In times of tension it often falls to the arts to strengthen community values, and poetry has always provided a vocal beacon. We are in a special position in the 21st century, because while global tensions might force seclusion, global voices can be heard rallying against it in more places than ever before. Making the most of the world's access to an eclectic mix of voices here in Brexit Britain is The Poetry Translation Centre.
Established in 2004 by the poet Sarah Maguire, the Poetry Translation Centre began with the desire to introduce new audiences to the important work of foreign poets. The organisation champions diversity by bringing communities together for the love of poetry at workshops, live readings and discussions.
Their website is a free archive of international poetry showcasing the work of poets from Africa to Latin America. Each translation begins its journey at regular workshops open to the public, where poetry enthusiasts are instrumental in the translating process no matter their linguistic dexterity.
We spoke with the PTC’s managing director Erica Jarnes about the importance of foreign poetry in multi-cultural understanding, free events for refugees, the recent success of live poetry, and what’s next for the organisation.
How important do the live events prove to be in promoting your poets and their work?
Live events are perfect for poetry. It's a literary form that really works on a stage: people love hearing the musicality, the rhythm and the emotion. We find that bilingual events, where the poems are read aloud in English and in the original language, are especially successful. I'd guess that the fact that poetry works so well live is part of the reason for the recent boom in UK poetry festivals. In terms of promoting our poets, our events are where we sell the biggest number of books.
We're having a pretty turbulent time, whether you look at the environment, Daesh or the creep of far-right nationalism. At their best, poems reflect the state we are in, in a very immediate, direct way. They can also be written quickly and in response to unfolding events, in a way that novels just can't compete with. It's great that poetry is having a resurgence at this time.
How well attended are the events? Are some languages more popular than others?
When we've taken our international poets to 'mainstream' venues we've encountered the same (often modest) audiences as other poetry presses and organisations. These are people who already know and love poetry, and perhaps have an interest in exploring other cultures. By contrast, when we've taken our poets to meet their 'home-away-from-home' diaspora audiences in community venues, we usually pack the room, and not everyone is already a buyer of poetry books. There are lots of sizeable communities in the UK for whom poetry is culturally very important, for example British Somalis and second-generation Urdu speakers, who aren't necessarily noticed by big publishers as potential readers but who are really enthusiastic when work is made available to them, and are willing to pay for books and tickets to events.
At present in the UK there is a real need for multi-cultural understanding. What can poetry translation offer to a Britain that wishes to seclude itself?
In some ways the UK is much more harmonious and integrated than somewhere like the USA, but it's dangerous to be complacent. Our current anxieties, in light of Article 50 and the refugee crisis, seem to be a lot about how the UK understands and relates to the outside world - and that includes the outside world that has become part of the fabric of this country, i.e. the generations of immigrants from around the world who have settled here.
Translation is about exchange, friendship and curiosity. It is about shared and different histories, and about finding common meaning in myriad messages. Our hope at the PTC is that by translating great poets from languages that are spoken by significant communities in the UK, who are neighbours to English-speakers but may inhabit different cultural worlds, we can both help to promote great contemporary writing from around the world and acknowledge and celebrate the UK's own diverse communities. The point is that everyone should feel welcome in British cultural life. Plus translation as an activity in itself is really fun and surprisingly easily to get stuck in to!
Can anyone join in with the translation workshops, without knowledge of the language being translated?
Yes! Anyone can join in. We have a great mix of participants in our workshops. Usually one or two people speak the language in question, and they bring their insights to the session. Others might know something about poetry, or have other tangential knowledge, or just have a really good ear. We always have really great, wide-ranging discussions.
I notice you make an exception with fees for the unwaged and refugees who want to come along to your events: is this a successful way to attract those groups? And how popular are these events with refugees in particular?
So far we have reached some refugee participants but not a large number. Making things free is clearly not enough of a draw. We are working on how to get the message out through appropriate channels to let recently-arrived people know we exist and have our doors open. Watch this space!
What does the future hold for PTC events? Are you taking part in any festivals? Or have plans to hold one yourselves?
Our own festival? That is a pipe dream! For 2017, we are taking two brilliant Turkish-language poets - Karin Karakasli and Bejan Matur - to various summer festivals (kicking off with Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival on 21 June). Later in the year we will be touring the wonderful Somali poet Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf to Manchester Literature Festival, Somali Week London and other places with her new book The Sea Migrations, out in October with Bloodaxe Books. We're taking our translation workshops on tour to the International Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay in September, which will be really fun. And we've had invitations to Shubbak, Newcastle Poetry Festival... lots really. We're trying to strike a balance between big, high-profile events, and intimate events in schools and community centres, so that we reach as many different people with our poets as possible. It would be great to see you there!
If you want to be a part of the mission and give poetry translation a go yourself, don’t miss out on the PTC’s next round of workshops beginning April 25th.