Monday, 3 October 2011

National Poetry Day - and in Translation

Hugh MacDiarmid declared in 1923 that if there was ‘to be a Scottish literary revival, the first essential is to get rid of our provinciality of outlook and to avail ourselves of Continental experience.’ There’s no shortage of Scottish PEN members doing just that, of course, but we at the Scottish Poetry Library suspect that readers don’t appreciate how much of the ‘Continental experience’ is encapsulated in the wealth of bilingual and translated collections on our shelves.

 This summer we’ve been involved in celebrating the centenaries of two grand old men of European literature:  Sorley MacLean and Czesław Miłosz. Breaking with the tradition of featuring only Scottish poems on our National Poetry Day cards (distributed all over Scotland around 6 October), we’ve included a poem by Miłosz: ‘The Porch’, from his idyllic sequence
The World, published in 1945. Boldly (I think), the front of the postcard gives the Polish and the back carries an English translation; similarly with the Gaelic poem for NPD, by Angus Peter Campbell, the original Gaelic faces out and the English translation is on the back of the postcard.

We’re relying on the attractive designs and familiarity of the format, I suppose, to carry casual readers across the language barrier; we hope their curiosity will be piqued by these languages, which after all have thousands of speakers and readers in Scotland. They’re both immediately appealing poems, taking us back to scenes of childhood: the brother and sister bent over their game of battleships – on a porch in Poland; the children converting a cart into a vehicle for their dreams – in a field in South Uist. Maybe the languages are the grit, for most of us, and the pearl of the experience lies in the translation.

One of the events about Sorley MacLean at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was a large reading group, looking at two of his poems in the original, and in translations by MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith. It was great to hear people argue over the merits of ‘the mild furious dogs of poetry’ compared to ‘the mild mad dogs of poetry’ (and to hear from someone who had asked Sorley about his dog imagery, from a vet’s perspective), to have that intense engagement with language/s.

I hate to think that this will disappear from our schools and universities, as it seems set to do. Our postcards are small flags waved in the direction of more translations and more international relationships.  One of the activities of PEN, itself an international organisation, is to promote translations from and into English, with the most recent projects of Scottish PEN involving Finnish, Macedonian, French and Romanian writing.

Robyn Marsack

You can find specific information about the poetry postcards on the Scottish Poetry Library website.
[If you can’t find National Poetry Day cards at your local library or arts venue, you can send a SAE to: NPD 2011, Scottish Poetry Library, 5 Crichton’s Close, Edinburgh EH8 8DT and we’ll send you the set of 8.  - Ed.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Miłosz: ‘The Porch’, from his idyllic sequence
The World, published in 1945"… but written in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, there are many dark shadows, not least the 'battleships' evoked at the end of the poem… I recall Ian Hamilton Finlay's line, 'Idylls end in thunderstorms'