Partner and Group Translation: A Q&A With the Poetry Translation Centre’s Sarah Maguire

For a while now, I’ve been intrigued by the work being done at the London-based Poetry Translation Centre (PTC).

Since a trip up north isn’t in the cards, I sent some questions to Jennifer Chevalier, the center’s Assistant Director. She very helpfully separated my questions into two piles and directed some to PTC founder and poet Sarah Maguire and some to Arabic-language poet and PTC translation-workshop leader Worod Musawi. What follows is the first half, the Q&A with Sarah Maguire.

ArabLit: How and why did you decide to set up the Poetry Translation Centre?

 Sarah Maguire: As a poet, I grew up reading the excellent translations of twentieth-century Eastern European and Latin American poets that were made widely available thanks to the remarkable Penguin European Poets Series that flourished during the 1960s and ’70s. I regarded these poets as my contemporaries and I learned as much from their work as I did from, say, the Northern Irish poets who were being published at the time.

Among English-language poets I was particularly influenced by the American poet, Adrienne Rich, and I was dazzled by her sequence ‘Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib’ that she published in Leaflets (1969). Subsequently, after much effort (in pre-internet days) I tracked down her translations of Ghalib, the great eighteenth-century Urdu poet, in Ghazals of Ghalib: Versions from the Urdu edited by Aijaz Ahmad. I found the utterly different perspective these poems gave me completely irresistible.

Another major influence was Ezra Pound’s Cathay (1915), arguably the most important translation into English of non-European poetry in the past one-hundred years, a book that had an absolutely incalculable influence on Modernism in English poetry.

And then I came across Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s Modern Arabic Poetry (1987), followed by her Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature (1992) and I was hooked.

In 1996 I became the first writer to be sent to Palestine by the British Council (in 1998 I was the first writer they sent to Yemen) and I realised that I could do something really useful: although I didn’t speak a word of Arabic, I could follow in the footsteps of Rich and Pound and many other great English-language poets and co-translate Palestinian poetry — which is what I began to do.

In 2001 I was given a Writers’ Fellowship by the Royal Literary Fund who placed me at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Somali friends had made me aware of the enormous importance Somalis place on poetry and one of the first people I approached was the remarkable Dr Martin Orwin, Senior Lecturer in Somali and Amharic, whose translations of Somali poetry I’d read. I proposed setting up poetry translation workshops to bring together the amazing range of language specialists based at SOAS who were also interested in translating poetry. The workshops began in spring 2003 and were an immediate success. Within months, we’d translated contemporary poets from Sudan, South Korea, Turkey, India and Somaliland.

I then approached Arts Council, England with the idea of setting up a translation centre specifically to translate and promote contemporary poetry from Africa, Asia and Latin America. They generously agreed, and the Poetry Translation Centre was launched in 2004. Initially we were based at SOAS but the logistics were an absolute nightmare and in 2006 we became an entirely separate organisation with charitable status.

My impetus to start the PTC was twofold: Firstly, my own experience as a poet indicated with absolute clarity that poetry only ever thrives through translation: see the impact Cathay had on Modernism or, more blatantly, the effect that Wyatt and Sidney’s translations of Petrarch had by their introduction of the sonnet into English.

Secondly, most translations of poetry from, say, Arabic were wincingly bad. I got the feeling that people only ever read them for ‘anthropological’ reasons. Nevertheless, the quality of good poetry does somehow shine through bad translations — the logic of the imagery is still there, the ideas function — so buried within the infelicities it was obvious that excellent poetry was struggling to emerge. My aim, when I founded the PTC, was to get outstanding poets to collaborate with exceptional translators, and that’s what we’ve done. Largely as a means of ensuring the poems are always translated to a high literary standard, but also in the hope that some of the poets might fall in love with poetry they otherwise would never have encountered and that these translations would permeate their own work. In addition, I hoped that their existing audiences would be inclined to read our translations out of curiosity, which demonstrably has occurred.

Thirdly, I was aware that the UK, especially London, is full of poetry fans! It’s notable that many of the recent immigrants here are poetry obsessed, particularly the Somalis, Afghans and Sudanese — many of whom have an especially tough time in Britain. So what better way to make them feel welcome than to translate their favourite poets to a high literary standard and invite them over here? The enthusiasm that has greeted our ‘star’ poet, the astonishing Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi from Sudan, is overwhelming to witness. And he too has been transformed as a result of his visits to the UK. As have I, his co-translator. Which means all of the above objectives have been fulfilled. In the process of which we’ve all had a wonderful time!

A longer answer (yes, that is possible!) to your question can be read in my article:

Q: After a translator has come up with a literal translation, what happens at a typical workshop? Do you present both the original and ‘literal’ (first draft?) translation to the group? Do participants spend time listening to the sounds of the original? Do you share other related information? How much context do they have for the poem? How much do you think they would ideally have?

First of all, the translator reads the poem aloud so that those of us who don’t speak the language can at least hear its music and get a sense of how it feels. Then they’ll introduce us to the work of the poet, putting it in as much context as possible (we all now know a great deal about the significance of clouds in Somali). Finally, they’ll talk in some depth about the poem itself. We then all go through the poem line by line, sharing our thoughts on translation as we go.

Q: If people disagree about how to render a line, do you lead the choices? Do you talk them through it? How does that work?

Invariably I’m the only person in the room with four published collections of poems and a great deal of experience as a translator and so I act as the final arbiter. That said, I am pleased to say that on many occasions people come up with far better ideas than mine and I am always willing to accept their opinions.

AL: How many are generally in attendance?

SM: Between half-a-dozen and a dozen people come along. More than about fifteen participants makes the group slightly unwieldy. Translating poetry is a minority sport.

