In his introduction to The Random House Book of 20th Century French Poetry, Paul Auster quotes the great French thinker Maurice Blanchot: ‘Translation is Madness.’ Anyone even beginning to attempt such an activity (perhaps, especially, when dealing with poetry) soon senses the truth in this statement. However, I would add that it can be a pleasurable kind of madness and that for me, working with Hidayet Celan on translations of his own Turkish poetry, the process has always been a genuine pleasure … and only very occasionally maddening. Over the last five or six years of our friendship, Hidayet and I have together translated nine or ten of his poems. He has recently translated one of mine into Turkish.
It must be said, though, that we are friends first, and literary colleagues (of sorts) only after that. Unlike the large majority of poetry that is rendered into languages other than its original, ours is done so without any real thought of profit, or even necessity. Unsurprisingly, our efforts proceed slowly.
Often I’ll ask Hidayet the meaning of a work and he’ll explain it by means of a long and ancient parable, at the end of which I’m none the wiser. Despite the fact that we are both ‘amateurs’ at the art of translation, we still manage to satisfy the other in the end. After all, the word amateur itself comes from the root of the French word ‘to love’. We work together in such a way that it’s not truly work at all: I’m learning his language a little – as I don’t speak Turkish at all – but am at least bringing an affinity of his sensibilities to the process, and the ability to write poetry in English. Plus, there’s a mutual discovery in the intricacies and delights of each other’s world-view and the way it’s expressed.
In the piece of mine which was recently translated for the Melbourne PEN reading, it became abundantly clear to me that my poem (rather Australian in that even while protesting a particular mind-set, it remained agonistic in a dry, almost understated way) was being carried over into a totally different style – dramatic, impassioned, even theatrical. It’s a delicate balance, but often when we translate, we can at best only make the foreign work into something like what the writer would write if he or she was writing in our language, from our culture.
This phenomenon is apparent in a particular way when one experiences directly the musicality of different languages. This was especially pronounced at the recent ‘Freespeak’ reading at Federation Square in Melbourne’s CBD.
The writers and translators represented present were Nguyen Tien Hoang [Thường Quán] and Gig Ryan (Vietnamese), Anne Talvaz and Jennifer Harrison (French), Rochelle D’silva (Hindi – mother tongue, Konkani), Lauren Williams (Spanish), Ajak Mabia (Dinka), as well as Hidayet and myself. The environment itself was perfect for the event: a clear sound-system, quiet, attentive audience that was large enough in number to fill the room – itself arranged so that the focus was on the performers, not other distractions.
Significantly, a number of the pieces were sung rather than spoken – reminding us of the oral origins of poetry and therefore literature. Ajak encouraged the audience to clap in time and rhythmically chant – underneath parts of one of her pieces – the words ‘ya habib’ (my love/dear friend). As a translator and poet performing their work, it had exactly the kind of ambiance one would wish for. The variety of languages and approaches, as well as the brevity of the pieces, meant that very little appearance of the familiar ear/brain fatigue occurred, common at many poetry readings. I represent the views of all those involved in saying that the organisers should be congratulated, and one can only wish that such events were more frequent.