In Conversation: Lesley Saunders on translation, poetic collaboration and creating new writing with refugees

I think there’s a place opening up where poet-translators can have a kind of collective presence

Lesley Saunders has published several books of poetry, and a new collection Nominy Dominy is due out from Two Rivers Press next year. She has won several awards for her poetry, including the inaugural Manchester Poetry Prize, the Stephen Spender Award for poetry in translation and The Poetry Business 2016/17 International Book & Pamphlet Competition; she is currently working on a book of translations of selected poems by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Teresa Horta. Find our more about her work at

Theophilus Kwek (TK): Congratulations on winning the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation with your lovely translation of Poema by Maria Teresa Horta! In your commentary, you write about that striking central image of the poem—a ‘prowler-intruder’—which, as compared to Hughes’ ‘thought-fox’, is felt rather than seen. Did you face any challenges in rendering such a tactile ‘muse’ in a different language?

Lesley Saunders (LS): This is a really hard question! I’m very much guided, in my translation, by a text I’ve come across quite recently: James Underhill’s Voice and Versification in Translating Poems, which is wonderful – and which I first discovered by being asked to review it. I started reading the book more out of duty, then was completely captivated by how Underhill describes the difficult but not impossible challenge of translating poetry.

“We do not translate language,” he says, “we do not translate poetry, we translate a poem”. This means we have to look very closely at the tension between metaphor and explicit content, between metre and punctuation, and all the other things that go into making up the dynamic of an individual poem; we must take note of what’s really happening in this particular poem, its soundscape and its energy. This describes what I’m trying to do with Maria Teresa’s poetry: after all, she is a very elliptical, concise, allusive and uncompromising writer, who writes very differently from me! As Underhill argues, we don’t want to hear the translator’s poetic voice – we want to hear the original voice insofar as that’s possible, and I’m labouring to make Maria Teresa’s voice heard in the very different medium of English.

TK: Surely, this is a controversial position—especially among contemporary translators who lean toward the experimental side of their craft! What do you think of the argument that translation is more of a partnership, a dialogue between creative equals?

LS: It’s probably inevitable, if the translator is a poet, that we find something of their voice in the translation, but I think that ought to be something ‘by the way’. So little of Maria Teresa’s work has come over into English, that I see my job specifically as to bring her poetry as directly as possible into the English language. If I had been working with another poet, I would perhaps be doing versions in my own voice, as responses to their work. That’s a perfectly sound approach. But with Maria Teresa, I just feel that I want to be the servant of her writing. Even so, it’s true that I’m lucky enough to be engaged in a dialogue with her.

TK: Your translation also includes punctuation, which the original doesn’t: in light of the approach you’ve just described, this must have been a difficult decision! Could you walk us through some of your considerations in making it?

LS: Actually, because I think we’ve established a very good relationship by now, my sense is that Maria Teresa and I trust each other quite a lot, and she’s adamant with me that she doesn’t want me to use any punctuation. But she didn’t say this early on, when I first sent her my translation of Poema. She held back out of courtesy, I think. Because I felt that her allusions were quite challenging when rendered in English, and because I felt that I needed to make her poem come across clearly to an English readership (I hate using the word accessible, but I wanted to make it receivable at first sight), I put in the punctuation. But I didn’t realize at the time how much against Maria Teresa’s customary practice that was, which I now know.

TK: Tell us a little more about your relationship with Maria Teresa. Do you think your translation of her work into English has had any impact on her writing?

LS: I think it’s far too early to say! Maria Teresa’s work is extensive: she started writing in the 1960s. The volume of translations that I will be publishing with Two Rivers Press will just be an ordinary-sized book of poetry. We decided on a strategy of choosing between eighty to a hundred poems of hers, from across the years, and we’re starting with earlier ones. I think we’re now up to the 1970s!

She’s still writing, and her newest book comes out next year, when she’ll be 80. Because she has such a strong vision of her own work—it’s powerful, political, erotically charged, and visionary, almost—I think it’s quite unlikely that she’ll be influenced by me. But I think she enjoys explaining the choices of her vocabulary, and so on. Every time I send her a draft translation I send her a list of queries, such as “I don’t understand why this is in the infinitive…” or “I translated this phrase like this, because the literal translation doesn’t work in English; are you happy with this alternative?” and she’ll give her input.

