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A poetry workshop on translation will debate the shape-shifting essence of old thoughts in a new tongue.
In his column in The Spectator, poet and commentator P J Kavanagh described a poetry reading thus: "The audience swelled to six in the end, and we all huddled in a corner. " Few poets can call their audience a crowd and fewer still are allotted more than a corner, if not a crevice, to publicise their art. And while poetry's marginality doesn't discredit it - Oscar Wilde placed poets at the apex of art's pyramid - the short shrift it gets from the mainstream media makes one wonder about its future. Media inattention could perhaps be faulted for poetry's perceived ebb - and yet it flows.
An ongoing poetry workshop in Pondicherry will discuss channels along which poetry can run to new continents and languages. The workshop assembles eight poets, national and otherwise, who will chew on the nub of 'poetry in translation'. A product of the organisation Literature Across Frontier's (LAF), the workshop (from Dec 8 to 15) is named 'Poetry Connections: A Multilingual and Multimedia Performance', and has been stagemanaged by the Jaipurbased literary agency, Siyahi. Besides talking translation, the poets will produce a body of work via music, visuals and performance, which will later be exhibited in performance at the inauguration of Prakriti Poetry Festival in Chennai (Dec 15), and Open Space in Pune (Dec 18). The poets are Zoe Skoulding, Arjun Bali, Robin Ngangom, Roselyne Sibille, Meena Kandasamy, Sampurna Chattarji, Bill Herbert, and Raphael Bendicht Urweider, and going by their past record, this poetic body should bristle.
Baring her mind on the difficulty of translating poetry, French poet Roselyn Sibille says, "The translation of a poem must not be the distorted shadow of the original poem, but a new poem in the language of the translation - a new poem as close as possible to the 'essence' of the poem in the meaning and the words used, while keeping rhythm and musical effects, " she says. "It is especially difficult, because the poetic language is in itself different as regards the usual language (use of words, syntax). The translations are very interesting, sometimes brilliant. But, they can never be the accurate equivalent of the poem in its original language."
Scotsman and bilingual poet Bill Herbert believes that translation is as primary a poetic activity as metaphor itself. "It too is about carrying things over from one perception to another, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, " offers the poet who says he's drawn to the linking of the non-primary and, more importantly, the non-European, languages through translation. "I've been working with Bulgarian, with Somali, with Farsi, with Chinese - I've thought for a long time that the Indian regional languages offer an interesting analogy with Scots' role in relation to English, and I can't wait to test the theory, " he says.
Herbert writes dichotomous poetry in Scots and English, whose combined function he compares to the ocean and the sea.
"English is the ocean, Scots is the sea: one offers universality, the other intimacy. With Scots I know the coastline - it's sharp and tender, a poetry of love and satire;I know the seabed - I can reach back to six hundred years of tradition: Burns, Dunbar, Barbour. But the sea is connected to the ocean - with English I can take that sensibility to the world."
Extending that analogy, the workshop becomes the port of exchange, and it signifies change in the poet's practice - from a parochial parishioner to a workshopping, globe-trotting citizen. Meena Kandasamy who, apart from writing her own poems, has translated Dalit and Tamil Eelam poets, says, "I think this globe-trotting, networking is great because of what you share and what you learn. In Durban, I recently met the Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan and the Jamaican poet Mutabaruka, and it is brilliant to listen to their work which is about resistance and identity and war and victimhood. One comes away more sharpened, more militant, and with a more precise sense of the political and the poetic."
It is towards this end of collaborative evolution that the workshop travels. But it raises the stakes by summoning music, performance and videos to the room. Mita Kapur, CEO of Siyahi, says the most challenging part of the programme is the multi-media performance planned by the poets. "The content of this will depend on the body of work done during the workshop and a lot of improvisation and spontaneity will be relied upon since this will be designed at the end of one week spent together. The exciting part is the use of multi-media by the poets and the fact that it is going to be multi-lingual as well. " And you thought poetry was dead.
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