Not lost in translation – a handkerchief kiss

One of the highlights of the Free Verse fair in London was the chance to take part in a translation workshop led by Karen Leeder of New College, Oxford. I did study French, German and Russian at school and Welsh with the Open University so this workshop looked interesting, even if my language skills are considerably rusty. I’m conscious that I don’t do enough to read poetry other than English and American poets apart from occasional forays into other languages. I am however fascinated by the possibilities offered by translation and being able to access poetry written in languages other than English.

The workshop offered a chance to discover a contemporary German poet, Ulrike Almut Sandig Karen Leeder gave us copies of her poems in the original German with various versions in translation. We discussed the role of the translator and whether she should aim to be invisible, simply providing a gateway to another language or whether the translator could or should bring their own voice to bear. The members of the workshop came from a variety of linguistic backgrounds from the essentially mono-lingual with a schoolgirl smattering of another language (me), to a native German speaker, a recent graduate in German, Italian and Polish speakers and an English speaker who translates poems across Turkish, Welsh and English. One member of the group said she had come to translation because of wanting to share wonderful poetry written in her native tongue and the only way to do that was through translation. We had a go at translating one of Ulrike’s poems.

 fest steht, alles wird immer much da sein
I confess that in grappling with Ulrike’s poem I was relying heavily on the literal word for word translation provided. Once I decided not to worry about whether I was translating the German ‘correctly’ it became fun and quite unlike those language lessons at school in which there always seemed to be a right or a wrong answer. I also felt a sense of responsibility to the poem and to making my version intelligible.
It was illuminating to hear other people’s translations and to see the choices they had made.  And the workshop made me want to read more German poetry (in translation). Here is Karen Leeder’s version as the second poem down and this is Anton Viesel’s version prepared for an earlier workshop

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