The other important person in this process is Ana Raquel Fernandes, a young Portuguese academic at the University of Lisbon who specialises in Anglophone literature. She is also a close friend of Maria Teresa’s, and has written a lot about her work. Maria Teresa can read English, but her second language is actually French. Ana acts as a go-between and a kind of commentator, and it’s a brilliant three-way relationship. Altogether, this is a kind of iterative process that I’m finding extraordinarily productive. For me, at my stage of life—ten years younger that Maria Teresa—it’s very good to be pushed, in a sense, to undertake some new challenges.

The other thing I need to tell you is that I am not fluent in Portuguese by any means. I read The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters when it came out in the 1970s in English translation. I learnt a bit of Portuguese then but retained hardly any, though the process is made somewhat easier by the fact that I have Latin and French, and a little Spanish. I am generally interested in Portuguese language and literature but the real reason for putting myself through the ‘agony’, as it were, of translating from an unfamiliar language is how much I love Maria Teresa’s work.

TK: How much of yourself do you see in her work?

LS: Certainly, she’s been an influence. I still remember my shock and delight at reading the New Portuguese Letters, which was an extraordinary collaboration between the three women writers during the time of the revolution in Portugal (the revolution, of course, still not quite making enough space for women, as revolutions are often wont to do). It’s a mix of poetry and prose and fiction and journal writing—an astounding book. It influenced me to the extent that, some time later, when I wanted to write about, or refract, the story of Christina the Astonishing, who was a twelfth-century female mystic who could do extraordinary things with her body and defied all the conventions, I knew that I wanted to do this as a collaboration.

At the time, I had recently met Jane Draycott. We had both been involved in a poetry event and I didn’t know her very well, but I wrote to her and said, “Look, I have this mad idea for a book.” I’m glad to say Jane came unhesitatingly on board, together with the artist Peter Hay, and that became the book Christina the Astonishing. So reading New Portuguese Letters has influenced the way I’ve thought about writing: the importance of collaboration and allowing yourself to be animated and changed by working very closely with somebody else.

All in all: Maria Teresa is an extraordinary revolutionary, she was threatened with being put in prison and her work was banned. Although nothing like that has ever happened to me, I feel that the female voice of resistance that she embodies has been a tremendous inspiration for me.

TK: Many of your other projects involve collaborations across visual and textual languages. What does a poet need to make that leap beyond the safety of an intimate connection with one’s first language, to working with another?

LS: A couple of years ago, I was involved in a collaboration through the John Armitage Memorial Trust for the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth. I was chosen along with five other poets to work with six composers and six Oxford choirs, so we were each paired up to create a five-minute choral piece. Some of my poems had previously been set to music but I’ve never written lyrics for a composer. This started me thinking about how I write—I write quite dense poetry: I’m very interested in word patterns and so forth. I think I came to realize that in order to leave room for the amazing music composed by Dimitri Scarlato, and for the four-part chorale, I would need to leave a lot more ‘white space’. The libretto or lyric would need to be relatively simple, you know, not overlong clauses, but allowing the music to do its work. I went through lots of drafts, paring it back and back. Finally, when I heard the rehearsal with the choir, tears came into my eyes. It was such a privilege to hear the work sung.

Two other projects I can think of have involved collaborations with visual artists. One is with Susan Adams, who does the most extraordinary work, with a sort of nursery-rhyme quality: a simplicity of graphic line but with a kind of menace underneath it. She got in touch with me because she had received a grant for a collaborative project; she said that she’d come across my work and wanted to try something together. She lives in Wales, so we worked by email. Simply by responding to her work (and she responded to my poems in turn), I got a pamphlet-length sequence of work together. And I found that I had this other voice that was rather menacing—and rather cruel—which I had not found in myself before!

Another artist whose work I’ve written many poems in response to is Lisa Kopper. We’re very close friends, and when I write a response to her work it’s as if to try and capture in words something that comes leaping out to me from the painting. It isn’t a formal collaboration but I think about it along those lines. We’re always in conversation about her paintings, my poems, and so forth. Again, I find something quite different in me, and I don’t know if other people would think it was the same poet responding to Susan Adams’ strange, witty, poignant work and Lisa Kopper’s monumental and more cosmic paintings. Certainly I think it’s a different voice in each collaboration, and the process of exchange lets me dig into a different part of myself that I don’t normally have access to.

