Who owns the language?

Six Armenian Poets
, translated by Armin Tamrazian, (126pp, Arc)
Six Catalan Poets
, translated by Anna Crowe (187pp, Arc)

Arc Publications HQ must have quite a library now of poetry in translation. I'm curious about print runs and sales and to wonder how many copies have been used at any level of formal education, in informal workshops and recommended in a friendly way from reader to reader. And, and even less traceable, how many  books have been bought from acquaintence with reviews.
The broader question has to do with the influence on British - or on the wider English-speaking world - of translated poetry on the wider culture. There has been a change of editorship, of format and policy, at 'Modern Poetry in Translation', and I wonder, too, what of that longstanding journal has filtered through to new writing in English.
No less of a question is the influence of English language poetry on non-English cultures across the world. Often when reviewing Arc and other collections, the biographies of poets have led me to  wonder at the cross-fertilisation evident when so many poets around the world seem more than competent in English as a second language, in a way few English-speaking poets are in any other. Will professional translators into English become redundant?
Both of the new Arc anthologies beg these questions as relatively new arrivals into English. Both are dual language books, the Catalan looking familiar to the eye relative to the Armenian, which looks to me more like a mathematical code. There seems in the setting up an allocation, six poets in each, but each in the Catalan allowed more pages. From the Catalan one woman, from the Armenian three. Each has an editor (who writes the introduction) and a separate translator, but for the Armenian only the former is named on the cover.
By the test of flipping through the pages, both show poems worked in a conseratively open form, that's to say they moght be said to talk
in lines and sections that are not strict in line length or stanzas. Has the worldwide network of poets moved into this talking form in a way that our inherited strict forms were  set apart from the everyday as a separate music? The opening of a section of a poem titled '1993'  by Violet Grigorian (b.1962),

   Sparkling wine saved for a dark hour
   come, let's drink you up
   no matter what,
   the hour can't get any darker.

   But who are the people fiddling about,
   related neither to mother nor to father
   but who say they are truly my sisters
   and are like me in that they have the same number of eyes?

   Ghosts of a murky guesthouse
   come closer, sit down,
   let's pay our respects to the mowed grass.
   (Lord, I wish we could stand in rows
   by your door like the grass,
   equal like grass shoots...          
   then you wouldn't choose but let us all in).

It might be reasonable to think image, metaphor, linguistic alertness may still separate poetry from everyday language laziness in talk.

As to translation, without my attempting to convey a meaning from the three pages of the poem, this extract does demonstrate decisions made by the translator. The repeated 'it's', for example, and 'fiddling about', tantalising to imagine a conversation about those. Is that line beginning 'and are like me' rather prosey, awkward in a way I can only imagine the original isn't?

My having supposed translators into English may cease to be required because the poets will make their own is perhaps tested by that poem.  Not the poet but the translator, Armin Tamrazian, was 'born in Tehran of Armenian parents..., educated in three languages (Armenian, Farsi and English),' has a BA in English and an MA and PhD in linguistics from University College, London. And this opening of a poem called 'To Mary' by Hasmik Simonian (b.1987) has a much stronger sense of her having got to the energetic heart of it (lower case and punctuation as here),

   there are feet stamping on the asphalt like drums
   jazz goes down the throat of a trumpet like boiled honey
   you cough
   your scarf is thin, your trousers worn out,
   smoke me, you beg, smoke
   just as wetting the bed smokes my body,
   just as my parents smoke my childhood and that which follows,
   just as my loves abandon my harshness and smoke my tongue,
   smoke me, I beg you to smoke

I'm not sure about 'and that which follows'
, weak perhaps in the original or in the translation or both.

A stark paragraph in the introduction (by Razmik Davoyan) throws the whole enterprise into relief. 'During the Soviet era,' he says, 'most of these writers were banned authors.' To do justice to what is said here would require two whole pages to be quoted in full. Those pages include the statement. 'There was no "samizdat" in Armenia. This was either because of the small size of the Republic and tight state conbtrol, or perhaps because Armenian writers simply did not create such works.'

