Poetry in Expanded Translation – an update

by Zoë Skoulding

Peter Riley’s review of books by Peter Hughes, Tim Atkins, Robert Sheppard and others refers to ‘expanded translation’ as what he takes to be a ‘new academic category’ of poetry translation in which canonical texts are translated or re-versioned in the interests of ‘modernisation, personalisation, and democratisation’. While Riley notes that ‘several academic conferences’ have been devoted to it, in fact the three gatherings to which he seems to be referring with such disgruntlement are all part of the same Arts and Humanities Research Council network, Poetry in Expanded Translation, which I lead with Jeff Hilson. Its aims and programme are freely available online  and it is the name of a field of continuing investigations rather than a particular type of translation. Serious and engaged critique of the kind that Riley writes is vital to contemporary poetry, but he is mistaken in identifying the activity of the network only with the types of translation described in his review. Sheppard has responded to the review itself at http://robertsheppard.blogspot.co.uk/, but my concern here is to correct a misunderstanding about the nature of our research, which is much wider in scope than Riley implies. This will become evident as publications emerge – there is already a special issue of Poetry Wales devoted to the project and there will in due course be books and journal issues in the UK and France. The following account of our activities is offered to set the record straight in the meantime. It is necessarily incomplete, since there have so far been over a hundred interventions, papers and performances as well as many intense discussions, but it should give a sense of the network’s interests.

Why would we want to ‘expand’ translation, and in which directions? The motive for pursuing this research is that in the UK we do not think about translation enough, and that many of the issues that Riley raises in relation to reading translations – for example the false assumption that any translation can be definitive – are insufficiently considered. Translation is too important to be left to translators, or translation scholars: it has long been, as Riley acknowledges in relation to Wyatt and Petrarch, a staple of creative practice that concerns poets directly and relates to all the ways in which poetries of different languages might speak to each other. It was my interaction with Riley through his mail-order bookshop in 2002 or 2003, paradoxically, that might have been the seed of this project. Having recently discovered the innovative UK poetry scene, I also bought pamphlets from him by Emmanuel Hocquard and Olivier Cadiot, their grainy and remote small-press mystique intensified by being in another language. He complained that hardly anyone bought books in French, which I took as a compliment. Even at the time it seemed strange, though, that despite the significance of translation to Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth, Paul Buck and others, the legacy of the British Poetry Revival has not been as international or multilingual as the energies that brought it about in the first place. It works both ways: British poets are on the whole little known in France, which tends to look to the USA for anglophone poetry. The pattern repeats in numerous other countries where more innovative areas of UK poetry are often invisible despite their links to international modernisms. Expanding translation, therefore, is a matter of finding different ways of reading and talking about poetry between and across languages, not just to develop international relationships but also to recognise and value the multilingualism of poetry in the UK.

The first meeting of the network in April 2017, hosted by Chris McCabe at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre, did begin, it is true, with the question of rewriting or ‘intralingual’ translation, taking texts from the library that already contained an element of translation and reworking them collaboratively in a one-day workshop. This was because we wanted to look at how much translation already informs poetic practice, particularly within late modernist traditions. The participants were mainly from France, Wales and England, with some American-French and Trinidadian-Scottish transnational perspectives; some were translators, some critics; all were poets. Roman Jakobson’s distinctions between interlingual, intralingual and intersemiotic translation were a starting point in discussing the different kinds of equivalence that a translation can produce. While some of the experiments undertaken (which can be read in this special issue of Poetry Wales) remained intralingual, collaboration brought several languages into play, including Welsh, Spanish and Catalan as well as English and French. A reading and discussion with Vahni Capildeo and Michael Zand explored the ways in which translation cuts through time and place. Zand noted, for example, that the velar fricative, a sound common in different forms of Persian through the ages, was once common in Middle English and Old English and Saxon. He described Ruby, his translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, as a process of drilling down through time to find unexpected connections that link languages and cultures.

