poets writing in Mexico today, with her 1981 collection Being toward death considered to be one of the most influential collections of poetry in Mexican culture of the second half of the 20th century. The poet Forrest Gander, who translated her selected poems for New Directions Press, has said of her work:
"The poems made me think of Gaudi architecture, but underwater. They share that sideways-slipping meditative grace of John Ashbery's poems, the exotic lexical range of J. H. Prynne, and a vivid sensuality that English-language readers might liken to Gertrude Stein's 'Lifting Belly'".

1. How do the line lengths make you feel?
2. 'between my lovely, white dress flying/and the dark, dark hole of the mine' - is there danger in this poem? Danger of what?
3. Is this a religious poem?
4. 'Clouds of quartz, and flint, up high' - What do you feel is being evoked here? 
5. Does the title fit the poem? [The literal translation is "Sketch of time" - the full literal translation can be read here http://www.poetrytranslation.org/poems/marks-of-time/literal]

3. 'My Mother's Language' p245 by Abdellatif Laâbi (Morocco)

Abdellatif Laâbi is widely acknowledged as being one of the most important poets writing today. Laâbi was born in Fez in 1942. He began writing in the mid-1960s, publishing his first novel in 1969. In 1966 he founded the renowned literary magazine Souffles, a journal of literature and politics that was to earn its editor an eight-year prison sentence (from 1972 to 1981) under the authoritarian reign of Hassan II. Once released from jail, Laâbi left Morocco in 1985 and has lived in Paris ever since. He is a prolific poet, novelist and playwright and has won many awards. His collected poems were published in French in 2009. This poem was translated by poet, critic and translator André Naffis-Sahely who is working on the English selected poems of Abdellatif Laâbi due from Carcanet in August 2015.

1. Does the second line of this poem shock you?
2. Does the poet not regretting the loss of his mother's coffee cups shock you?
3. If I hadn't already told you the poet's biography would the poem have made sense to you?
4. Do you like that this poem has no punctuation but that a capital letter indicates a new sentence? What effect does this create?
5. Is it good that as well has speaking his mother's "endangered sayings" he's also speaking "her profanities, curses, gibberish"? What is the final line saying about language?


4. 'The Flower is Torn at the Heart' p297 (Pakistan) by Noshi Gillani - translated by Lavinia Greenlaw and Nukhbah Taj Langah

Noshi Gillani was born in Bahawalpur, Pakistan in 1964. She studied at Bahawalpur University. She settled in San Francisco, USA in 1995 but moved to Australia after her marriage to Saeed Khan an Australian-based Urdu poet in 2008. The couple lives in Sydney, Australia.
The candour and frankness of Gillani's poems is unusual for a woman writing in Urdu and she has gained a committed international audience, performing at large poetry gatherings in Pakistan, Australia, Canada and the USA.  What it means to be a woman from Pakistani culture, what it means to be part of a diaspora - these two themes run through her writing.
Gillani has co-translated the  Australian poet Les Murray into Urdu, and co-founded the Urdu Academy of Australia  in Sydney in 2009. The Academy organises monthly sittings in Sydney to promote Urdu Poetry and literature.
Her latest book of poetry The Breeze Whispers   was published in 2011 in Lahore, Pakistan. The book received such a warm response that its first edition was reported sold out within 2 hours of its arrival in Urdu Bazar, an online Pakistani Bookstore. 

Lavinia Greenlaw who created this version from Nukhbah Taj Langah's literal translation is a British poet and novelist. William Wotton, writing in The Guardian, has commented on 'the sensuous of her thought and her ability to move between the abstract and the precisely observed', while Andrew Motion has commented that  "her work is ... lingeringly memorable for the way it combines an excited way of thinking with a calm way of looking." 
Podcast of the poem in the English and Urdu:
11.38 - 13.25 (Each poem is read first in English translation by Lavinia Greenlaw and then in Urdu by the novelist Kamila Shamsie).

1. 'The whole thing wavers' - what 'whole thing' do you feel the poem referring to?
2. One of the translators, Lavinia Greenlaw, has described Gillani's work as 'arrangements of exploded feeling' - is this description a useful way into the poem?
3. Is this a sonnet?
4. Is this a love poem?
5. Do these seven couplets successfully become one unit or do they remain seven discrete entities?
A literal translation of the poem can be read here:


5. 'Post scriptum' p229 by Toeti Heraty (Indonesia) translated by Carole Satyamurti

Toeti Heraty was born in Bandung in West Java, Indonesia, in 1933. She is a poet, a feminist, a human rights activist, a philosopher, and an art collector. She has a Chair in philosophy and leads Indonesia's oldest and most recognised law firm which specialises in intellectual copyright. In the introduction to her 2008 pamphlet from the Poetry Translation Centre, Professor Ulrich Kratz comments: "Her writing is open but not self-pitying, and it is always tinged with a feeling of regret and loss. Toeti's voice is uncompromisingly female".
Carole Satyamurti has published five books of poetry, including Broken Moon (1987), Changing the Subject (1990) and Striking Distance (1994). Her most recent collection is Mahabharata : a modern retelling. The Poetry Archive describes her as a poet "who, while careful and amused, is primarily motivated by a generous and humane curiosity."

1. Why not write the poem rather than write a poem about wanting to write the poem?
2. Isn't all poetry 'caught between exposure and concealment'.
3. We looked at an alternative version of the poem translated by Iem Brown and Joan Davis from Di Serambi: On the Verandah: A Bilingual Anthology of Modern Indonesian Poetry (C.U.P., 2012.)
 Which version do you feel is most interesting? Why? [NB the original poem has the word "porno" in the text which might suggest that the second version is nearer to the meaning)
4. The title is the same in the original version. Do you think it's an apt title?


6. 'Star Rise' p175 by Partaw Naderi (Afghanistan) 

This is also by the poet who wrote "My Voice", the first poem we looked at.
1. How could a person be a twin of light or know the history of the sun?
2. In both poems we've looked at by this poet it says where and when the poem was written. Is that significant?
3. Do you find this poem hopeful?


The Poetry Library catalogue can be searched to find other anthologies of poetry in translation: http://p10311uk.eos-intl.eu/P10311UK/ 
Use the search box Country of Origin to search for a specific country. To find anthologies search for Collection Type "Adult Anthologies" and to find anthologies that contain the original language alongside the translation use the search box Word and type in "parallel". 


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