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Language & Literary Criticism: Experiences from Multilingual / Translated Poetic Works

From Silly Linguistics Magazine Issue #1

By Erica Sheeran

A battered copy of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Deleted World is near-always on my kitchen table or beside my bed (unless I’ve decided to introduce the Swedish poet to a friend). The bilingual edition, translated by Robin Robertson, is a constant reminder for me to engage language–particularly my second language, Swedish–from the ubiquitous creativity of poetry form offers at once a means to master use of language, as well as recurrent clues about societal experiences, albeit abstractly. Studying literature, poetry included, offers a written intimacy with language that at once transcends generations while offering new understandings of meaning, vocabulary, and cultural notions perhaps missing or understated in learning materials.

In Robertson’s translation, missed cues from the original text encourage critical evaluation from within the Swedish lexicon. For instance, in the poem En Vinternatt (‘A Winter’s Night’), Tranströmer’s original text discusses a child (neutrally-gendered) watching a storm: ‘Men barnets ögon är stora i mörkret / och stormen den gnyr för barnet’. Robertson takes ‘barnet’, literally ‘the child’, and places an unwarranted gender in the translation: ‘But the child’s eyes are wide in the night / and the storm howls for him’. Why ‘him’? Tranströmer writes that the storm howls for the child, paralleling the child’s awe at nature.

In Swedish, the articles ‘en’ and ‘ett’ signify indefinite and definite (in singular and plural forms), but neither denote genders as one would in Portuguese, for example. If this were an older text, perhaps this would be less of an issue over which to meticulate. Yet, ‘The Deleted World’ was originally published in 2006 with Robertson’s translated work released in the US for the first time in 2011. To this end, either Robertson’s conversations with Tranströmer (noted in the edition’s prologue) or a gap between English and Swedish neutral gendering conventions occured.

Why fuss over tiny details such as this? Poetry in translation, as well as bilingual works, not only open the challenging world of literary critique for language-learners, but offer rich demonstrations for the gaps that translation tries to fill. Moreover, the creativity with which poets use words and phrases familiar to them can entice language-learners to the beauty of polysemy or tightly-crafted wordplay.

Further illustrating these points are poems from Britain’s Warsan Shire (of Somali heritage) and Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar. Shire writes, “‘Macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell / of lonely or empty’”, artfully placing the Somali endearment, meaning ‘sweetness’, before a poem describing in English the ravages of civil war (Ugly). In her poem, the italics serve only as indication of speech, blurring the lines between familiar language and unfamiliar language; an invitation into the blended language usage within a diaspora.

Why ‘macaanto’? Speakers and/ or learners of Somali may have an answer and an understanding deeper than the analysis offered above and from that, may find room for critique or lend to profound discussion. In contrast, Kaveh Akbar’s poem, Do You Speak Persian?, begins with a concrete distinction between English and Persian phrases, along with the power assertion, “I don’t know how to say home/ in my first language, or lonely, or light. / I remember only / delam barat tang shodeh, I miss you, / and shab bekheir, goodnight.”

This terse statement at once interplays the foreignness of English (in italics) and the void that comes from a language out of practice (also italicized). In English, Akbar lays out uncomfort, provides details that point to telephone calls, letters, distance: what happens when language is lost and the difficulty of only these two painful phrases of separation, foreign especially to an English-language audience.

While Tranströmer is not writing from a diaspora, all three works interplay with the missing elements of language within translation and / or combatting for a space with English audiences. The boons of secondary or tertiary (even languages beyond that) are understanding the precise insights that translations or poets are unable to convey…while establishing the ability for critique in from all lingual-cultural perspectives.

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