What is it like to attend a Poetry Translation Workshop?

By: Micha Meyers

I try to attend as many of the workshops as I can, so I suppose I can be considered a regular.

I first came to the workshops when Sarah Macguire, whose initiative I believe it was, was leading them. I felt a bit of an imposter, because I did not have even a smidgen of the languages that were on the programme, i.e. mostly Asian, South American or African poets. But curiosity got the better of me and I am glad it did. The structure of the sessions is genuinely inclusive, with a brief introduction to the poet and a literal translation of the two or three poems which are the focus of the next two hours. The “literal translator” reads the poem out loud in the original language, which is strangely helpful when the language is an uncracked code. The rhythm, the scansion, a repetitive element in the structure or even the intonation, as in Chinese, can provide a helpful starting point.

Some of us may be students of the language of the evening, some are native speakers and some, like me, are helpless and depend on the structure of the session with the literal version and the introduction, as well as on a little chutzpah to get going.

You learn a lot about the nature of translation. Knowledge of the original language is of course a starting point, but it is no more than that. The work that we do as a group is all translation: deciding what type of text we aim to produce, which elements of the original to maintain at all cost and which to jettison. Consideration of synonyms or connotations can be very productive when eight of you all pitch in. Sometimes those little brainstorms can feel quite exhilarating. At other times sudden mini tugs of war ensue, with facilitator Clare Pollard gently but firmly steering us onwards. Time is always pressing and I remember more than once someone finding the way out of a final creative dilemma just before we had to vacate the room at 8.30PM.

It is not easy to pick a favourite from the poets we have worked on so far, in this series of workshops. Maybe the Iranian poet Iraj Ziayi, the “poet of objects”, whose work we have looked at on two occasions now. Alireza Abiz’s introduction and answers to our questions helped us to produce a few really intriguing English texts about objects not only as embodiments of memory, but with agency of their own without in any way becoming cloying or Disney-like. Maybe Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, the Somali poet who found her strong voice here in Britain, writing in the traditional verse forms of a largely oral tradition. But I discovered her at a Somali cultural festival, not in one of the workshops. Nevertheless, if it had not been for the PTC I would not have known about her. It felt as if I was the only non-Somali speaker there. As with the workshops, curiosity and a little chutzpah got me through the door and I was richly rewarded. I recommend it.

Get a Season Pass for our April to July season of workshops here.