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Poets Live – Poetry in Translation

Poets Live – Poetry in Translation

Review by Louisa Dunnigan for PLU.

Translation is tough. Translation of poetry is even tougher. Words, sound, meaning, rhythm, image, line breaks – the poet translator must engage with them all. Inevitably, something gets lost. Dryden once described the dangers of translating just the sense of a poem: “Tis much like dancing on Ropes with fetter’d Leggs,” he wrote, “A man may shun a fall by using Caution, but the gracefulness of Motion is not to be expected”.

The translators at Poets Live on March 25th were dancing with full graceful abandon.  From Arabic to Russian, via Italian and Chinese, the audience was swept through soundscapes as various as the landscapes described in their poetry.

If any of the poets were actually dancing, however, it was Omar Berrada and Sarah Riggs as they read their translations of some of the 1258 poems from The 1001 Nights. They created an intricately choreographed performance out of a simple reading, swapping lines of English and Arabic, overlapping their voices, reading different translations of the same poem at the same time, their voices coming together on certain words and peeling apart with the grammar, fashioning a call and response within the poetry itself. They even turned their pages in unison. Berrada’s whispering Arabic behind Riggs’ clear English created a rustling doubleness, highlighting the space between original and translation and complementing the imagery of secrecy and longing, of inhabiting liminal spaces that the poems themselves describe: “You lived between my eyelid and my eye,” says Riggs, “Had we known of your coming, we would have unfurled our hearts inside”, says Berrada.

From the hidden gardens and palaces of Arabia, to the hills and kitchen tables of modern-day Italy. A small town near Venice to be exact. Jason Francis Mc Gimsey read both the original and translated poems of Pierluigi Cappello with typical vigour and force, bringing out the rich sound patterning of the Italian, and carrying one poem’s proliferation of plosives and fricatives into the English with ease, to complement the eroticism of lines like “I live your tongue”. These poems were thick with static images, and moments when shadows become solid, one lover becomes another, “love is when my fingers touching you become the tips of yours”.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain began her set by celebrating the strength and power of invisibility, and the invisibility of translation. She was right; even on an evening dedicated to the art, the movement between two languages remained hidden, and as audience we could only judge the translations by themselves, without reference to the meaning of the original texts. It is to her credit, and to all the translators, however, that in reading the originals we were still able to get a feeling for their rhythm and emotion. Sze-Lorrain brought the Chinese to life, and replicated the emphasis and subtlety in her translations of the three contemporary poets she had chosen. She read from Yu Xiang’s I can Almost See the Clouds of Dust, a collection of subversive and beautiful poems that illustrate the complexity of modern Chinese life; a few lines before a description of a traditional childhood game bayouyou came the line “You kept reading Trainspotting, addicted to drugs and the Chairman/ All of them hegemonic/ So you love me.”

Peter Daniels, over in Paris from London, ended the evening with translations of Russian poet Vladislav Khodasevich. Much more narrative than the evening’s other poets, Khodasevich’s poems gave insights into Russia at the time of revolution, the life of a poet in St Petersburg, and a disillusioned immigrant in Paris. Daniels has given the poems a tight rhythm and rhyme pattern that turns moments of meeting monkeys or one-armed men watching Charlie Chaplin a fable-esque quality. We cannot know what poetic licence has been taken with literalism to fit the poems to this scheme, but this can be true of all translations, and as Khodasevich via Daniels says: “sound is more honest than meaning, and strongest of all is the word.”

Ears full of foreign tongues and mind of exotic imagery, I spilled from an Irish pub onto a Parisian street utterly disoriented. Translation is tough, yes. But when it shucks its invisibility to step onto the stage for an evening, it is an altogether lightening experience.

An evening of Arabic, Chinese, Italian and Russian poetry in English translation with Omar Berrada, Sarah Riggs, Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Jason Francis Mc Gimsey and Peter Daniels

Omar Berrada directs the library and translation center at Dar al-Ma’mûn in Marrakech. Previously, he hosted shows on French national radio and public programs at the Centre Pompidou, and curated Tangier’s International Book Salon. He translates American poetry and philosophy into French, and has recently edited, with Erik Bullot, Expanded Translation – A Treason Treatise (Sharjah Art Foundation, 2011) and, with Yto Barrada, Album – Cinémathèque de Tanger (Virreina/LDC, 2012).

Sarah Riggs is a member of the bilingual poetry collective Double Change (, and founder of the interart non-profit Tamaas (, She lives in Paris, where she is a professor at NYU-in-France. Author of Pomme & Granite (forthcoming with 1913 Press), Autobiography of Envelopes (Burning Deck), 60 Textos (Ugly Duckling Presse), Chain of Minuscule Decisions in the Form of a Feeling (Reality Street Editions) and Waterwork (Chax Press), Riggs has also made a film, Six Lives.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain writes and translates in English, Chinese, and French.  She is the author of two books of poetry, My Funeral Gondola (Manoa Books/El Leon Literary Arts, 2013) and Water the Moon (Marick, 2010), as well as several volumes of translations of Chinese and French contemporary poets.  Her translations of Chinese poets are published by Zephyr Press.  She is recently the Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Hawai’i.  Also a zheng harpist, she lives in France.  (

Jason Francis Mc Gimsey is a writer and translator currently living in Paris, France. He is a founding member of Paris Lit Up  (, a collective that hosts weekly open mic readings, workshops and other literary activities. Among other things, he has translated Ghérasim Luca’s Héros-Limite (1953), José Saramago’s Os poemas possíveis (1966) and is currently translating a selection of Biagio Marin’s poetry from Venetian dialect. He wordsmiths at:

Peter Daniels lives in London. He published his first full collection Counting Eggs with Mulfran Press in 2012, following several pamphlets including Mr Luczinski Makes a Move (HappenStance, 2011). He has won first prize in a number of poetry competitions including the Ledbury (2002), Arvon (2008) and TLS (2010). His book of translations from the Russian of Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939), published by Angel Classics, was the Poetry Book Society’s recommended translation for Autumn 2013.

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