Anna Crowe is a poet, translator and creative writing tutor. She has published three pamphlets with Mariscat Press and two full-length collections with Peterloo Poets.
Hi Anna. Thanks for taking the time to chat. As well as being an established poet in your own right, you have a passion for translating poems in non-English languages. I’m curious what you feel the main challenges are in translating poetry given that it is a form where much can be lost in a literal translation of the original text?
For me, the main challenge is to see how well I can listen to the poem. So much of the meaning of a poem is often conveyed subliminally in the music the poem makes, so I listen for patterns of assonance, for consonantal noise that makes itself heard, and for a tone of voice, as well as paying attention to translating words correctly and picking up on the kinds of resonances that might be present.
The other side of the challenge is of course to make a poem that sounds natural and unforced in English! I try to keep in the background, certainly not to seek to “improve” on the original. Like Gerald Moore, the brilliant accompanist to so many great musicians, I have to keep asking myself, “Am I too loud?”
There are things that just can’t pass from one language to another, like puns, play on words, jokes, and these sometimes require a footnote of some kind. One of my Catalan friends, the poet Miquel Desclot, himself an amazing translator of Petrarch, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, was attempting to translate my poem, ‘Alice and the Birds’, which had won the Peterloo Poetry Prize in 1997.
In it I make use of a lot of what we call nouns of assemblage, such as a fall of woodcock, exaltations of larks, a watch of nightingales. I believe Kei Miller has recently published something similar. Miquel found that these old mediaeval, many of them, hunting terms simply don’t exist in Catalan, and finally gave up on the translation, much to his chagrin and mine.
As somebody who is multi-lingual, I wonder if you ever find yourself writing original poetry of your own in non-English languages or do you think the poetic voice and writing style you’ve developed for yourself over the years will always manifest itself in English?
When I was a student I was still writing the odd poem in French, nostalgic stuff about my childhood in Marseille, or sub-sub-Verlainean lyrics. Here’s one verse from an example of the latter:
La feuille est noire sur la tige
Qui nettement au crépuscule se trace.
Le vent assiège d’étoiles de glace
La nuit d’hiver qui dans le ciel se fige.
I still swear in French when gardening, for some strange reason. Well, it may be that I picked up a few choice morsels from hanging about and listening to Pierre, who used to do a bit of gardening for my father in Marseille. He took frequent breaks to down some red wine, and would then rage at the snails in colourful terms.
No, I always write in English and don’t imagine that will change. I really envy Scottish poets the riches at their disposal in the Scots language, which almost always does the job more expressively, seeming to come closer to experience, than English.
Having lived in Scotland for most of my life, and not wanting to live anywhere else, I do use Scots words without thinking, like burn (I would never say stream or brook now), swither, haar, stushie, or expressions like do you not? (I never say don’t you?), but it would be impertinent of me to try to write a whole poem in Scots.
I understand you have been involved recently in the VERSschmuggel project as well where six Scottish poets were paired with six German language poets to translate each other’s work. Can you tell us a bit more about it and the poet you were paired with?
I did a reading at StAnza this month with the extraordinary German poet I was paired with in the VERSschmuggel project, Odile Kennel. Odile is half-French and we got on like a house on fire (she and her partner came and stayed with us last autumn, prior to a reading we did in Glasgow to launch the anthology).
The way things worked in Berlin was to give each pair of poets a bilingual professional translator, and Odile and I were lucky enough to have the wonderful Katy Darbyshire. She was a source of great erudition and experience and often came up with remarkable solutions to translation problems.
I speak no German, but Odile’s English is pretty good, and we sometimes were able to sort things out in French – that really was a bonus, and we still email each other in French as a rule. We worked hard, as the schedule was quite tight, and we three were fortunate in being on the shady side of Alexanderplatz, in the British Council offices, AND in having air-conditioning, since Berlin was enjoying a terrific heat-wave.
We broke for lunch, when Katy or Odile would suggest some delightful old biergarten, where we could eat under the shade of ancient limes or plane trees. Then back for another three hours or so. I loved the freedom that Odile’s way of writing induced, being led by the sounds of the poem, and this meant that the translation could likewise be free by being faithful to the spirit of the writing.
