Poems and Languages on the Move

September 29, 2011

Canan Marasligil is a freelance writer, editor, screenwriter and translator, who visited Edinburgh as part of the British Council Edinburgh Bookcase in 2010. She translated Emily Ballou’s poem for the TRANSPOESIE project. We’re delighted to have her blog post below.

Emily Ballou's poem in Brussels Metro

26 September is the European Day of Languages, celebrated every year across European cities through a wide range of events. Brussels, a multilingual city in nature with its official bilingual status (French and Flemish), its common use of English as part of its international status (European Parliament, Commission and the NATO are based here among other big institutions) and its ever growing demographics of citizens speaking a wide variety of languages, is hosting the TRANSPOESIE project and asks all its metro commuters: one poem, one trip, how many journeys?

Organised by EUNIC in Brussels and inspired by London’s Poems on the Underground and Warsaw’s Wiersze w Metrze displaying poetry in their cities underground stations, EUNIC has joined forces with the local transportation company STIB/MIVB to spread poetry all across the Brussels metro.

The official launch of TRANSPOESIE took place in Passa Porta, the International House of literatures, on the European Day of Languages. Directors Sigrid Bousset of Passa Porta and Martin Hope of British Council (current president of EUNIC Brussels) opened the event with an introduction on their respective institutions and their support for multilingual activities and projects.

The evening was hosted by Belgian poet, essayist and academic Peter Vermeersch. Seven of the twenty two poets featured on the TRANSPOESIE website were in Brussels to take the stage and discuss poetry, translation, languages, public space, and to read their poetry in their original language.

From the Page to the Public Space

Emily Ballou at Transpoesie event

The first part of the evening started with poets Morten Sondergaard from Denmark, Emily Ballou from the UK and Claudiu Komartin from Romania.

Vermeersch started the discussion by asking the poets how they felt about writing for the public space and if the process was any different from writing for the page.

It turned out all poems were already written before the project and not specifically thought for the public space. However, all three agreed on the challenge of being read by people on the move.

You’re always surrounded with text in the public space, so you need to compete with other content” says Sondergaard, “Poetry doesn’t sell” he adds.

Ballou explains that although her poem existed before, this series she’s written about lizard has been the most public of all her poems. “I like the idea of having these poems in the public space” she says, “the lizard signature is perfect for that.”

“We have moments in our lives when murmured words are more important than screamed ones” says Komartin, explaining that this is his idea of experiencing poems in the public space. “Among all those people, you have one moment for yourself when you are reading the poem” he says, emphasizing on the power of poetry.

“If you want to be heard you have to lower your voice” adds Sondergaard.

TRANSPOESIE is a project that brings poetry to people who are on the move and who can be transported by the poetry published on the billboards.

“Some of my poems started with overheard conversations” says Sondergaard, “the idea of movement is pretty much in poetry.”

Emily Ballou is also a screenwriter. When asked if she writes differently for the screen, she says that “for the screen, I look for images. Poetry gives more inside space.” She goes on telling about her preference to write on the typewriter, “I like the sound” she adds.

For Komartin as well, poetry has everything to do with rhythm, “It has to do with our every move, every choice we make.”

Poetry in Translation or Filling the Gaps

Peter Vermeersch with Lieke Marsman, Clara Janes, Radek Maly and Carl Norac

The evening continued with four more poets: Lieke Marsman from the Netherlands, Clara Janés from Spain, Radek Malý from the Czech Republic and Carl Norac from Belgium.

Vermeersch opened the conversation with multilingualism and translation, “Public space in Europe is filled with languages” he says giving Brussels as one good example. He asks the poets how they feel about being translated to another language.

Marsman says she felt honoured, “When I first read one of my poems in English it was a strange feeling. I tried translating my poems on my own thinking my English was good enough, then when I read the English translation, I found out I didn’t event understand some of the words!”

Janés, who is a translator herself, says she learns a lot from the translator, “I am a translator myself too so I know. You have to use your own language creatively to fill the gaps” and she adds, “You have to understand the mind of the poet.”

Malý translates from German to Czech and explains that he tried to translate one of his  poems to German, “with the help of my wife who is a native German speaker.” The German version turned out being another poem. “I don’t think about other translations” he says, “I prefer not to ask why my poem keeps rhymes in Dutch and not in French for instance” and adds “Every translation is interpretation.”

Norac talks about the dialogue that exists between the poet and the translator, “Translators ask what is behind the mirror” he says, “If you can talk with the translator you will win other things, you share secrets with the translator, you talk about your poetry in a different and new way with your translator.”

Vermeersch adds that it can even be more alienating when the poet knows the language in translation.

“I often write for illustrated books” explains Norac, “I picture poems in my head and I tell my translators to use their imagination. I want to tell them ‘I give you my poems, do what you want with it’.”

Peter Vermeersch and Morten Sondergaard

Vermeersch also asks Marsman if writing for a small language group like Dutch is annoying in terms of reaching audiences. She says it is not an issue, “I learned languages at an early age and can read poetry from different places. Also, there are translators, so I’m not worried about the state of Dutch poetry.”

He turns the question to the speakers of bigger languages, like Spanish and French. All poets agree it does not really matter and that what counts is that it needs to be written and read. “It’s not only about the language” says Norac, “but to find people to read the poetry.”

Poems will be on display in various metro station across Brussels until mid October. You can read all the poems in their original languages  and in their Dutch and French translations (no English I’m afraid) on the TRANSPOESIE website.


2 Responses to “Poems and Languages on the Move”

  1. […] I attended and enjoyed very much. You can read the blog post I have written about the event on the Scottish Poetry Library’s blog. Emily Ballou's Poem "I Lizard" in the Brussels metro, with the Dutch and French […]

  2. Thanks for having me on your blog.

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