Translation, Transference and Responses

My Voice,.A decade of poems from the Poetry Translation Centre
ed. Sarah Maguire, ed. (382pp, 12, Bloodaxe)
and you, Helen
, Deryn-Rees Jones (hb, 88p, 14.99, Seren)

The conditions in or under which a poet writes are very various across cultures; perhaps the poem spoken or read in public is primary, perhaps there are political risks or social sensitivities, there may be differing cultures by age - of poet and audience - and within or across any of the boundaries one can think of, not least gender. The language spoken or 'heard' off the page will have subtleties based on a common understanding or on one that challenges it.

Translation is carrying over now from far beyond European culture. This book has none from the latter but (to quote from the back cover) is from 'Somali, Afghan, Sudanese and Kurdish poets (26 countries are represented)', with the added shifts, including possible cross-cultural influences, the poems are from 'the rich poetic traditions of the UK's recent immigrant communities.'

And while wondering about transferences, the back cover lists some of the translators: Jo Shapcott, Sean O'Brien, Lavinia Greenlaw, W.N.Herbert, Mini Khalvati and Nick Laird. The commentaries by some of these and by others, along with the editor's introduction, provide not only ways into thinking about these translations but set the scene: the book has 'a decade of poems from the Poetry Translation Centre's meetings in London.' The Editor makes the bold assertion, 'All revolutions in English poetry have occurred via translation,' and backs this up with specific instances. Worth a discussion.

It would be unbalanced to quote from any one translation; I think I am correct in observing that there is one poem only from each poet, though some are sequences, and they are printed, in their original language and as carried over, from page 21 to 339. This is a lot of poets and poems, and it has made me wonder, if my work was to be represented by one poem, which might it best be?

As if this was IT. But of course one's poems appear singly in magazines and anthologies; the encouragement, recognition and not least the ties of friendship represented by this book are to be wondered at - to bless us even.

An important extension of the book - or vice versa
- is the Translation Centre's web site, where there is more of the process. A significant 'more' because, where there has been such, you will find (not all or not all yet) the crib translation by the person acting as go-between, where the final translator does not have the original language. Sometimes the crib is as it were a scatter of words and phrases, with alternative possibilities, and sometimes the go-between has made what I suppose might have been called a rough draft. And in some cases - of only a sampling of them - I have liked the draft better than the 'real' poet's final version.

This is only - or perhaps not insignificantly - to say that translation has always accomodated to the fashions of the time; even one's own poems, as well as translations, can fall foul of habit.

While engaged with this book, along with sampling the web site, I thought, how lovely it would be if, for a start, every Sixth Form College, every University English department, every grouping of poets, had a copy.

It was a surprise to receive from Seren a book very different in size, style and purpose from its customary paperbacks. This hardback has a visually striking dust cover that says in every way, this is special, which I think it is. 'and you, Helen' with its lower case and is written thus in contrast to and partnering Edward Thomas's 'And you Helen', which opens the book in type and in Thomas's own hand. The book has responsive poems and an essay by Deryn Rees-Jones 'with images by' Charlotte Hodes. The book was commissioned by  the Ledbury Poetry Festival.

Edward Thomas died in the battle of Arras in March 1917, a year to the day after he wrote the poem to his wife. Now, a hundred years after the start of that war, 'we' the nation are in some uncanny condition of remembrance. It should be so, however awkward it is or far away now for most of the population. This book opens to what perhaps can be recalled of love.

The Ledbury connection is the group, the Dymock Poets; in some uncanny way the festival there seems to play host to  those ghosts - no, not as ghosts but as lost-found-lost human beings, all men (one says 'of course' here?) and, while the book isn't about them, the connection is made and the book's account of homeliness opens that war-time to us as if familiarly.

It wouldn't be right to tag on at the end of this review mention of the visual aspects of the book: they are essential to it; there are some sepia family photographs, but what lights the book up in the present moment is the work by Charlotte Hodes, collages and drawings that risk difference and make the book as it were a brightening gift to the reader, so alive with invention arising from the book's essential  truths - and
eluding easy interpretation.

Deryn Rees-Jones' poetry and prose are gentle, empathetic. One of the sections begins:

   He has gathered her up in his old great coat.
   Can he carry her, she wonders, like the girl she was,
   in his officer's coat, with his freshly razored hair.

In this collaboration, Deryn Rees-Jones' engagement with a poetry of fragmentation that wants to hold together the lives of Helen and Edward, and not least to bring into focus Helen's long life after Edward's early death, allows space that may let the reader in. Her prose is both sensitive to their lives, to lives as well in her own family history, and a joy to read, as it finds its own engaging way through what could easily have been, and isn't, a formality. It invites us in differently.

       David Hart 2014