The multilingual frontier town of Mulhouse provided a usefully non-metropolitan French vantage point for our second meeting in November 2017, when we met at the Université de Haute Alsace. Organised by Jennifer K. Dick with the involvement of Sandrine Wymann of arts venue La Kunsthalle, the conference focused on poetry, translation and the visual. This was an expansion of translation to consider its material forms, beginning with Olivier Gabrys’s dance interpretations of poems, in which he sees the whole body as a vessel for language. Form as the moment of performance was the focus of Valentine Verhaeghe, friend and student of Henri Chopin, whose use of the body as source and amplifier of the poem is also strikingly visual and gestural. The materiality of the page was a central concern in Bénedicte Villegrain’s discussion of Susan Howe’s ‘Melville’s Marginalia’ and Jennifer K. Dick’s paper on Jacques Sivan. Ekphrasis was introduced as both a form and complication of translation in Agata Holobut’s analysis of David Gascoyne’s poem ‘Salvador Dali’, which considered its language operations in relation to audio descriptions of artworks, while Vincent Broqua used Duchamp’s ‘À bruit secret’ to show recourse to the visual does not necessarily reveal or clarify, but can also create a space for the opacity of language that may not be understood or translated. Cole Swensen, on ‘translating with power tools’ explored the poetics of book sculptures by Guy Laramée, Su Blackwell, Susan Hoerth, and Brian Dettmer as a metaphorical and literal response to the future of recorded knowledge.

Moving back and forth between visual art and poetry produced a range of approaches to of image and form. Margaux Van Uytyanck, for example, began with Marcel Broodthaer’s  sculpture made of a casserole full of mussel shells, looking at how it plays on the similarity of the French la moule (mussel) to le moule (mould). From here she went on to consider Mallarmé’s ‘Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard‘ as a refusal of clear image where the empty shell of form is a transformation of absence. Translation suffers from its images, Capildeo reminded us, such as in the phrase ‘shine through’, which suggests that an authentic face is mystically present and capable of projecting itself’. In imagining the page not as a field but as a leaf, a fragmentary repetition of other leaves, she provided a model for translation that allows it to have a multiplied non-human life of its own.

Refusal of the myth of textual origin is central to the work of Lawrence Venuti, a presiding figure for the project as a whole. In his keynote for Poetry and Sound in Expanded Translation, the April 2018 conference in Bangor, he unpicked the instrumentalist logic of translation proverbs, such as traduttoretraditore. Forget fidelity, he argued: think about equivalence. There is no invariant in translation; there are only interpretants. Don’t respect the text: innovate. This is fighting talk in Wales, where many Welsh-language poets have resisted translation, particularly into English, as a threat to the integrity of a minority language. Yet what is being critiqued when Venuti attacks Robert Frost’s attachment to ‘the sound of sense’ is not sense, or sound, but the assumption that Frost’s own vernacular poetics is the only way to hear other cultures. How do we read what a translation is doing? When will translations be reviewed at last as translations, rather than as necessarily weak copies of ‘original’ texts?

These relationships are different again when ‘original’ and translation are part of the same text, as they may well be in situations where people and identities are in movement. Caroline Bergvall’s keynote talk, titled ‘Monolingualism is Dangerous’, described how her work listens to minority languages and the communities they sustain. Gathering participants to talk about song traditions or greet the dawn, she demonstrates how the play of languages becomes a space of possibility, offering new patterns of living together. Listening to her perform, for example from her multimedia work Drift, the ear tunes and retunes to shifting languages as the very notion of the linguistic border is interrogated. How far is this already translation? How can a work be translated when it already navigates more than one language? A way forward was suggested by Canadian poet Erín Moure, discussing her translation of the Portunhol of Wilson Bueno’s Paraguayan Sea, which slides between French and English, or ‘Frenlish': the question becomes one of sound, and how language inhabits the shapes of co-existing languages in one mouth.

