Friday night, The National Poetry Society held a tri-lingual poetry reading at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden, London. Welsh poet Menna Elfyn and Hindi poet Rati Saxena read their poetry and discussed translating other poets work into their own language and being translated into other languages than their own.
The reading started with a poem by Menna Elfyn, read in Welsh by Elfyn, in Hindi by Saxena and finally in English, again by Elfyn. Both poets are excellent reciters and it was a very evocative experience to listen to a poem without understanding the language (I neither speak Welsh nor Hindi). I was struck by that the rhythm of the poem and the pleasant voices of both poets, made it very soothing to listen to. I would love to have audiobooks by both poets where they read in their own languages and perhaps with the English translations to read along.
Elfyn and Saxena continued to read another of Elfyns poems where Elfyn read the poem in Welsh and Saxena added the Hindi translation, line by line. To hear the languages next to each other gave a new dimension of rhythm and atmosphere. Who would have thought that Hindi and Welsh could rhythmically sound so alike.
Following the reading, there was a discussion of poetry translation. Elfyn told a story of another poet, who had told her that translations of poetry was like kissing through a handkerchief, to which she had replied that it was better than not kissing at all. Both Elfyn and Saxena seemed to agree that translations of poetry does take a life of its own, not entirely connected to the original poet. The translation is for the new audience – for them to experience and get an understanding for the poets work. I think as writers we are often quite protective of our work – it’s our baby, but the reader needs to be able to add to the reading. I once let a friend read my poetry-novel where one of the characters are named Miredhel. She didn’t know how to pronounce it so in her head she read Mildred. It didn’t bother me but she suggested I should change the name to something easier to pronounce.
Last but not least, hearing poetry read in a language I do not understand was a surprisingly rewarding experience. There was so much to gain from rhythm, intonation and voice, that I would certainly expose myself to that experience again.