'Samizdat' could, as I understand it, mean poetry of opposition or, more broadly, that concerned itself with anything but the party line. There is in my head a line I can't locate about the revolutionary nature of love. The whole of a section in Hrachya Sarukhan (b.1947)'s 'Unfinished Autumnal Lines':

   My room is full of light
   But the light is suffused with your memory,
   And around me all is grey.
   And I, not knowing the language of grey,
   Don't understand myself at all.
   And, being unfamiliar with the footsteps of grey,
   I don't know where I'm going.
   Yet love is...                                         [sic]

It's a seven page poem in eight sections, complex, tragic, about love.
Imagine at this point I have left my screen, I have gone out of my house and on to a local bus, and on the bus I find I am pleased, warmed even, enlivened by being in some way in touch with these poets. It's a curious thing how a book can enable this.

Now I am back at my computer, with the Catalan Poets open at the Introduction by Pere Ballart. He says he wanted to choose six representative poets (all born after 1960), he gives an account of modern Catalan history and quotes the Catalan essayist, Joan Fuster, that 'in a literature such as Catalan, whose history is a struggle for survival, and for 'material' survival, one cannot avoid speaking with a deal of passion and, therefore, with much implicit trust'. The book, Pere Ballart says, wants 'to make that passion its own,....trust also depends on hope... that Catalan and its literature will continue to survive for many years'.

Some lines from a poem by the one woman here, Gemma Gorga, in Catalan and in translation should give the flavours:



Ens vam oblidar de donar corda 
al rellotge de les nostres nits.  
I ara mira els cossos, encallats
com rodes dentades que no saben  
acoblar-se, provant de reprendre
el constant moviment giratori  
que tenen la terra, l'huracˆ,


We forgot to wind up
the clock of our nights.
And now look at our bodies jammed
like cog wheels that do not know
how to engage, trying to take up
the constant gyratory movement
shared by the earth, the hurricane,



and so on. It seems a border language and just look (and hear) how it and those languages that it borders on differ from English in their music. The flow of the words never reaches a clamped end of line as when translated. Having the two side by side in the book allows at least a feeling for the poem as written - as sung, one might say, as given flight.

Perhaps the editor's intent squeezes the poetry into too narrow a notional compass; I don't read all of the book's poems as a struggle for survival, but there is energy, there is passion. Don't we expect this, though, from all poets worthy of the name?

And there is in this book a degree of poem-making consciousness, of the act itself - or is it simply playing with analogy? This poem, 'Reader', by Josep Llu’s Aguil—,

   The first line is the door that opens for you
   the house of the poem.  The one that invites you
   to come in and make yourself comfortable.
   The first stanza is the one that welcomes
   you and drags you inside,
   grabbing you by tthe arm and frowning at you;
   the one that speaks to you of warmth and trust
   while it makes you sit down in the armchair of the second stanza.

I'm not sure how well this works, but buy the book to see where the final two stanzas lead you.

Jordi Juliˆ has a bite to his poems and, it seems to me, not typically Catalan, whatever that might be. The relaxed style I have referred to already seems to have something to do with a developing universality of ways and means across world poetry coming out of academies of one a kind or another. Flickers of the local do come through, a poem he begins like this:

   He comes from a world corrupted with strange words
   through centuries of domination and neighbourhood,

But again, might any of us say this politically and culturally? We, any of us, might properly say, 'Who owns the language?'

Anna Crowe (b.1945), the translator here, must be rare as British with fluency in Catalan, and this book is on the whole a fine achievement in making these poems more widely available. Making a positive of what I have wondered about here, I like best the poems that chat, one might say, where the translator catches what one imagines is as close as one might get to hearing the other's voice. This, for example, from Manuel Forcano (b.1968), part of a long poem, 'At the CafŽ Sahel in Allepo', the title repeating as a lead-in to each section:

   At the CafŽ Sahel in Allepo, when it rains,
   the men lay down their cards.
   They watch the rain and lay bets as to which car
   will exit the traffic bottle-neck first below the junction:
   the blue Nissan, the white Peugeot,
   the watermelon cart,
   or the yellow taxi that I and you used to take
   up to the citadel:

Something, though, has disturbed me about these books and I've just hit on what it is: the poor quality paper. The covers are colourful and inviting but the paper undervalues the poems. I shall be writing separately on a smaller format Arc book, in the individual, 'Visible Poets' series, where the paper is better quality and the print sharper.

       © David Hart 2013