AL: Have most of the workshop attendees been aspiring poets, aspiring translators, readers, other? What do you think they have gotten out of the process?

SM: Our workshops have attracted a wide variety of participants from statisticians, academics, broadcasters and retired nuclear physicists to professional translators and final-year school students. An insight into what some of them have gained from the process can be read here:

Like other writers, translators greatly benefit from having a community to turn to when struggling with difficulties. I began translating seriously over two years ago and I have found The Poetry Translation Centre extremely invaluable as a resource centre for translators from non-European languages. I have benefited enormously by getting feedback on my own translations and discussing poems brought in by other translators. This has made the process of translation much more engaging, especially when cultural differences which inform the poems have also been discussed. The PTC website is also a brilliant way to get the poems out into the world.

Choman Hardi, Poet and Translator

In contrast to the theoretical approach to translation offered by many institutions in the UK, Sarah Maguire’s ‘hands-on’ workshop is refreshing and exciting. It seems to me that this way of tackling translation is most true to the task at hand. I find this close relationship with the nuts and bolts of language and the process of a poem transforming from one language into another completely fascinating. I value the opportunity to participate so closely in this transformation. Through the workshop, I have had the chance to engage with voices from other languages and cultures, poets previously untranslated into English that I would never have otherwise had access to. I consider this to have been a privilege. In this respect I would say that the workshops have been invaluable, even life-changing.

Gwen MacKeith, Translator and Doctoral Student

I have been attending the workshops run by the Poetry Translation Centre regularly since the beginning of February 2005, and it has been an extremely rewarding experience. I come from Egypt and have been working and studying in England for the best part of the past four years. It has always struck me how scarce translations of contemporary Arabic literature are, and how hard to find in the English-speaking world (more so poetry, but also literature in general). I was thrilled to find the centre because it seemed to promote the ideas that I believe in, and to share the motivations that got me interested in translation in the first place: language and literature as a basis for cultural exchange. My initial excitement was confirmed, as during the few months that I have been involved with the Centre I found myself learning about other languages, meeting people from different cultures, and getting to know the work of poets I knew little about before. It has also been a cherished revelation how much creative productivity can come out of translating as a group. In trying to explain the contexts of words to each other, we come to think of composite meanings and cultural references in our own languages that we may have never stopped at before. We shape and reshape the verses in English, and there is never a boring moment. There is so much we still need to learn from each other and the PTC provides us with a vitally important opportunity to do so.

Nariman Youssef, Student, Web developer, and Translator

As a student of Arabic poetry, the Poetry Translation Centre has given me far more than just the practical experience of poetry translation. Through its workshops, events, internet postings and above all the dedication of those involved in it, the Centre’s work connects us to the poetry, life and culture of many different peoples across the world. Through poetry, the Centre has become a global forum for exchanging ideas, building networks and promoting understanding between different communities. In an increasingly polarized world, the Centre’s value lies in the two-way cultural dialogue between communities that it promotes.

Anna Murison, Translator

As a Gujarati living in Britain, and as the vice-president of the Gujarati Literary Academy of UK, one of my worries has been that our next generation born and brought up in Britain and other Western countries is going to remain deprived of their heritage language. As a librarian, I have come across many translations done in India that do not appeal to readers whose first or preferred reading language is English since they are so badly done and often include glaring grammatical and spelling errors. By attending the PTC’s workshops, I’ve found that with the active participation of members with a varying degree of mastery over a range of languages, we are able to ensure that the beauty of the original language of the poetry we translate is kept intact, and yet the translated poem reads as though it has been written in English.

Bhadra Patel-Vadgama, Translator and Vice-President of the Gujarati Literary Academy of UK

I have very much enjoyed and benefited from the translation workshops I have attended, and have been struck by the way that the discussions and the struggle to make sense goes far beyond the immediate task of rendering a particular poem in English. What is at stake is the attempt by people of widely differing backgrounds to understand and value each other. This is absolutely at the heart of what needs to happen in this country now.

Carole Satyamurti, Poet

AL: Why have you set up these new ‘community’ workshops for Arabic speakers – what do you hope to achieve there?

SM: Translating poetry can seem like a daunting prospect, especially for someone who’s not too confident about their English, which is why we’ve set up these new workshops specifically aimed at Arabic and Somali speakers. The aim is to give them an insight into the translation process and into our way of working and to encourage them to join our main workshops where they can share in translating poetry from languages with which they’re not familiar.

AL: The Poetry Translation Centre has two methods of translation – the workshops that we’ve been discussing, and ‘poet-pairing’ where I believe you match a single British poet [and a translator] to a foreign-language poet and ask them to do the translations. What do you think of the results of group translation, and how they differ from these individual or joint translations?

The workshops produce translations ‘on the hoof’ which, although they’re discussed obsessively and at great length, are not going to be as polished as the translations produced as a result of our ‘poet pairings’. In these, leading British poets are paired with language experts to produce a series of translations of the international poets whom we invite to the UK in order to take part in our events. During the latter, the British poet and translator work together extensively over a period of months, sometimes taking a number of meetings to agree on a final translation. All of our translations are based on the principle that the most important person is the international poet. British poets who work with us are asked to put their talents at the service of the poet whom they’ve been commissioned to translate. We are not interested in fancy show-off versions of poetry which are more about the poet who produces them than the original poet.

Sarah Maguire has published four acclaimed poetry collections, most recently The Pomegranates of Kandahar (2007). Haleeb Muraq, translated into Arabic by Saadi Yousef, was published by Dar Al Mada in 2003. Sarah is the founder and director of The Poetry Translation Centre based in London. Poems translated by Maguire can be found here.

Try it yourself:

If you’re in the UK, the next workshop is July 12.