In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, classmates Kyra Ho and Maria Goikhberg created In Another Voice, a podcast dedicated to poetry in translation. In less than a year, they have worked with dozens of collaborators to publish five episodes of what they describe as “sound art,” each featuring a poet working in a different language. In early 2021, Kyra spoke with WWB about the inspiration behind the podcast, the process of producing each polyphonic episode, and what's next for In Another Voice.
WWB: What inspired you to create In Another Voice? How did you get started?
Kyra Ho (KH): I’ve been studying French and Spanish for about five years (my undergrad course is ridiculously long), and I realized recently that there’s such Anglocentrism in the worldwide consumption of literature, especially poetry. I use the Whitman-Neruda dichotomy: a non-Anglophone person is much more likely to have heard of Walt Whitman than an Anglophone person is to have heard of Pablo Neruda, whom, incidentally, I hate.
Couple that with the well-known fact that literary translation into English accounts for a tiny percentage of published works in the UK and US, while literature translated from English is a huge part of publishing in non-Anglophone countries, and the imbalance really started to get to me. It’s likely caused by the remnants of imperialism or the Anglophone world’s lack of respect for other languages, which are in fact one and the same. Regardless, there are so many beautiful works out there that we might never get to read/hear, so my cofounder Maria and I wanted to create a platform for the neglected sector of poetry in translation and to provide new ways of listening to poetry.
Also, the timing was right. It was the height of summer lockdown, which meant people were restless, had lots of time, and were able to send us materials online. Platforms like Zoom allowed us to contact scholars, who would normally be busy, for interviews and advice.
WWB: Could you tell us about the process involved in compiling each episode?
KH: The process is pretty much the same for each episode and usually takes about a month.
Someone will pitch a poet, and once we’ve chosen one of their poems, Maria and I will send out the text to translators who can work with that language. Though, most of the time, the person pitching also wants to translate.
The translation is very much a collaborative effort between the translators and Maria and me. We’ll be pretty involved even if we don’t speak the language, and we’ll ask the translators to talk through the poetic choices they made in the translation. It’s really lovely to get to work so closely with people in this way.
Once we have a translated text, we ask a team of readers to send in recordings of themselves reading the translation (or the original, if they’re fluent in the language it was written in). Then I edit the readings all together to make one big layered reading, which I’ll send to whoever’s scoring the poem. I’ll chat with the scorer about the poem’s meaning and what sounds might work, but then I leave it up to them to highlight parts of the poem with music however they choose.
While this is all happening, we research the poet and find a leading scholar of their work to interview. We have an informal chat with the scholar about the poem and the poet, and that’s basically it. Sometimes, if the scholar has also translated the poem, we talk about our different translation choices, which is always interesting. One of our interviewees described translation as “deciding which babies to keep and which babies to throw out of the boat.”
Finally, Maria makes really fantastic animations to accompany each poem; she’s really the project’s savior when it comes to promotion.
“With overlapping layers of reading, we can show multiple alternative translation choices at once.”
WWB: You’ve described your podcast episodes as “sound art.” Could you talk more about your choice of the audio format and why you believe it’s important to hear—and not just read—poetry in translation?
KH: We’re still working on finding a better name than “sound art,” but the great thing about using audio for translated poetry is that with overlapping layers of reading, we can show multiple alternative translation choices at once. For example, in a recent episode, a speaker reads a line of a Pascoli poem in the original Italian—“Tra loro parlano di morte”—while two English-language speakers simultaneously read two different translations: “Among themselves they talk about death” and “Between them they talk about death.” It doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it creates a polyphonic effect that one seldom experiences when reading poetry in translation. Hearing the poem in the original language also allows you to catch details of the original, like alliterations, rhymes, or rhythms, that may have been sacrificed in translation.
Poetry is meant to be read aloud. With every reading, you hear someone else’s interpretation, and the text takes on new meaning. That’s why we never tell readers how to read the poem (though we’ll talk about meaning if they need more information), because when you synthesize lots of different interpretations, you never know what the overall effect is going to be, which is much more exciting.
WWB: How do you choose the poets you feature? Is there a particular kind of poetry or set of themes that you’re looking for?
KH: We’re limited by our fairly basic understanding of copyright, so to keep things simple, we stick to non-Anglophone poets in the public domain. We tend to let translators and listeners pitch poets to us, and normally they’re poets that are famous in their country but relatively unheard of in the Anglophone world. We don’t have fixed criteria regarding themes; we tend to judge based on whether the person pitching makes a strong case that a poet’s work is valuable and should be better known. Of course, we want the poetry to be good, but who even knows what “good” means?
WWB: What have you most enjoyed about the experience of creating In Another Voice? What have been the biggest challenges?
KH: Oh man, something we remark upon after every episode is just how amazing it is that so many great academics really want to get involved. That experts in their fields really just want to talk about poetry. Seeing how passionate they are about poets they think more people should know about is my favorite, favorite part of this experience. Though making a thing with a whole bunch of people is always a beautiful process.
The biggest challenge was probably trying to fit making the podcast around our studies. We’re pretty involved with drama and music at the university, so once lockdown was over, we didn’t have the time we had in the initial planning stages. Until our team expanded (we now have a team of about fifty people who contribute to episodes), we were doing a lot of the work ourselves, so it took up a lot of time, but now we’re getting used to a monthly rhythm and letting other people help us with our baby, so it’s getting easier.
“We're always looking for more people to pitch poets.”
WWB: How can listeners get involved? Do you accept pitches from translators?
KH: Listeners can absolutely get involved! We’re always happy to receive an email or a DM from somebody wanting to pitch. It can be as specific as a poem they’d like to translate, or as vague as the poet they want to share—we can help with decision-making. We have a small database of translators who have indicated they are happy to help, so we will likely pair the person pitching with someone who speaks their language (or sometimes it’ll just be us). Either way, it can be helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off of. The translator/person pitching can be as involved or as uninvolved as they like, either doing just the translation or helping with interview questions or even attending the interview.
WWB: What’s next for In Another Voice? Is there an upcoming episode you’re especially excited about?
KH: We'll be having a big coronavirus episode featuring the work of international poets who have written poetry relating to the pandemic and who are still alive, which will be a first. I’m from the UK, where the response to the pandemic has been a little too nationalistic for my international sensibilities, so we really want to create an episode that provides a space for non-Anglophone poets’ work on their experience of COVID-19. I’ve always found that art humanizes terrible experiences and makes us see them properly, without that wall we build up to avoid dealing with tragedy, so I’m hoping we can make something beautiful. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you write poetry that isn't in English and would like to be featured! And we're always looking for more people to pitch poets.
Mostly, though, I just want to find a better name than “sound art.”
Kyra Ho is from that field between Manchester and Leeds, England. She loves sound and words but is not very visual. She is a St. Andrews undergraduate in French and Spanish. Nineteenth-century French poetry and the Latin American Boom are her favorite things. She is of the strong opinion that poetry should be heard, spoken, and talked about most of the time.