Discussion of poetry translation at Arkadia bookshop, Helsinki – my thoughts

This evening I went to a public discussion of poetry translation at the ever-wonderful Arkadia International Bookshop. This was the November edition of Tiukku-klubi, a “Public Information Cultural Factory”. Hosted by Laura Serkosalo, the three guests, all distinguished writers and translators, talked about their experience of translating poetry. The guests were Henriikka Tavi, poet and translator of Germani, Tanja Roini, translator of Spanish, German and French who has received a Finnish government award for her work, and Jyrki Vainonen, whose speciality is Irish poets such as Heaney, Muldoon and Yeats. All translate into Finnish.

To my taste, the discussion was far too translator-centred, with questions about the translator’s attitude, approach and working methods, and how they interacted with the original poet. What I felt was missing was the translator’s appreciation for the effect the original poem has on speakers of the source language and the attempt to bring that experience to the target-language speakers. What was almost entirely missing, too, was discussion of form – metre, rhyme, rhythm. Indeed, I almost felt there was a hygienic aversion to the topic in the conversation. My perspective is of a translator of Russian poetry, which I know Russians find magical and captivating precisely because of its form, who wants to share that experience with English speakers.

When questions were taken from the floor I asked about those two things, conveying the original listeners’ experience in a new language and preserving the form, which makes the whole experience. The three said that there were other criteria in poems, such as imagery, which must also be respected, and that a translation should be judged for what it is, not for what it is supposed to be.

I found these responses something of a cop-out. Firstly, who said that criteria are mutually exclusive? You can keep amazing imagery and still adhere to the original form. It’s hard, but you can if you try. Secondly – and this statement I found the most galling – why should you as a translator feel that your work should be above criticism? If someone tries your work and finds it wanting, in their opinion, you should be happy you have such an exacting critic.

A stimulating evening in all, and I hope Tiuku-klubi keeps its focus on poetry translation, at least in part. There was a good turnout of self-confessed poetry translators in the audience. They would, as I, very probably be interested, as Laura Sonkasalo alluded to, in a poetry event at which several translations of the same poem are read. Tiuku-klubi: the ball is in your court!

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2 thoughts on “Discussion of poetry translation at Arkadia bookshop, Helsinki – my thoughts

  1. Thanks for your notes and comments! Translating is a vast and varied field with so many interesting questions to discuss about – so let’s continue the discussion on the subject in the next part! I would love to organize this translation discussion based on several different translations on the same poem, that’s an old idea that I still haven’t had possibility to out on stage. So I’m glad to hear it meets response in the audience and amongst translators too. Let’s stay in touch!

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