English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Here, we talk to Clare Pollard, who was one of the translators of the award-winning poetry anthology My Voice: a Decade of Poems from the Poetry Translation Centre (June 2014)
Declaiming this poem, a gabay, I alliterate in D to start debate,
to disseminate, to disclose to you: the public.
Hey, you – be diligent! I’m trying though it’s difficult
to destroy the injustice, demolish the status quo.
Sea-migration disables my people, I want to drive it back.
I can’t endure what’s happening, it’s like I feel the damage,
my body jerks, distressed, every time I see them desolate,
tears stream down my face, I chew blood from my lips…
Extract from ‘The Sea-Migrations’ by Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf in poetry anthology My Voice (2014), translated by Clare Pollard
Interview by Rebekah Murrell
On translating cultural differences
‘The Sea-Migrations’, ‘Orphan’ and ‘Taste’ all feature direct address to the reader, heavy alliteration and acknowledgement of the limitations of poetic form itself. How do you go about breaking down poetry into its elements so that you can present unfamiliar cultures and their idioms in your poetry translations?
All poetic translation involves compromise, and at the beginning you have to decide what it is important to keep and what you are willing to sacrifice to make it work as a poem in your own language. Often I follow the example of Ted Hughes – my favourite translator-poet – and feel that the most important thing is getting the meaning exactly right, and so abandon the constraints of form to translate into free-verse. Trying to mimic form can certainly be a trap – done badly you can end up twisting the original poem into all sorts of horrible, strained contortions. However, at other times – as with Caasha’s poems – the form is kind of the point of the poem. In Somali poetry, the thrill is often in the tension between these furious passionate outpourings and intricate, cool-headed craft. I felt that without me at least gesturing towards the alliteration, people would have no idea what was so special about the poems. And the formal elements are really interesting to English poetry readers too – in many ways the use of alliteration and caesura make it a close approximation to Anglo-Saxon poetry, whilst the direct address draws parallels with performance poetry. I guess I always start by asking: what’s interesting about this? That’s my way in.
On finding similarities
With poems like ‘Taste’, though, we find familiar themes – vulnerability, longing, heartbreak. Do you often find that there is some fundamental universality to relate to an English-speaking audience?
It’s not something I go looking for. It’s a given, I think, that if a poet is even worthy of that name they’ll be writing about being human, and of course it will have some universality. What I actually look for is what’s different. I read foreign literature to find out about other cultures, other perspectives, other ways of being alive – not to hear my own assumptions about the world reaffirmed.
On translating collaboratively
You worked with others on translating the works of Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf. Do you often translate collaboratively? How does working with others enhance your work?
I’m afraid I’ve never been much of a linguist, so I almost always work collaboratively – either with the poet if they speak some English, or with co-translators who give me rough literals. The pleasure in co-translating is the conversations – there are things you end up finding out that you couldn’t check in a dictionary about traditions or sayings; the meanings things hold for a people. Working on Caasha’s poems I learnt about the best camel-fat, the romance of rainy landscapes, a chain of poems called the ‘Deelley’, tribal punishments and khat. And in ‘Taste’ I needed to be told ‘lovely mare’ is a compliment! The other great thing about working collaboratively is the whole world opens up. Ted Hughes worked from literals and look at the breadth of his translations – Amichai, Pilinszky, Popa, Euripides, Racine, the Tibetan Book of the Dead… I’m equally greedy to learn about world poetry through meeting poets, working with them, getting into the nitty-gritty of how their poems work.
On translating ancient vs. modern languages
You recently completed a new translation of Ovid’s Heroides – how similar or different is the translating process when dealing with temporal as well as geographical cultural borders?
It felt a lot freer in many ways – you don’t have that same responsibility as you feel to a living poet. And I think Ovid’s reputation is already shaped, I wasn’t going to affect that too much! There was a lot more I could give to the poems personally, rather than just respect and faithfulness. I think every generation needs its own version of the classics; they always need renewing. It was fun to blow all the dust off the voices of Ovid’s Heroines – Medea, Penelope, Phaedra – and see how amazingly fresh they still sounded.
In three words…
If you had to describe ‘My Voice’ in three words, which would you choose?
Important, invigorating, mind-altering.
About the translator
Clare Pollard’s fourth poetry collection, Changeling, is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her play The Weather premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, and her documentary for radio, ‘My Male Muse’, was a Radio 4 pick of the year. Her translation projects include Poems by Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, and her latest book, a version of Ovid’s Heroines. Clare lives in South London with her husband and son, and blogs regularly about life as a poet at www.clarepollard.com.
Read more about My Voice and its editor Sarah Maguire on the World Bookshelf