We laughed a lot, and sang a lot of Georges Brassens songs, especially when the co-ordinator, Aurélie, appeared with her guitar! Odile and I have gone on translating each other’s work for Lyrikline, the online archive of the Berlin Poetry Festival.
Your pamphlet Figure in a Landscape won the Callum MacDonald Memorial Award back in 2011. I believe part of your prize involved a two week writer residency at a university in Greece. How did that go and what are your abiding memories of the experience?
I chiefly remember the tremendous heat (it was mid-July and the temperature was often above 40°), and how surprised I was to find myself finding it quite easy to climb to the top of the hills above Mistras and Monemvasia.
My newfound friend and fellow prize-winner (of the Michael Marks Award), Olive Broderick, a Northern Irish poet, and I found that we were expected to attend as many of the lectures as possible (this was the Harvard University Summer School for Hellenistic Studies), and looking back, I think we were far too biddable and should have skived off a lot more than we did.
On the other hand, the lectures were mostly very good, especially the course during the first week, at Olympia, on the history of European theatre, taught by Dr Anna Stavrakopoulou of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. All the lecturers were very generous in including us in their forays to other places for lunch or dinner, and in interpreting for us.
The visits to iconic place like the hill of Mistras with its dozens of Byzantine churches and frescoes, and the extraordinary peninsular village of Monemvasia with its Ottoman history and water-catchment remains made a deep impression.
I owe my third Mariscat collection to a visit to the Archaeological Museum in Nafplio, where the vast array of grave-goods brought back the memory of household objects from my grandparents’ house in Cornwall that were not so different.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any other poetry dates in the diary you are looking forward to or specific goals you have set yourself?
Last year was very busy, because I read at four poetry festivals and took part in several translation workshops and round tables. I’m looking forward to later this spring when I’ll be traveling to Mallorca for the launch of Lunarium, translations of poems by Josep Lluís Aguiló, to be published by Arc.
In June, I very much hope that I shall be back in the Pyrenees at the Centre d’Art i Natura in the village of Farrera, working with the three artists I collaborated with last year. Then, we were inspired by the specimens in the Bell Pettigrew natural history collection to create the body of work we called “Preserved: Between the Image and the Word”. This time, we hope, we will be inspired by the landscapes of the National Parks of both Catalonia and Scotland, with their natural and cultural histories.
In the autumn, Love Is a Place, a third book of translations of poems by the Catalan poet, Joan Margarit, will be published by Bloodaxe. Meanwhile, I’m working towards a third collection of my own work and will be looking for a publisher. With so much translation work on the go, I work more slowly these days (next year a book of poems by Manuel Forcano is to be published in translation, again by Arc). And I now have five grandchildren who absorb a lot of my time and thought!
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’ve chosen one of the poems from the Preserved sequence, called ‘The Closing Ring’. It articulates many of my anxieties about the world’s vanishing species. When I was a small child, a school friend gave me a copy of the Observer Book of Wild Flowers, and pretty soon, staying with my grandparents in Cornwall, I realised something perplexing about the cornfields on the top of the cliffs.
In my book, there were three kinds of flower in particular that ought to have been present in these fields, growing among the stalks of wheat: poppies, cornflowers, and corncockle. But they were nowhere to be seen. Why were they not there? None of the grown-ups in my family knew the answer.
That was in the fifties, but already pesticides and herbicides had done their work. In the poem, I have chosen elements from the natural world that have a circular shape, in descending order of size. I grow corncockle in my back garden, and when it first flowered and I saw the white space at the heart of the purple flower, the poem began to germinate.
The Closing Ring
Coral atoll, hawksbill turtle’s
prized, seductive shell,
osprey’s broad patrolling circles,
ringed plover, collared dove,
skylark’s spiraling ascent,
scops owl’s fluted single note,
scarlet ring around Sardinian warbler’s eye,
garden blackbird’s, ringed with gold:
all are shrinking, closing,
into the white space
at the heart of the corncockle flower
already absent from our cornfields
when I was a child.