SG Poetry In Translation

One of the programmes in this year’s READ FEST is SG Poetry In Translation II (conducted in Chinese) held this afternoon at the National Library (NLB) Building.

I had been looking forward to this event because I’ve written a number of poems, and I love the art of translation. I was also attracted by the publicity material that says: Can poems be translated? What should we take note when we translate poems? What are the challenges faced when we translate English poens into Chinese and vice-versa?

I found out that this is the second time that the NLB has organised this; the first was last year. There are three speakers for today.

                                                  Chow Teck Seng

Chow TS served as both the emcee as well as a speaker. He chose to present last; and because the time was not well-managed, I ended up missing his entire speech. All I knew was that he is both a student (doing his PhD) as well as a translator and had attended a translation course at a Taiwan University.

Alvin Pang

Alvin Pang, introduced as a “very important and famous” poet educated in Singapore who is involved in editorial work including poetry translation across different language streams, has had his works (including 10 creative works and 7 anthologies) translated into more than 20 languages, including Swedish, Russian, French, Burmese, Chinese and  Tagalog. His main message today is that translating a poem is like how a music score is interpreted by different musicians: no two interpretation are exactly the same, as one has to read, understand and bring out the personality and character; that is why great works have many different translated versions.

He proceeded to quote examples from poets like T S Eliot to illustrate his point about sensuality, voice, rhythm and style. One quality the translator needs is to have an affinity with the material. This is important because poetry is a global conversation. A good piece of writing may not be good to everyone, and people who appreciate the writing may not be from the same community, so there is the need for exchange and interaction.

The next speaker is Chew Thean Phai. Being the youngest, an ex-chinese Language teacher, now a PhD student, with no published work yet, I couldn’t find a photo of him online. His segment took up the bulk of the session, with 33 Powerpoint slides. He began by lamenting on the poor standard of Chinese in Singapore schools (both primary and secondary) today.

Throughout his delivery, the point that came across strongest is that the most important element in poetry writing is the Voice (not Imagination), as the tone and colour will produce an unique rhythm. There’s poetry in our everyday life, testing us and letting us look at the world with different points of view.

Chew also quoted many eminent poets, such as Brenda Hillman’s “In The Trance” (‘I left the world and felt a world’), Chen Li’s “War Symphony” and its various (English) translations (by Polish Bondan Piasecla and Italian Cosima Feeley); Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gently into the night”, William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”, Carl Sandburg’s “fog”, Ezra Pound’s “The apparition of these faces in the crowd… “and Jennifer Feeley’s “Armour” (translated from a Chinese poem).

I had to leave after Chew’s presentation because it was well past the end time stated in the programme and I had a prior commitment. I hope the organisers would look into the time management issue (which I wrote in the feedback form) when planning the next Poetry In Translation session, possibly for next year’s READ FEST.

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