What I Learned: The Benefits of a Poetry Translation Workshop

Unlike in life, in translation you can generally decide what you can bear to lose, and you should know that there are multiple methods.

What should a budding translator read? What kinds of critical lenses should he or she apply to the process of translation? Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon shares some insights she gathered from the poetry translation workshop she attended this summer in Norwich, UK.

Every summer, the University of East Anglia in Norwich (home of the first Creative Writing program in the United Kingdom) holds an International Literary Translation & Creative Writing Summer School. This past July, the program was held in partnership with the British Centre for Literary Translation, and I attended the multilingual poetry translation workshopled by internationally translated poet and writer Fiona Sampsonas an emerging translator of Romanian and Spanish into English. Below I recount musings on the most significant things I learned, which I hope will be of use to those potentially looking to break into literary translation.

A sound starting point in this discussion is the question of considering what to read as a translator. It should go without saying that a literary translator must necessarily be a well-read person in order to be able to make the best possible choices in terms of context, likely more so than anybody else. Having established this as a point of consensus, we discussed, both officially in workshops and amongst ourselves, what exactly a translator should be reading today. In my opinion, the library of a(n) (aspiring) literary translator should include contemporary literature, non-contemporary literature (both classics and obscure-but-lovely older works), and, of course, translations, preferably in as many languages as possible. For instance, examples of each subsection in my current library include Lauren Groff’s Florida and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart (which are English-language works but useful examples of the spirit of today’s literary scene), Romain Gary’s The Kites and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, and Anna Akhmatova’s various poetry collections in translation by Yevgeny Bonver, Richard McKane, and Alexander Cigale, to name only a few. I asked Ian Gwin, an emerging translator of Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian who also participated in the Summer School, for suggestions. He recommends Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, noting that Gessen is himself a bilingual and that the theme of the two cultures meeting within the novel may be useful for a translator to consider. Regarding multiple translations, he recommends Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, pinning the more linguistically faithful translation of Eithne Wilkins and Ernest Kaiser against the newer one produced by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. He also suggests the high-quality recent translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz by Michael Hoffman, citing it as a long work that shows an attempt to render a specific style in a second language.

Reading books in translation (and even excerpts like the ones found in our Journal) is, first and foremost, the right decision for a translator, since, by doing so, as you would be supporting the industry you hope to become a part of, be this, economically, socially, or simply intellectually. Reading also facilitates the mind’s capacity for making connections when it takes the form of heterogeneous reading, and therefore should also lead to the development of critical skills. It is in this sense that the translator resembles the author almost exactly, which leads me to mention the texts that inspired me and the other participants to become translators.

Ultimately, translation is simply about feeling that a text written by someone else is valuable enough to take up a great deal of time and effort on the translator’s part— an apt example, in fact, of the phrase “long-term gratification”. This means that there are, first and foremost, books that can inspire you in the original language, but, as we discussed in our multilingual translation seminar, there are also books that inspire by virtue of how seamlessly they seem to have been translated: some memorable suggestions that came up were the King James Bible—no doubt a pillar of Anglophone literary traditions—and the sublime translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets in an astounding array of languages. In my case, that life-changing text was J.E. Irby’s iridescent translation of Borges’ short story “Everything and Nothing”. I was enchanted by the story in its original Spanish, but, when I tried my hand at translating it from Spanish to Romanian, I found it had lost some of the magic that I had discovered in both Borges and Irby and seemed, in its style, to resemble “the faded ribbon of tradition” that Nabokov detests. This proved to me that what is simple at first glance may later require a great deal of revision, although it was suggested in the workshop that my own view of my translation may have been excessively subjective, which is again something that the translator shares with the writer. Such speculations on perception led us to consider how one should read as a translator.

Having established that youfortunately!—have texts you have chosen to work on, the next step is to make the choice of the angle from which you will approach your work as a translator. Because we discussed both primary texts and theoretical works (e.g. Wordsworth, who is a quintessentially English writer but who is also representative of the international Romantic movement and has thus been extensively translated and referenced in international poetry and prose, and Walter Benjamin, whose 1921 essay “The Translator’s Task” remains a core text for understanding translation as a form of art in itself), I concluded that the ideal translator should be a hybrid between a critic and writer.

