“The days run away like wild horses over the hills” wrote Charles Bukowski. What beauty, fear and wistfulness in those words. I’ve been away over the hills for a busy few days in Edinburgh and it feels as if the time has galloped away.
On Thursday I spent the day with friends exploring South Berwick (where we saw the new Forth road bridge under construction) and watching the gulls, eider duck and mute swans on the firth. In the evening I went to the Scottish Poetry Library for a German translation workshop ably led by the translator and academic, Anne Stokes.
Anne teaches translation studies at the University of Stirling and one of her recent books is a translation of the poetry of Sarah Kirsch (Ice Roses). She gave us three poems in German and alongside them a literal English translation. I have minimal German (I can apologise for being late and ask for the bill) but that didn’t matter in Anne’s supportive and relaxed workshop.
We tackled one of Sarah Kirsch’s poems, “The Last of November”, from 1989. Anne encouraged us to look at the repeated vowel sounds in the original German to see if we could in some way replicate them. She said that we should try to think of synonyms for the literal when translating. We should also consider word order. Each language has its own syntax so we may not want to retain a literal word order.
Translating makes you look at a poem in detail – that was what I appreciated most from the evening. We noticed how Sarah’s apparently surface descriptions conveyed a deeper meaning. Exchanging money, the blotches on a wall, turrets, nervous creatures, the word “registieren” (register) all had political associations which might be missed at first reading. As the evening went on we also worked on Jan Wagner’s “Small Town Elegy” and Günter Eich’s “Where I Live”. It was good to be introduced to three very different poems in the original.
During the course of the workshop various theories inevitably arose. Anne spoke of Michael Hoffman’s idea of translation – “This is what I think the poet would write if he was writing in English”. We talked about the difficulty of translating poetry for both form and meaning. This led to the word “Compensation” where a translator may not be able to follow the original exactly but might do an equivalent . An example might be the alliteration and rhyme used in the phrase “Wir fuhren und flogen” (we drove and flew). Two of us translated that as “driving and flying”, not strictly a present participle in the original, but retaining a rhyme which we would have lost with the strictly literal “we drove and flew”.
One evening was not enough – even with three short poems. The next morning I was back at the Scottish Poetry Library to browse the latest poetry magazines and to pick six books to borrow for the next month. Then it was off to the National Library of Scotland for The Celts, the exhibition which has come up from the British Museum. Celts is an umbrella term, the introduction told me, covering a wide span of time, people, places and religions. Yet here was the art I have come to associate with the Celts: interwoven patterns, stylised designs of birds and animals (real and mythical – I liked the dragon on a brooch from Portugal), the carefully illuminated Gospel books, the warrior culture of decorated shields, scabbards and swords, the beautiful jewellery and the fine gold torcs which have been found in several places. Pride of place was given to the splendid silver cauldron from Gundestrup in Jutland (c. 150 – 50BC). I remember seeing this magnificent object in the museum in Copenhagen when I visited the city in 2014. At the end of the exhibition were a few displays showing how we have interpreted the Celts. In Ireland the Celtic revival was harnessed to Irish nationalism. In Wales there was an important cultural dimension with the national Esiteddford’s Welsh druids and the importance of what has been seen as a Bardic tradition in literature. Each year the Bardic chair is awarded for poetry (written in the form of cynghanedd). In 1917 the Bardic chair was awarded to Hedd Wyn. The chair was draped in black – the poet had been killed at Passchendale six weeks earlier (an award winning film Hedd Wyn was made about the poet’s life in 1992). More recently Mererid Hopwood became the first woman to win the chair.
On Saturday I was back at the Scottish Poetry Library for an all day symposium on the work of Thomas A Clark. The poet was there in person to read his work and be interviewed. But much of the day was taken up with papers by various academics. In between we had a variety of (non-Clark) poems read by Iain Morrison and some beautiful violin playing. These intermissions lightened the atmosphere because we had to concentrate hard on the academic papers – perhaps putting the most abstract of these in the session after the excellent lunch was not a good idea. I thought the most interesting and listen-able to speaker was Harriet Tarlo (reader in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University). She is a poet herself and I couldn’t resist buying her behind land: poems and paintings, an artist’s book collaboration with Judith Tucker. The book is wide and narrow (think of an A4 piece of paper folded length-ways).
One word which kept coming up over the course of the day was “attention”. “Pay attention in order to notice”, said Simone Weill. The words of Dominic Smith was quoted with a music analogy – “playing attention”, “composing attention”. One of Clark’s works on display embodied this attention: the words “Anyone who goes in the quest of the ordinary should carry a stone” accompanying a little straw lined square box in which was placed a pebble, like an egg in a nest. It was good to be celebrating the work of Thomas A Clark, whose poetry I have admired for some years. I first bought one of his books at the gallery at Lochmaddy on a wet day on North Uist.
More days running away like wild horses.
Scottish poetry library www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk
The Celts runs at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh until 25 September www.nms.ac.uk/celts