TK: You’ve also had a long career as an educator, having served as an advisor to the General Teaching Council and led projects in difficult contexts like post-conflict Kosovo. Do you feel a tension between this other life and the common injunction to avoid the ‘didactic’ in writing poetry?

LS: My career has been in educational research, rather than as a teacher. For a long time, I felt that my poetry and my educational research were separate worlds, then I decided that I wanted to bring them together, to unite the different parts of me. I’ve written a couple of academic papers about the connections between writing poetry and doing research, and indeed there’s a whole branch of research called arts-based educational research, which involves being more creative in data representation and so on—I’ve been quite engaged with that. Although I’m affiliated with a couple of universities, I don’t have a permanent position so I feel much freer to talk about these things without being labelled as mad, bad or dangerous!

A technique called ‘found poetry’ is part of the repertoire I’m interested in developing. I’m currently working on approaches to found poetry in the classroom, but also in collective settings like conferences where I work with young people to ‘eavesdrop’, as it were, on others’ conversations and create found poems as a record of the event. It’s an affective record, because people will pick up little pieces of what others say and then repeat them, if they have a sort of emotional charge, phrases that capture hesitation and doubt and so on. I piloted this at a conference last year where six young women created completely different poems based on conversations they heard a roomful of teachers having. It brought the house down. People had tears in their eyes because they realized how closely the girls’ found poems had reflected their experiences of the event rather than the usual rather dry conferences proceedings.

TK: Which muses speak in your own writing?

LS: It occurs to me that I tend to refract current issues and situations through classical stories and myths. Some recent examples: I wrote a poem that took as its starting point the scene from the Aeneid where Aeneas is carrying his frail, aged father out of the burning city of Troy. When someone whom I was working with in Kosovo told me about carrying his little daughter across the border to Albania in flight from the Serbians, the two images coincided for me. There’s also a poem in the New Statesman a couple of weeks ago where I figure Aeneas as a modern refugee sailing to Italy in peril across the Mediterranean, and of course lots of people have done similar things in relation to the original Odyssey. For example, Daljit Nagra has created a brilliant radio series of perspectives on the Odyssey by contemporary poets, and time and time again the classical tradition gives both distance and depth to what is happening now. It stops one from being driven too much by an agenda perhaps.

At the end of this term, I’ll be doing another ‘found poetry’ project with a group of young refugee students. After the conference last year, where I worked with those extraordinarily talented young women from year 11, I stayed in touch with their teacher and she asked me to come and do a workshop at the school, which has a large intake of refugee and asylum-seeker children; although they have or acquire a basic level of English, she’s conscious that they all have hinterlands, with rich backgrounds, that the school can’t deeply tap into.

It’s all about dignity and respect, isn’t it? However desperate their situation is, whatever state they arrive in in this country, there’s always something we native residents can’t see or won’t see. In the session I don’t want to focus on their English or lack of it, but to open up their memories, hopes and experiences. I’m going to help them put up a lot of words together as a resource and then collectively we’ll start to create patterns out of them, soundscapes and images that can carry some of their feelings. Starting from something quite simple and collaborative, I want to work towards a few found poems which they feel help to reflect and communicate their own experience to people like me who haven’t been through the same life-shocks.

TK: This is all especially important—and timely—at this point, isn’t it?

LS: Yes, not only with Brexit as a political event but also with the social rifts and complications, and all the desperate feelings that it’s evoked, I think it’s particularly important to give other people a voice through translating (in all senses) their work, and more generally, to keep that sense of connection with the wider world alive and vibrant. There’s a real role for poetry at this time, and I think some poets are doing a fantastic job at the moment. Sometimes I feel terribly pessimistic and upset, but at other times I think there’s a place opening up where poet-translators can have a kind of collective presence. This isn’t a political agenda as such: it’s just about being human, and being open-hearted and open-minded. It’s simply more needed than ever.

Theophilus Kwek is a poet and translator, currently pursuing a Masters in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford. He served as President of the Oxford University Poetry Society, and is Co-Editor of Oxford Poetry and The Kindling. He was recently placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation 2016, and his pamphlet, The First Five Storms (January 2017), won the New Poets’ Prize.

Photo courtesy of Dwain Comissiong


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