Beyond this, the method that most resounded with me was that of re-reading, of which there seem to be two types: literal re-reading of an object text over and over again, and re-reading around it, which can mean, for instance, evaluating multiple translations of a single poem, which is just as useful as its physical counterpart. Visualizing case studies is useful in widening the perspective of translations to come, but also in providing a sounding board for ideas that might come to the mind of the translator, who is fundamentally a comparatist by definition, which does not necessarily mean adhering to theoretical frameworks in these circumstances but rather making readerly connections that bounce back against a wider context, which should remain on the horizon consistently. In this sense I am reminded again of the importance of reading both old and new texts: the mastery of a language lies in this hybridization. The effort to be in the loop and to be relevant extends to journals: in order to be a successful translator of poetry, you should know your market as immediately as you know your tastes. Journals like Poetry London, PN Review, The London Magazine, and Modern Poetry in Translation came up loosely in conversation, and I learned that literary journals are highly useful as vignettes of immediacy and variety for the writer/translator/reader who finds himself or herself under time pressure, and, beyond that, the ways by which such collections are curated and put together can serve as an organizational axis for a translator who should additionally understand the editorial aspect. Here, again, the translator and the writer are one and the same, in the sense that it tends to show if you aren’t sufficiently widely read. If you are translating a poem in particular, it is important to get your hands on all its translated copies.

This brings me to the importance of orality in translation. It is with this context in mind that the translator should return to his original text and his produced translation and read both aloud over and over again. Re-reading out loud both other poets and the poem that you intend to translate allows for a heightened sense of perception and nuance that differs from silent reading. In reading aloud, we are better able to understand that, quite often, what gives a poem its magic is the same element that makes it sonorous. If a poet is a playwright, then the translator, in producing an interpretive act, is an actor; I found that in participating in a workshop, I started to consider translation as performative, which was useful in “upping the stakes”. Moreover, I would state, from my own experience, that superficiality can lead to failure, in the sense that not picking up on even exceedingly subtle ironic nuances can lead to a failure of a translation, with failure meaning the inability to capture the essence of a work. Such an instance became apparent when we compared translations of Cavafy’s “The Afternoon Sun” in a workshop, where one translator’s addition of the exclamation “Ah” gave the poem a tone that differed from other translations.

Reading a translation, or, for that matter, any writing, out loud is a bit like having an editor read it. Editing, evidently, is fundamental to resolving formal anxieties: as anyone who has produced a translation of a poem will know, there are hierarchies of sacrifices to be made. Rhyme scheme or free verse? Literal meaning or synonyms? Metre? I won’t address specific examples here because these are elements that are, first of all, highly individual to each person’s method and work and also because they truly become most apparent through practical application. This is why participating in a workshop broadens a translator’s horizons. By working on a poetic translation strenuously and ultimately making formal choices is about realizing their importance. Unlike in life, in translation you can generally decide what you can bear to lose, and you should know that there are multiple methods. A translator can, for instance, produce a reinterpretation of a poem, which differs from a translation. Choice is a luxury, and this is where the translator differs from the author, in that he or she must know what he or she wants to achieve and must be explicit about it.

Literary translation continues to be perceived as rather niche and can thus be an unrewarded pursuit, but this mushrooming of programs is contributing to a boom in popularity and ,consequentially to a process of demystification that I think will lead to just what I found by attending this event: awareness. Overall, I feel that I have gained knowledge from this summer school that prevented mistakes I later would have made later had I not benefited from this experience. Ultimately, I learned to be certain that every move I make in producing a translation is justified. I discovered that the process of a translation is just as fascinating as the final outcome, which is why I would recommend such an endeavor. I came to understand that, while instinct is important, you also need to be able to make heads or tails of your work, and I truly found that the translation workshop served as a compass in this sense. In a wider context, working with writers and translators that I admire not only inspired me but also assisted the development of both my self-awareness and my knowledge of what it means to be one or both of those things. This growing process continues to progress long after the workshop due to the opportunities for dialogue and collaboration it has opened. I encourage readers to respond if they have found—or would like to find—their horizons widened in a similar way.

Andreea Scridon is an Oxford-based poet, short fiction writer, and translator of Romanian to English. She has been Assistant Editor at Asymptote since July 2018. You can read her here.


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