Found in Translation by Gerry Cambridge23rd June 2015
Gerry Cambridge on finding poems in translation during our Lahore-Glasgow City to City project where leading lights of Lahore’s poetry and music scene along with contemporaries from Glasgow were united on stage for a unique evening of readings and music.
On the evening of the first day of our translation workshop in Glasgow with three poets from Lahore, we went to a discussion by a group of other poets, Glaswegian and Slovakian, who had just finished a weekend-long workshop in Edinburgh held by the Scottish Poetry Library. Hearing their intense discussions and debates, often focusing in great detail on the meanings of individual words, I thought: That doesn’t sound at all like my own experience today.
Broadly, there are two schools of thought regarding translating poetry—bar, that is, Robert Frost’s absolute ‘Poetry is what is lost in translation.’ One is that you try to convey the exact meaning of the work being translated, with all the oddness that that can produce in the language being translated into. The other, which takes the view that poetry is fundamentally untranslateable—each language being a unique and immensely complex way of conveying a particular sensibility in the world—attempts to impart the spirit, the general flavour, of a particular poem. And of course there is a continuous range of possibilities between these two extremes.
My experience during these several days of translating was that I was trying to produce ‘versions’, poems which ‘worked’ in English, in close discussion with their authors. It was fascinating to come into contact with another poetic tradition, Urdu, which has so much wider a social context than most contemporary poetry in English—at least, among poetry in English which is taken seriously. The lyric voice, the individual writing about his or her own concerns, with a relevance (hopefully) for readers who can identify with those experiences, is one of the prevailing modes of English poetry. There are contemporary poets who have bridged the gap between private and public—the most prominent recent example being Tony Harrison in his major political poem ‘V’, written during the 1984-85 miners’ strike; the poem was not only filmed for Channel 4 TV but led to calls in Parliament beforehand for its broadcast to be banned owing to its profanity.
But that’s an exception to the generally private voice of contemporary English poetry. In comparison, Urdu poetry seems much more immediately socially involved, politically implicated, and connected to its wider context.While, in our workshops, there were certainly points of common contact—Afshan Sajjad’s poem about her mother, for example (to paraphrase Robert Pinsky on fathers, a lot of people have mothers), which I translated—as fascinating were the differences. I found it refreshing via, for instance, Dr Jan’s defiant protest poem (‘People Say’) to have the chance to try out a poetic voice and attitude not readily available to poets in English; or to try to convey the confident, accomplished, and somewhat combative ‘feminist’ voice of Kishwar Naheed. The process, of course, went the other way too—translating my poem ‘That Dusk’, a description of a sunset sky turning the whole interior of a house pink, Kishwar declared me—the first and last time, I imagine, I’ll be called such a thing—‘a surrealist poet’.
Poetry helps to break down the barriers, rearrange the mind’s settled furniture, open the doors to new airs, new insights. Poetry can be what is found in translation, as well as lost, even if what is found may be a thing changed, but not lessened, to some extent from its original—as this inspirational Glasgow-Lahore project, I think, proved.
Gerry Cambridge is a poet, critic, essayist and editor with substantial interests in print design and typography as well as a background in natural-history photography. His publications include: Notes for Lighting a Fire (HappenStance Press, 2012), shortlisted for the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust’s book of the year award 2013; Aves (Essence Press, 2007), prose poems about wild birds; Madame Fi Fi’s Farewell and Other Poems (Luath Press, 2003); and ‘Nothing But Heather!’: Scottish nature in poems, photographs and prose (Luath Press, 1999). Seamus Heaney wrote, of his long poem ‘Blue Sky, Green Grass’ (winner of the Calum Macdonald memorial award in 2004): ‘it’s a wonderful paean, and allows in so much that the usual poem keeps out — sheer, archaic joy: hymns to light, praise of the creatures, tales of the usual, names of the people and the places’. The TLS, reviewing Notes for Lighting a Fire, wrote: ‘[Cambridge’s] poetry has something of Robert Frost’s tone and seriousness, but rings with a deeply personal Scottish resonance all its own.’
Since 1995 Gerry has published and edited The Dark Horse, a twice-yearly transatlantic poetry magazine with an international reputation. He conducts poetry workshops with people of all ages throughout Scotland. His writing is informed by a lifetime interest in British nature, a subject he specialised in as one of the youngest ever regular freelancers (between 1983 and 1988) for the magazine Reader’s Digest, which then sold 1.5 million copies a month.