One Poem, Many Languages

By: Tice Cin

Opportunities are arising for poets to be free to explore the malleability of language and still have the chance to be published. Our current publishing climate is changing as the accessibility of art changes, with international connections being made through social media and a growing amount of readers ready to research and sift through archives, to find the material that they want. Pinpointing how this shift occurred is difficult but it is fair to say that poetry readings across the globe are changing, as poets slip between languages in the act of self-expression. In consideration of this I have asked some of the Barbican Young Poets for their views on poetry in translation and looked into the work of other young writers to help promote the work being done to change how we perceive poetry and elevate the UK poetry tradition.

This year, in her essay ‘Letters From A (Young) Female Poet’, Momtaza Mehri shared how she discovers poetry online by finding ‘rare archived poetry journals from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E to the Black Arts Movement’s Black Dialogue’ and ‘Mutabaruka performances on SoundCloud.’ It is this culture of “crate digging” for poems that has altered the sort of material that readers engage with - fortunate for the increased popularity of poetry in translation.

The ‘aesthetic transfer’ of poetry from English to decolonialised languages gives writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o a new scope to transgress literary divides. How can we carry on using English in our poetry without decentring our multilingual voices? I asked Troy Cabida, a Barbican Young Poet, how he felt the programme had helped with this linguistic conflict. His recent poetry credits include Bukambibig, Our Own Voice, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and The Ofi Press, where his poetry has been translated into Spanish:

R.A. Villanueva taught us to challenge the way we italicise other languages in poetry when the main body is written in English and the importance of that italicisation, and through that I’ve really seen a shift in the translation and treatment of “foreign” languages in today’s poetry, which I think is a step forward for the most part.

We must pay attention to the subtle notes within poetry and the way in which this can be diluted by poetic norms such as italicisation. I spoke to Barbican Young Poets alumnus, Megha Harish and the accessibility of different languages of poetry in London:

English is my first language by a mile, but some things/themes/concepts/vegetables(!!) only exist to me in Tamil/Hindi. I’ve recently been trying to play with accents and code switching also, which I think is not done enough. We’re so good at appreciating multilingualism but so judgy about multi-accentism /code switching.

PTC poet, Bejan Matur is a fantastic example of where 'multi-accentism and code switching' within poetry can imbue work with a rich contemporary detail that gives the poem an honest and distinctive timbre. Navigating this while utilising a linguistic range is an exciting challenge for poets. I am really interested in presenting poetry in parallel with more than one language: the art of holding a tinted glass over the original piece, to see it speak in a different shape and perspective. Translation as a methodology. BYPoet and member of Octavia, a collective for women of colour, Zahrah Sheikh gave me her opinion on how poetic meaning is carried by translation:

Sometimes a word is not enough to convey the meaning, in poetry we must build the flood that carries it. I believe that we are all acts of translation. In poems we pull parts of the physical world together to convey the internal. I feel that the internal sees language as its body; the method in which it can interact / it can reach something other than itself. So translation is a vehicle, a wave heading to the shore.

Thinking of a wave heading to shore, my mind turns to the culmination of the Barbican Young Poets 2018 programme with its showcase and anthology. The anthology was named For Those with Collages for Tongues after the first line of Natasha Mbwana’s poem ‘Polyglot’ and it makes sense as each poem in the collection is an assemblage of different forms, languages and stories all made up to create a fascinating picture of emerging writers. On the 18th March, the showcase began with ‘Polyglot’, a monologic stream of consciousness. At the first moment during Natasha’s performance when she slipped into Swahili, the audience thrummed with cheering and clapping because she had side-stepped from the expected language, English with a poem that existed in a few different linguistic platforms:

kila siku baba yangu anasema that I have an identity crisis —
or at least
my accent does.

Meaning during lines such as this is conveyed through context, where the audience is expected to extract an understanding from the words being offered by the poet. Given the increased freedom that digital translation can provide for poetry, it was not difficult for me to use Google Translate to find out that 'kila siku baba yangu anasema' means 'every day my father says'. Poetry, with self-service translation. For those who are monolingual, the acoustic resonance of moments like this during a poetry performance has a different type of impact and the idea of swapping in and out of a language becomes a blessing or privilege. Growing up I was often confused about how to speak in one language, in fact I still am. I have distinct memories of being told off by teachers in primary school for referring to my mother by her first name when I would address the cards I had written to her at school using the word ‘Anne’, meaning mum. Spaces where being bilingual/trilingual/ a polyglot is celebrated are so important, and the way that poetic environments are cultivating this is a necessary change. Jacob Sam-La Rose, poet and leader of the Barbican Young Poets spoke to me about the trajectory of this change:

A diversity of poetics has always been important to me, even before "diversity" became a cultural keyword or something to aspire to as best practice. With this in mind, I'm keenly invested in creating spaces that celebrate (and challenge established notions of) different schools of poetry, cultural backgrounds and even depths of engagement with literature. Am I pleased with what we've been able to do through Barbican Young Poets? Yes. Is there more that can be done? Most definitely.

Much like poetry in translation, schools of writing that facilitate the use of different languages offer alternative routes towards translation. In highlighting the work of poets beyond the canon; educational programmes such as Barbican Young Poets are inspiring poets to embrace their culture, difference and nuances to achieve work that they are proud of. Yes, there is a long way to go but if arts organisations can support the positive work being done through programmes like this, this will allow a more comprehensive relationship with poetry and culture, nurturing new voices in new ways. As the Poetry Translation Centre says, ‘Translation is the lifeblood of poetry’, it is important to celebrate diverse poetries and give international poets and the many cultures that intermingle in the UK room to grow, develop and share.