Translating poems is challenging

Submitted on Thu, 07/27/2017 - 13:15
Yomi Sode // Kuva: Uwa Iduozee
The Breaking Ground poetry anthology was presented during the Black Poetry Night event at Klubi that was a part of the cultural programme of the Afroeuropeans conference. One of the performers of the event was Yomi Sode, who was the author of two poems translated for the poetry anthology. Photograph: Uwa Iduozee


Poetry translation is an art form. Three students and one postgraduate student from the University of Tampere tested their skills in translating poems by British poets for a poetry anthology Breaking Ground. Black British Poets.

The translation project was connected to the Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe conference organised at the University of Tampere at the beginning of July 2017. The translations were a part of the Black Poetry Night organised at Klubi as a part of the cultural programme. Liban Sheikh, one of the organisers of the Afroeuropeans conference, edited the poetry anthology as well as maintained communication between the poets and translators.

“The idea for the translations came from the British Speaking Volumes Live Literature Productions organisation which brought the poets to Finland for the cultural programme event. The publisher wished that the poems were translated into Finnish and a separete budget was reserved for the project,” Sheikh says.

The translation of the poems began in May 2017 and the finished, printed poetry anthology was presented at the poetry event in July. The Breaking Ground anthology includes twelve poems by five different poets: Zena Edwards, Vanessa Kisuule, Solomon OB, Roger Robinson and Yomi Sode.

Complex translation process

The poems were translated from English into Finnish by students Emily Hallfast, Tarja Soini, Katriina Mujunen and postgraduate student Anne Ketola. Ketola is currently working on a doctoral dissertation on the translation of multimodal texts. She also works as a poetry translator in the multilingual Sivuvalo - onko tämä suomalaista kirjallisuutta? literature project, which aims to improve the position of authors with immigrant backgrounds in Finland.

Ketola both translated poems and proofread the others’ translations. Translating the poems differed significantly from her previous work and proved to be more complex than expected.

“There were very interesting but at the same time challenging aspects to translating the poems. For example, I translated poems by Solomon OB and he used a lot of cultural references that were not easy to translate. In his poems, there are mentions of the NHS, the National Health System in the UK. If I translate it as NHS, will the Finnish audience understand? Or would it be silly to use a Finnish equivalent when the context of the poem is otherwise British? These are the things that translators have to consider.”

Anne Ketola // Photo: Anna Ojalahti
Anne Ketola has previously translated mostly prose poetry. Therefore, the Breaking Ground project differed greatly from her other translation work. Photograph: Anna Ojalahti

One of the translators of the poetry anthology was student Katriina Mujunen. She had not translated poetry before the project but is an avid reader and writer of poetry. Mujunen translated three poems by Vanessa Kisuule and faced challenges similar to the ones Ketola did.

“It was indeed challenging because British and Finnish poetry are so different. They have a different rhythm, form and content - actually everything is different. For example, Vanessa’s poems had a lot of metric verses and rhymes, so I had to think about which aspect I want to focus on in my translation. The content may suffer if you try to be too faithful to the rhymes and rhythm.”

“Translating poetry is its own art form with its own challenges. These poems were very opinionated, political and societal compared to Finnish poetry, which made the translation process very interesting. There were also very personal themes such as immigration, gender and identity,” Mujunen says.

Recitations of poems to help with translation

The translators sought help for the translation project from each other and from the video-sharing website YouTube. According to Mujunen, the poets who performed at the Black Poetry Night were, above all, stage poets and many of their works are meant to be recited and performed on a stage. Many of them have backgrounds in music and theatre, which was clear in their performances.

“You could hear the intonations and emphases in the video and how the text was divided and paced. Hearing the poem recited helped to clarify the structure of the text as well,” Mujunen says.

“It was very enlightening to see how the poets themselves performed their poetry. A few of the poems we translated were also on YouTube and therefore the recited performance guided my translation. For example, Solomon OB performed his poems as if he was rapping. That’s why I tried to come up with a translation that would work when recited out loud,” Ketola says.

Katriina Mujunen // Kuva: Anna Ojalahti
For Katriina Mujunen, translating poems was a new experience that was both challenging and interesting. Photograph: Anna Ojalahti

Challenging but great

The project also made the translators consider their own position and attitude towards the poems.

“The poems were mostly about a different perception of the world that was foreign to me. However, many of the themes were relatable and human in general, for example the experience of otherness and feeling like an outsider. There is of course also an ethnical and cultural aspect that I cannot fully grasp. I can still translate the poem and strive for faithfulness, but nevertheless, the experience in the poem is not necessarily mine,” Mujunen explains.

For Ketola and Mujunen, the translation project was a challenging but great experience.

“Translating the poems was personally enriching. I familiarised myself with translation work and saw how different the poetry culture in the UK is compared to Finland. It was also wonderful to meet the poets themselves and to have discussions with them. Vanessa and I also visited the Moomin Museum and went out for a cup of coffee!” Mujunen says.

“My personal favourite of the poems was probably Solomon OB’s poem ‘Away With Words’. I am not sure whether I have worked on any other poem translation for as long as that one! The work was very difficult, even frustrating at times, but in the end, I began to enjoy it,” Ketola says.

The progress of the Breaking Ground project can be followed on the website of Speaking Volumes Live Literature Productions. The website also contains further information on the poets of the poetry anthology.


Text: Anna Ojalahti
Translation: Sanni Irjala
Photographs: Anna Ojalahti ja Uwa Iduozee