Tag Archives: translation

A Read (and re-read) of re/translate


By Stephen Hines

40 pages

Bottle of Smoke Press


Let’s say that language is an abstract, subjective system of signs, with different languages built in different systems. Let’s add that poetry may involve a warmer, more musical system, but one that is still built in an equally subjective way atop the first set of signs. The act of translating verse from one language into another, then, can be like arranging a whole new song in a completely new genre. Or, at least, giving the original an extensive remix.

At first read, re/translate isn’t quite that musically inclined. Poet Stephen Hines suggests he is working in the spirit of the time-honoured kids’ game of “Pass it On”, where a phrase repeated at one end of a line-up comes out the other end processed into linguistic hamburger by the giggly minds of early learners. But playing this game with poetry offers a bit more adventure than spitting a phrase along from one ear to the next can.

Here, the phrase is a full-grown piece of literature, and the processor, an on-line translation system. Hines’ rather unpoetic technique is to run the text of a previously-published poem of his (“revision”) through a translation algorithm numerous times, from English to, say, Russian, then back to English. He reveals the transformation, then moves on to the next language, and the return to English, and the further remix.

Although Hines claims not to have tinkered with or edited the translations, the results have a surprising flow. Through the accretion of idiosyncrasies from each language, the words gather additional meaning from translation to translation, like a well-worn piece of luggage building up a facade of travel stickers. 

And it’s a battered piece. For Hines, language is an almost physical medium, and reading his work becomes a visceral experience. The text takes an anoraphic pounding, such as when, in the initial poem, “these words [become] raw from rereading/raised bloodred from rereading”. Hines’ style is prosaic, direct and merciless.

Translation, though, rips the poem from his grasp. When, a few versions in, the poem returns to English from German, it has been tuned more lyrical: “Rereading these words makes swollen/saturated beads, raw red raised/wounds.” By the time the last version is reached, landing from Bengali as “Format”, the text is a minimalist knot of potential meaning that seems exhausted by all the efforts, gradually collapsing at the end into the infinity of a hanging conjunction:




Of course, there are other variables at work in this literary experiment (which translator is used?; which languages are chosen and in which order? etc.). But the satisfaction from the results, the way in which the collection actually hangs together as a piece of literature rather than just the raw products of an experiment, comes from the dramatization of language as a constantly mutable system. Here, meaning is as much layered on as also dug up, with the reader rearranging their approach to the poem with each fresh presentation: a remix and a new genre from each mouth to each ear.

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Into the Anacreontea

For Anacreon by Terence Kuch (30 poems, Silkworms Ink)

Resuscitating the Greeks and/or Romans is a proven method for poets wanting to give their Muse a workout (or some time off). The exercise works best when the poet tries to popularize a translation or reworking – that is, when the poet mines the inherently poetic rather than the stodgily academic. Ted Hughes’ work on Tales From Ovid is a good example of how to bring the classics, if not exactly into the street, at least into the living room.

Such is it with Terence Kuch and his take on Anacreon, the Greek poet famous for a Muse more interested in celebrating lust and drink than soldierly heroics and empire-expansion. Kuch doesn’t translate the work of the Greek so much as reimagine the ancient oeuvre in a modern context. For Anacreon, he indicates, is to be part of the “long tradition, known as the ‘Anacreontea,’ of poem-making in imitation of Anacreon, or expanding on some fragments of his life and work”. And since Anacreon’s work focused on baser things, Kuch doesn’t have much inherent classical pretension to shave off.

The 30 brief poems that make up this chapbook  (or, more accurately, a dedicated online page from the Silkworms Ink site rather than a chapbook proper) are mostly concerned with sex, love, drink and song. While his own ‘versions’ are not particularly musical, Kuch achieves a (mostly) celebratory emphasis by presenting very loose verse – almost haiku or tanka-like lines that give the work a very spontaneous feel.

Kuch’s subject matter spans the ages. He writes deft classical allusions (“No one has sung/to Eros/(Plato said so himself)/till I did”), employs decidedly modern scenarios (“Your wife thinks/you’re at the office”) and a few timeless reflections on art itself, such as his study of a painter whose work concentrates on

“…one moment only,

a time so


it never was.”


For Anacreon may be a brief “essay”, but it is one that successfully translates the poetic spirit of its inspiration into something much more than simple literary exhumation. 

Have a read at: http://www.silkwormsink.com

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