PEN World Voices Festival Dispatch: The Translation Slam

By Elisa Wouk Almino

The Translation Slam has become a popular tradition in the PEN World Voices Festival, and this year’s event saw a full house at The Public Theater on Friday evening. For years it was held at the Bowery Poetry Club, which lamentably closed this past week. Host Michael F. Moore was clearly dismayed by this loss and by the quiet, bare, black room that served as its substitute. Nonetheless, the event remains remarkable for its dedication to both poetry and translation, especially when considering the oft-cited statistic about three percent of literature published in the U.S. being in translation.  

The slam began with Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, who read two poems that were then translated into the English by Ryah Aqel and Ahmad Diab. Both of the translators are academics and neither are poets, though Diab is currently translating the poetry of the Syrian poet Al-Maghout. 

Must poetry be translated by poets? Certainly the poet has an approach to language that distinguishes him or herself from the academic. Darwish posits that “loyalty is not the question” in translation; rather, his concern lies in “craft.” Sometimes, he elaborated, the poetry must be altered to achieve the same “energy” and “effectiveness.” The most important question, he concluded, is “How can it still be poetry in a different language?”

Thus the literal translation of words and the replicated line breaks will not instantly produce poetry. What Darwish seems to imply is that in addition to mastering the translated language, the translator must also understand how that language communicates poetically.

In a sense, in order for a poem to resound with the reader, the poem must also go through a cultural translation. For instance, the two translators differed on whether a character in Darwish’s poem was “evicted” or “chased out.” Darwish explained that the word “evict” does not exist in Arabic; it is not a formal practice of capital as it is in the U.S. Though “evict” might make more sense for an American audience, it is not the “loyal” translation. Yet should that be the goal, to make a poem more culturally accessible? Or should poetry in translation retain an element of the strange?

In the second half of the event, Jamaican poet Staceyann Chin read a poem that was translated into Italian by Angela Carabelli, Angelo Zeo, and Cristina Ali Farah. Translation choices were discussed in terms of how the translators “related” and “felt” toward Chin’s poem, “Litany of Desire.” Carabelli, for instance, tailored her translation to evoke the body of a grown woman, whereas Angelo employed colloquial language to fit the “direct” tone he detected in the poem.

Somewhat unlike Darwish, Chin’s response to the translators’ personal interpretations of her poem was that it was “probably more literal” than they thought. At the same time, however, Chin, as an activist, does not claim “ownership over” her poems; she is less invested in publication than in sharing her words. She is an “island girl,” she said—“you have an apple, you give an apple. You have a poem, you give a poem.”

Though poetry is a careful and precise composition of sounds, words, shapes, and lines, it is read with some flexibility. Chin describes the experience of giving one’s poems to translation as seeing “a piece of work move away from you.” However, perhaps the work already moves away from the poet when it is given to the reader; perhaps, to read a poem is an act of translation in itself.


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