Attending to sound in translation allows a thinking across frontiers, since sound bleeds through the edges and surrounds us, but the borders inevitably return, demanding a stretched attention as the ear is turned out towards another. The advantage of this interdisciplinary conference was that it also encompassed the insights of musicians and composers, such as my colleague at Bangor Andrew Lewis, whose electro-acoustic piece LEXICON, based on a text by a twelve-year-old dyslexic boy, puzzled over the elusive triangulation between sign, sound and meaning to which poetry translation constantly returns. Sam Trainor used musical notation to articulate a ‘contrapuntal’ approach to translation, while composer Richard Hoadley, who collaborates with many other artists, sees translation as fundamental to his practice. Some of this sonic thinking was presented through performances (to be made available online in due course), including Rhys Trimble’s and Nia Davies’ ritual for destruction of poetry by air burial, Lisa Samuels’ sound performance featuring local slate, or Lee Ann Brown’s investigation of ballad forms that had the entire conference singing along.

Through a structure that focuses on process and dialogue, Sophie Collins’ important anthology Currently & Emotion: Translations (Test Centre, 2016) dismantles many of the hierarchies that often dominate translation. Her paper proposed the intimacy of Platonic friendship as a translation model to replace fidelity, drawing on translations of Kim Hyesoon by Don Mee Choi. Her encouragement to celebrate linguistic playfulness in translation touched on a recurring theme of the conference: how do we keep languages and poetries in play, as well as in dialogue? Her emphasis on extending translational listening towards non-European languages highlighted another direction in which the UK’s translation-thinking could be further stretched and challenged. Nisha Ramayya, in her discussion of translation from Sanskrit via tantric practice, used Roland Barthes’ utopian concept of idiorythmie to describe the relationship between source text and translation. If power always imposes its own drumbeat, how might texts live their different rhythms alongside each other?

For Collins and Ramayya, as for many of the other speakers, the stakes in translation are high as they contest long histories of gendered and colonial relations. The cross-rhythms and reforging of relationships are evident within their texts, for example in Ramayya’s remarkable reading, but they spill out beyond them into new forms of sociality and politics. Édouard Glissant, whose Poetics of Relation was a recurrent reference point during the conference, reminds us that the zone of contact between cultures is one of inequality and opacity as well as potential and transformation. Expanding translation could mean finding more ways to enter and inhabit these in-between spaces, and understanding the patterns and structures by which we might do this.

In his review, Riley does not mention the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo), the famous group of writer- mathematicians whose work has been so influential on Atkins and Philip Terry in particular, whose work often ‘translates’ or adapts Oulipian techniques as much as it translates a source text from one language to another. Use of algorithmic process is another way of disrupting hierarchies, since the arbitrary constraint reveals the arbitrariness of all the daily and familiar constraints that have long since become imperceptible to us. Terry’s reading in the recent conference was from Exercises in Translation, which takes as its starting point Raymond Queneau’s early proto-Oulipo text Exercices de style, a description of meeting a stranger twice by chance, retold in 99 different ways.  What does it mean to translate a text already so dependent on its own rewriting? Terry’s solution is to invent further constraints, so that translation and constraint merge into one. These eventually lead not into abstraction but a sharp and surprising realisation of the text’s post-war context and its possible subtext relating to the suffering of the Jewish population in wartime Paris. Riley notes that ‘expanded translation’ is a term often used in Biblical study to describe the addition of informative notes; this is what Terry’s text does, among other things, as it marks the passage of a technique, as well as a text, from one language to another. Like so many of the readings and papers that were presented, it acknowledges the necessary complexity of that passage.

There are risks in expanding anything, not least translation. As Venuti pointed out at the close of the conference, if everything becomes translation, nothing is, and the struggle to make vital bridges between languages and cultures is undermined. There is further to go in the discussions that have begun over the past year, not only in terms of how UK poetry might be more accurately imagined to reflect its own multilingual reality, but also how its deep relationships with poetry from elsewhere might be acknowledged. How can we better recognise the intertextuality of translation, and the multiplicity of connections that are made when different languages and their thinking come into contact? How might the reviewing of poetry in translation accommodate such perspectives?

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COMMENTS

2 Comments

  • menna elfyn

    I did so enjoy reading this Zoe. Oh, I’ve spent so much of the last three decades with all kinds of comments, concepts, musings whatever you want to call them. Ah I wish I’d known about the conference but then I’m always ‘elsewhere’! Hope to launch my Catalan/ Welsh volume this year!

    Be good to meet or co-read sometime but life in overflow as always!
    Mennax

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