Club Inégales ‘Found in Translation’

I was delighted to join poets Chris Meade, Kirsten Irving and Sasha Dugdale (and Nineb Lamassu, in spirit) to perform in an evening of music, illustration and poetry, with the wonderful Academy Inégales, directed by Peter Wiegold, as part of the Club Inégales ‘Found in Translation’ series, in conjunction with Modern Poetry in Translation and the House of Illustration.

In the first half, we performed ‘chains’: a translated poem, translated by a composer into a piano piece, translated into an improvisation on the Korean flute, translated into a new poem, or a spontaneous drawing, translated into electronic music; and so on, creating meaningful resonances and shifts each time.

In the second half, the ‘band of translators’ sat onstage alongside the Academy, and experimented, using their voices and words and images as if they too were instruments in the band. It was a precious opportunity to work with such an open-minded group of performers, exploring new ways to bring words and music, and images, close.

Spoken word is a strange instrument, and I’m not sure it can ever work the same way as a musical instrument (or a sung voice, which can). If you’re singing, any verbal sound has lift, that’s why scat works, and doesn’t need anything else. Four voices singing together make a quartet. Four voices speaking at the same time make… what? Noise? You start with an interesting texture, but it runs the risk of becoming more tedious more quickly: how can you use it to move an audience to tears the way a piece of music, or a poem can? How can music and spoken words come together in a way that allows an audience to listen to them both as equal partners?

I like the idea of finding new bridging structures. Or maybe somehow borrowing or inventing a tradition in English (such as creating something like Corsica’s chjam’è rispondi, a form of poetic jousting), where speakers/singers extemporize and improvise on a given theme within a formal metrical and musical framework.

Found in Translation

Photo© David Godfrey – and more photos of the evening here

I wonder if spoken words do need to communicate sense to be musical and whole, as otherwise they risk becoming an empty texture, something anti-musical, like interference (a different effect)? So strategies need to be developed that allow the words to be understood, to use sense as part of their box of acoustic tricks, as rap does, for example.

This barely scratches the surface. I’m hoping further opportunities will arise to explore all of this, somewhere, somehow…

Meanwhile, you can catch the Academy and Peter Wiegold, and others, performing Purcell’s King Arthur at Spitalfields Music in June.


Poetry Society Popescu Prize, 23 November 2015

I recently co-judged the 2015 Popescu Prize, with Clare Pollard.

Visit the Popescu Prize website for full details of the winner and the shortlisted translators.

Clare and I were asked to say a few words at the prize giving ceremony, about translation and why it matters. Here’s what I said:

“I think it is safe to say that poetry in translation is a force for good in the world. There are many translators in this room who have made and are making it their life’s work to put their ears to abroad and report, with the greatest depth and sensitivity, on what people are thinking and feeling there.

But what exactly is this ‘good’, and how potent is that ‘force’, in the times we live in? If you put two people in a room containing two cases, one holding two guns, the other holding two poems, which will they choose? Poetry isn’t a counter terrorist strategy, it isn’t even a bullet proof vest. Words look helpless next to guns.

All that poetry has going for it, is that it doesn’t play by those rules. It bypasses that system completely. The poem, and especially the translated poem, refuses to play the game of mistrust and fear, and destructive escalation. It safeguards a zone of solidarity in which human beings may be listened to, in which humanity may be heard.

Pushkin said ‘translators are the post horses of the enlightenment’. That gives us both a sense of how hard they work, flogging themselves, sweating and foaming at the mouth, and of what they achieve: opening doors, shining light, even through the smallest cracks.

So, let us have stables full of translators, coaches full of translations, and many, many more pick-up points for passengers. Books do no good left in boxes. Which is why awards like the Popescu Prize do such important work.

Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese artist and activist, says: ‘Liberty is about our right to question anything’. The process of translation embodies this principle and translators bring to it eye-watering focus, good judgement and holding of nerve.

It is by questioning, that they find freedom and space where none appears to exist. Bind them with rope after rope, they will slip free underwater and emerge smiling. The opposite, if you like, of ‘obscurantisme’, a word I keep seeing in the French papers: that is, ideologies whose exit cost is life.

How can we make visible this work that for the most part takes place invisibly in the vast grey area that exists between two languages, two minds? How exhilarating, at times confusing, it is to make that journey, to travel to a border, just a thin black line on the map, and find that in reality it is a labyrinth of back streets and crack dens, or a vast mountain range dotted with villages. Not something to be stepped over, or on, but to be stepped into.

The exceptional translators we will hear tonight have all made a journey of that kind in their work, and this evening gives us a chance to hear and enjoy what they have brought back for us.”


Place de la république, Paris, in 2015

(©Olivia McCannon 2015)


Work in progress…


Detail from Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Women), Christine de Pizan, 1405 At