StAnza International Poetry Festival has always been committed to exploring poetry in translation and this year’s festival was no exception. The question that came up twice during the panel discussions I attended – is anything untranslatable? – was an interesting one. I have some experience of negotiating the unmarked borders of translation, when I took part in the From Glasgow to Lahore project run by Highlight Arts in 2015/2016. In addition the theme of Due North piqued my interest this year as I have a basic understanding of Norwegian language, and my recent pamphlet Sykkel Saga incorporates and plays with Norwegian in an attempt to relearn it.
My interest in the Norwegian language began with a three month exchange to Bergen Kunstakademeit in 1991, and a more recent cycle trip through the Norwegian Arctic, on which Sykkel Saga is based. The StAnza ‘Found in Translation’ event on Saturday 7th March gave a good introduction to translating into and out of Scandinavian languages. The group of four poets had spent the previous 24 hours translating each other’s works; Scottish poet Lesley Harrison, Norwegian poet Morten Langeland , Swedish poet Ida Börjel, and Scottish/Mexican poet Juana Adcock took part. The group was facilitated, and the panel talk excellently chaired, by Norwegian translator Rachel Rankin. The poets read versions of each other’s poems; the artistic pairing of Adcock and Börjel worked particularly well due to their shared interest in a conceptual approach to poetry and how this could be translated from one poetic work to another. The next morning at the Sunday breakfast slot a further panel discussion on translation also included Lesley Harrison and Ida Börjel, with Danish poet Poul Lynggaard Damgaard and Danish/Korean poet Maja Lee Langvad. Chaired by Robyn Marsack, a translator herself, this discussion started by negotiating some of the same ground, the question of ‘is anything untranslatable? surfaced again, but branched out into more nuanced issues around translating the main poetic tools of form and prosody, sense and meaning, as well as faux amis. The on-the-page similarity of Norwegian and Danish was discussed, which is interesting as aurally I find Swedish and Norwegian to sound more similar. When asked to read from a favourite poet two of the poets chose to read from Inger Christensen’s Alphabet a Danish classic, which is now on my to-read list.
One of the Past and Present events on Saturday afternoon, featuring Agnes Scott Langeland and Ian Crockatt, carried on some of these discussions around what to prioritise in translation, which at times came down to choosing between sound play or meaning. This was pertinent to both poets, but Ian Crockattt has the added complexity of wrestling with strict poetic form and kennings, when he translates from Skaldic Norse poetry. I already own his wonderfully evocative book Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw: Viking poems from Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney, published by Arc which he read from; he also read translations of Egill Skallagrimsson from The Song Weigher, Arc. Arc publications are quality books which apart from the bilingual texts also contain insightful author essays on the process and concerns of the particular translation.
Reading from another Arc publication, To the Outermost Stars translations of Norwegian poet Stein Mehren, was Agnes Scott Langeland. Langeland is a Scot who has lived in Norway for many years, she gave us a thorough explanation of her process of translating individual poems, and the choices she made. Scott Langeland read the Norwegian, as well as her English versions, which I enjoyed hearing. I bought the book, a bilingual edition. The simplicity of Mehren’s language gives a clarity of thought, along with his use of a conservative form of Norwegian Bokmål, for me it’s the perfect volume for further learning the language in an enjoyable way.
It was interesting to hear, in the two panel events, the importance that the poets placed on being able to discuss the sense and meanings of the poems with the poet, before making their translation; this confirmed my own experience of creating versions of poems in English from Urdu and Punjabi bridge translations. Whereas in the Past & Present event the poets being translated were deceased, and so this additional insight was not available to them (although Langeland could access sound recordings of Mehren reading his work, Crockatt obviously had no such access to Norse). Having to make their own decision on nuances of sense is perhaps the reason that the short essays in Crockatt’s and Scott Langeland’s books contain so much detailed explanation of process.
My personal conclusion is that exact translation doesn’t exist, but that is not the aim of the process. There are choices to be made as to the focus of a translation, be it sense or sound or meaning. But poets are in a prime position to make the best attempt at translation as the poet is familiar with the process of translating their own experience of the world into words. In fact I would say that the best poetry is created as an attempt to mitigate for the inadequacy of everyday language in accounting for our actual experience of the world. And so, is translation any different? Each one of us receives a poem, in our first language, differently because we all receive and perceive the world differently; the same is true, for me, of poetry in translation.