A word from the translator – James Byrne

English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is James Byrne, whose  co-translation with ko ko thett of an anthology of Burmese poets, Bones will Crow received an award in 2012

Bones will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets

Translated from the Burmese by ko ko thett and James Byrne


From After Prufrock’s ‘Love Song’ by Aung Cheimt:
“It’s on the tip of my tongue 
that man’s name.
In the dense universe, with arms akimbo
he busied himself
engaged in mission impossible
his whole life life, like me.
‘If I don’t have them akimbo,
where the hell am I to place my arms?’
he asks me in a sarcastic tone.
We are of the same opinion
But he says just this.
It’s on the tip of my tongue
that man’s name!

Interview by Polly Roberts

As a poet yourself, what interests you in translating other people’s words?

I have actively worked with poetry in translation for over a decade. Language has interested me for much longer than this and I suppose my fascination with the sound and meanings of words was one of the reasons I first wanted to write. As a child I wanted to know how words could fill silence or overpower the sound of my own pulse.

Less as a poet and more as a human animal, I increasingly feel the importance in learning more about ‘other’ people’s experiences in order to make sense of my own life and the world around me. And greedily (perhaps even obsessively) I want to travel the world as a poet whilst plucking at my own bookshelf. But with literature (any literature) the supply never reaches the endeavour. Translation is about catching up and so there are always going to be so many good books of poetry still untranslated. Entire countries (including many who value the importance of poetry more than England does) are still waiting for a decent anthology of their poems to be translated into English, which I find quite peculiar in the 21st Century. Burma/Myanmar was one such country until Bones Will Crow and that was a major reason for me to become interested in this project. And it helped that the potential of the early translations I saw from my co-editor ko ko thett really blew me away.

What is it like to translate an anthology of many different voices?  Do you find that you must take gaps between each poem in order to stay faithful to each voice?

I’d like to think that all anthologies rely on differences between voices. Perhaps even a poetry collection from a single author might be more varied than it often is, in terms of voice. ‘Find your voice!’ I was told by various poets where I came to London (in ’96) and started taking poetry seriously. But I’ve always operated on the principle that Eliot taught me in ‘The Dry Salvages’—which I used to love and have since fallen out of love with, as one should, perhaps, with one’s influences—‘The sea has many voices, / Many gods and many voices.’

In Bones Will Crow it was incredibly enriching for me, not just fluctuating between voice and style but, in doing so, traversing key periods of Burmese literary history, all ignored by the West and going back to the 1930s emergence of khit san (testing the times), past khitpor (‘modern poetry’) all the way through to a new generation of post-modern, ‘Language-oriented’ poets that have been heavily influenced by translation (here I’m thinking of Maung Tha Noe’s seminal book of translation under the shady pine tree, published in 1968, and Zeyar Lynn’s continued translational work—sadly these are really the only two translators of poetry inside Burma). Now, with the post-khitpor new generation in mind, you see, as much as any time in Burmese literary history, a pattern of circularity that feeds into any language, translation creating poetry, creating translation and so on…

As for taking gaps, yes, it was absolutely vital for Bones. ko ko and I worked on the project consistently, meeting in three different cities for weeklong periods of intensive work over the course of a year and a half. I remember one afternoon spent trying to agree on three lines by Aung Cheimt. If there wasn’t a break in between, we’d have lost our minds completely!

Is there one poem from the anthology that you particularly connected with?

Anthologists, like parents, should never declare favourites, but I imagine that they both secretly do! I can tell you that Zeyar Lynn’s poem ‘My History is Not Mine’ affected my own thinking as a writer. The opening line is: ‘I am already dead’. Zeyar Lynn declared the speaker of the poem to be dead because he knew that it would be seen as less of a threat by the censorship board, which was particularly stringent at the time. It was subsequently published and because of this we were able to find it and translate the poem into English.

Does it help you as a poet to have the chance to explore language so carefully or can this interrupt your own organic steps towards individual usage of language?

As a poet anything that comes into my skullscape can be useful at any time and so I suppose I try to harvest all the stimuli I can possibly manage! As part of this, I don’t distinguish between the opportunities to explore language and my individual use of it. Being original depends on more than language; it is also an issue of self-discipline, character and risk.

In the Burmese tradition of poetics are there any standards of form that differ from English poetic traditions that are particularly notable?

It seems to me very hard to compare both languages. Burmese derives from Pali-Sanskrit and was under formal constraints for centuries longer than English poetry.

Khit San is fascinating in that it was regarded as an ‘experiment for a new age’ and a break from tradition, which it was, and yet it still depended very much on a strict rhyming scheme. Khit San poems were written with four syllables per foot and there is a climbing rhyme structure that works syllabically, line by line.



James Byrne’s most recent poetry collection Blood/Sugar, was published by Arc in 2009. Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, published in June 2012, is co-edited with ko ko thett and is the first anthology of Burmese poetry ever to be published in the West. Byrne is the editor of The Wolf, an internationally-renowned poetry magazine, which he co-founded in 2002. He won the Treci Trg poetry festival prize in Serbia and his Selected Poems: The Vanishing House was published in Belgrade. Byrne is the co-editor of Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, an anthology of poets under 35, published by Bloodaxe in 2009. He teaches English Literature and Creative Writing and his own poems have been translated into several languages including Arabic, Burmese, Dutch and French.


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