My Voice: A Decade of Poems from the Poetry Translation Centre – review

Sarah Maguire (ed) My Voice: A Decade of Poems from the Poetry Translation Centre, 384 pp, £12 pb, Bloodaxe Books and the Poetry Translation Centre.

My response to My Voice is divided. Containing 111 poems translated from 23 different languages, bringing together the work of many gifted poets and poet translators, clearly laid out and generously spaced, showing each poem in its original language and script as well as in its English version, this is a book to treasure. The translations are nearly all collaborative efforts involving an Anglophone poet or poets and a linguist. Except in the case of a few pieces in French, I can’t judge their accuracy or the sensitivity with which they capture the distinctive qualities of the originals, but all read well. I found pleasure on almost every page, on some just a striking metaphor or idea, or a beautifully shaped phrase, but on many the opening of a window on a whole physical scene or way of life, a challengingly different life situation, or a whole complex of emotions and their causes. Three poets that stood out for me were the Mexican Coral Bracho, (translated by Katherine Pierpoint and Tom Boll); the Sudanese Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi (Sarah Maguire and Sabry Hafez); and the Somali “Hadraawi” (W. N. Herbert, with Said Jama Hussein and Maxamed Xasan “Alto”). In their poems the language of the translation seemed particularly alive and well fitted to what it was expressing. Others probably equally deserve mention. This book really is a rich storehouse of material.

My fundamental criticism is of the way it’s organised, “arranged on a journey from exile to ecstacy” (as the cover puts it) with each poet’s pieces scattered along the path. Perhaps there was an idea that juxtaposition would make individual voices stand out more sharply by contrast. Sometimes this does work. The exhortatory style and linguistic exuberance of “Arrogance” by the Somali “Gaariye” (W. N. Herbert and Martin Orwin) gives a poignancy to the plainness and inwardness of Mohan Rana’s “A Standard Shirt” (Bernard O’Donoghue and Lucy Rosenstein). Those two poems also work well together because Rana’s embodies the modesty that “Gaariye” urges in such a paradoxically and enjoyably high-flying way. In general, though, the tendency is for individuality to be blurred by the common story. Grouping all the poems of a given author together, as is done on the Poetry Translation Centre website, would have made it easier to tune in to and develop our feeling for individual voices and cultures and so to expand our poetic horizons in the way I believe to be the fundamental aim of the PTC, and the reason why translation is such an enormously valuable part of the poetic project.

As a result, though I prefer reading on the page, I feel this book might come most fully into its own as a stepping-off point for explorations on the site.

You can find links to poets translated by the Poetry Translation Centre by clicking here.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which appeared in The North no. 53.


Edmund Prestwich


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