In this week’s PEN Atlas piece, Michele Hutchison reports from the 43rd Poetry International festival in Rotterdam, investigating why it is certain poems are more likely to be translated

When the projection fails during the Finnish poet Olli Heikkonen’s reading and the slides with parallel Dutch and English translations disappear from the stage, poetry suddenly doesn’t seem that international anymore. A cycle of nature poems told from the perspective of an elk become a jumble of unfamiliar sounds delivered in rather a threatening way. Poetry has become what its critics accuse it of – hermetic, and I realise just how crucial translation is to the experience of ‘international poetry’. Director Bas Kwakman already made this point earlier in the day at the 2nd
annual translation symposium, a festival programme dedicated to the translator’s role as intermediary. ‘Without translation, this festival would not be possible,’ he said. Twenty poets from eighteen countries and five continents, representing between them fourteen languages, will perform over the course of the week. The audience will experience their works through sound, visual clues such as body language, and projected simultaneous translations.

PEN editor Tasja Dorkofikis asked me to consider how international poetry is and over the past days I’ve been thinking about this. If international is taken to mean universal and accessible to all, there are a few stumbling blocks. A haiku is not the same as a sonnet is not the same as badi, but cultural context is just as complex as form. The accomplished poet K. Satchidanandan, one of the festival’s big names this year, writes in Malayalam and weaves elements from classical Indian mythology and verse form into his work, while retaining a modern style. How will a European audience respond to this? The reader/listener’s knowledge or ignorance of a foreign culture is just as limiting to the transmission of literature as a translator’s inability to pick up and carry across all of the layers of meaning, without footnotes.

During the course of the symposium, I learn that K. Satchidanandan has translated his own work into beautiful English and in doing so, he has opted to cut out cultural references which might disturb the Western reading process, for example, ‘rain from the Hindu Treta Yuga period’ has become ‘rain from a bygone age’. Is this globalisation that Tim Parks keeps writing about on the NYR blog at work? Have the poets been invited precisely because they write the kind of neutral, non-culturally specific poetry that translates and travels easily? I decide to ask festival programmer Correen Dekker about this. Where does the festival find its poets? What does the selection process involve?

Well, she tells me, she reads a lot – individual collections which are sent in, anthologies, multilingual magazines, she visits festivals (most recently St Andrews and Berlin), talks to PI Web magazine’s international editors and studies festival lists worldwide. She laments the fact that what she looks at is limited to what is translated into English or German and would love to consider new poets off the beaten track. She also consciously tries to avoid being limited by the festival circuit which works like a kind of international fellowship programme. In response to my question as to whether she would give preference to ‘more easily translatable’ poets, she agrees; what’s more, translators are more willing to work on texts which allow for a successful end product. The festival’s selection aims to be as broad as possible, to cater to all tastes, and the opening programme in the form of a pageant gives me the chance to sample this.

There is Brazilian performance poet Márcio-Andé whose radical digital poetry is made up of a few very basic words (stone, water, diamond) recited over and over again and the poet himself playing an electric violin. For me the experience has more in common with music and art and only seems to operate on the very boundaries of linguistic expression. Headliner Ron Silliman, one of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, reads work that is playful and incomprehensible. Does he get away with this because he writes in English and refers to the dominant culture? He doesn’t have to be translated to be considered. British Pakistani poet Sascha Aurora Aktar’selusive, associative work, also written in English would support this theory too. Are the most complex and impenetrable poets here the ones who write in English?

The same point actually came up earlier in the day during the translation symposium when the wonderful Dutch writer and translator J. Bernlef explained how Tomas Tranströmer’s use of the ‘objective correlative’ meant his work leant itself to translation. His images and metaphors would produce an emotional reaction in any language. Poets whose work experimented with register or language or cultural narratives would not. But still, although the selection of poets here is limited to what is available in English or German, and caters to Western tastes, there is enough diversity for the festival to offer a revelatory experience: from the eloquent young Australian L.K. Holt at her first foreign festival,tothesurprisingand fascinating Armenian talent Vahe Arsen, orPalestinian Najwan Darwish, whose familiar political agenda is presented in alluring new clothes.

About the Author

Michele Hutchison (Solihull, 1972) worked in publishing in the UK before moving to the Netherlands in 2004. She now works as an editor at a Dutch literary publishing house and as a freelance translator. Writers she has translated include Joris Luyendijk, Rob Riemen, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer and Simone van der Vlugt.

Additional Information

43rd Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam – Official Website