Poettrio translation workshop

During the Newcastle poetry festival in May 2018, the Poettrio experiment held workshops introducing participants to their way of translating poetry. No knowledge of the source language was required, as each trio includes a language advisor who speaks both source and target languages. The source poet and a target ‘poet guide’ complete the trio. My group tackled a poem which begins ‘hela licht dat men werpt…’ by Hélène Gelèns, from her collection ‘Applaus vanuit het donker’.

Disclaimer: I am not a poet, and I don’t know Dutch. The language advisor had prepared an ‘interlinear’ translation which we were given in advance of the workshop to help us access the poem. The interlinear notes key points and features in the source text. I found that despite my lack of Dutch, my knowledge of German was also helpful at times to give me a general idea of the meaning. My experience as a translator also helped me ask pertinent questions, such as how different the Dutch and English approaches to punctuation are.

The creative aspect of the workshop, with all participants proposing suitable terms to use in the target poem, meant the Poettrio could pick up on suggestions they felt fitted particularly well. The group came up with a loosely agreed version; I suspect each person noted their favourites from among the many options suggested.

More background on the Poettrios can be found here and in a recent ITI Bulletin article by Francis Jones (January-February 2019 issue, p.12).

After the workshop, we were asked to share our translations and notes on producing them. Here are some of my ‘translator’s notes’:

I did not use exclamation marks in the first stanza in English, since (as I understand it) their use is more ‘marked’ in English than in Dutch.

Our source poet, Hélène Gelèns, has a background in astronomy: it was useful to know this when approaching her imagery. It helped us to imagine the poet’s perspective on ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ in relation to the sky beyond the earth. I feel as if the poem is written from a vantage point above the earth, looking down. The references to light also relate to modern life, with its artificial sources of light.

The poem’s first stanza is quoted in this Dutch book review:

hela licht dat men werpt in de nacht!

verleden donker: vergeten donker

hela lasershownacht! skylinenacht!

heel wat licht om het licht!

hela lichtspoor!

I may have introduced an ambiguity not present in the original poem. In my translation of the Dutch ‘verleden donker’ meaning ‘darkness of the past’, ‘past darkness’ could also be interpreted in the English poem as referring to the action described in the previous line: ‘cast / past darkness’.

The novel, compound nouns in the source poem were reproduced in English, but I hyphenated them: I gather that running nouns together completely is rare in Dutch, but even rarer in English. The hyphenation aims to retain the novelty of the nouns while not making them more alienating for an English reader than the source nouns are to a Dutch reader.

The source term ‘bewonderogen’ (literally ‘admiration-eyes’) was translated with what seems to be a cognate, ‘wondering’. ‘Wondering’ is also reminiscent of ‘wandering’ which often collocates with eyes in English. I felt this was in keeping with the sense of movement and agitation in the poem. It links the moving eyes to the light show they are ‘glued to’.

During the workshop we discussed that, from the third line of the last stanza onwards, the poem refers to people in general (‘iedeeren’… ‘we’). I chose to indicate this by adding ‘we’ in some places where I felt that an impersonal construction, although more reflective of the Dutch, would not sound natural in English. I also used ‘our’, which (in informal usage) also reflects the familiar tone of the suffix ‘-jes’ in ‘stadslichtjes’.

I chose two parallel texts to incorporate into my translation as a reflection of the Dutch children’s song referenced in the second- and third-to-last lines of the poem, and its echo in the last line. The interlinear translation advised us that ‘we gaan nog niet naar huis’ is a Dutch travel song for children, to keep them happy in the back seat of the car; the last line of the poem uses similar wording to say ‘we won’t be tired for a while yet’.

gaan we nog niet

naar huis bij lange niet bij lange niet

we zijn nog lang niet moe

These were ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ and ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’. I hoped that, when combined in this way, they would reflect some of the defiant mood, rhythm and subject matter of the Dutch song in the source poem (as I understand it). ‘We won’t go’ on its own is reminiscent of children refusing to go to bed. Both texts use ‘we’, which fits in with my use of ‘we’ earlier in the poem.

My translation

hey there light we cast into the night

past darkness; lost darkness

hey there laser-show-night, skyline-night

loads of light for light’s sake

hey there light trace


evening falls, dusk switches flip

fingers dance the match-strike-fizz, the light-switch-slap

we all live on light here, on stretched days

our talking heads commune in blue glow,

wondering eyes glued to our city lights, to fireworks

climbing into chandeliers, we won’t go

we won’t go until we’ve got some

we’re not scared