The Word Gulag


Abdellatif Laâbi spent many years in prison so this powerful, small prose poem is written from personal experience.

Translating a prose poem is a very different process from translating a poem. The key thing is getting the syntax right - not that syntax doesn't matter in a poem, but in a prose poem syntax is what structures the poem.

In French, this poem sounds very colloquial; its bare understatement is what gives the poem its force, so trying to make the synatax sound as 'natural' as possible in our version, is what took up most of our time.

We also - as always - spent a lot of time discussing the title. The literal translation of the French title is 'the gulag of words' but, of course, that sounds very awkward in English. So we went with 'The Word Gulag' because of its ambiguity: it can mean 'the gulag of words', 'the word-gulag' and 'the word "gulag"'.

Sarah Maguire, Workshop Facilitator

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