Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Espero, an example of the perils of translation

On many occasions, the whole set of connotations of a word in one language simply cannot be conveyed in another. One such example would be the statement Espero in Spanish. In English, this could be translated in several ways, but the three main options would be as follows:

1) I wait

2) I expect

3) I hope

The translator firstly finds themselves forced to interpret which version the original writer might have intended to communicate, as all three cannot be succinctly retained in English. Secondly, meanwhile, they're consequently obliged to remove any ambiguity that the original might (or might not) have sought to play on among those three potential meanings. And thirdly, the verb esperar is loaded with the same three etymological, social and emotional connotations that cannot be conveyed in English by a single word. 

In other words, for instance, when a Spaniard expects something, they're linguistically aware that they're also hoping and waiting for it. An English speaker is not. No matter how we dress up a translator's syntactic and semantic dance, how can such tensions ever be resolved to any degree of satisfaction, how can the same ambiguities and multiplicities of meaning be preserved? 

Thursday, 22 July 2021

The perils of translating poetry

I've long avoided translating poetry from Spanish, despite multiple requests over the years, because I'm convinced there's a tipping point for certain linguists, including myself, after which their growing awareness of the layers and depths of nuance in the original language disarms them as translators. 

What do I mean by this statement? Well, thanks to Carmine Starnino's Facebook feed, I encountered Katia Grubisic's excellent new essay in The Walrus (see here to read it in full) about this very subject, including the following extract that expresses my stance perfectly:

"Literary a pack of lies. Every word compensates, approximates; every sentence omits far more than it includes. Choice is begrudging; while the chooser wrangles every possible permutation and absence, the reader trots around in the target language, blissfully oblivious to what is missing, what’s been cut, inserted, made up, woven in..."

Of course, you're within your rights to challenge me as to what the alternative might be, because translations, however imperfect, are the only way for us to access any poetry that's been written in a language we can't speak. And my reply would be to recognise that you're right, but also simply to ask for your understanding as to why I can't take on any translations myself.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Do poets read enough poetry...?

When encountering yet another post on social media from a poetry journal who've been inundated with over a thousand poems in their latest submissions window, my first reaction is inevitably to reflect on the long-standing feeling that everyone seems to want to be published in magazines that they don't support via subscriptions or even one-off purchases. Of course, the most common and (to a certain extent) justified kick-back is cost: it's impossible for poets to buy copies of all the journals where they submit.

However, on this occasion, my thought processes went a step further: the majority of the most outstanding poets in the U.K. are barely shifting 200 copies of their well-reviewed collections. In many cases, these books were published by excellent outfits that boast decent distribution networks. In other words, if we look beyond the thorny question of the circulation of poetry journals, what about the absurdly low sales of collections and pamphlets? 

And a final doubt: leaving aside the colossal elephant in the room ( i.e. how to find readers who aren't poets), do poets themselves read enough poetry, especially work that's outside the comfort zone of what their workshop leaders show them or what's shared by their friends on social media...? 

Friday, 9 July 2021

My essay on Michael Laskey's poetry

No ifs, not buts, Michael Laskey is a major poet.

My essay on The Friday Poem today looks at the reasons why his work deserves far greater recognition. You can read it in full by following this link, but here's a small taster to tempt you in...

Sometimes the best poets creep up on us when we least expect them to do so. Sometimes we first skim-read them in disappointment before later encountering them at a moment in our lives when they speak to us like nobody else ever has. Sometimes such poets make an imperceptible, gradual impact on our emotional lives until we suddenly realise they’ll now accompany us for the rest of our days. Michael Laskey is one such poet...

Wednesday, 30 June 2021


Very pleased to have a new poem in issue 24 of Scintilla, The Journal of the Vaughan Association. I'm in excellent company alongside poets such as Roger Garfitt, Jeremy Hooker and Rosie Jackson...

Monday, 28 June 2021

Talking to you, Meg Cox's A Square of Sunlight

On a first skim through Meg Cox’s first full collection, A Square of Sunlight (Smith-Doorstep, 2021), it’s inevitable and natural that most eyes should focus on her exceptional rhyming poems. These poetic earworms combine wit and musicality, and lodge in the reader’s mind with ease, as in the ending to ‘The Third Person in the Marriage’:

…You said we were finished. But that can’t be true –
it can’t be too late for us – I really love you.
And what has she got, that woman, I’ve not?
Just his kids, a house, my lover. The lot.

These poems will probably become her signature pieces. Not only are they eminently quotable, but a certain unexpected inevitability to their cadences and structures runs through them via her imperceptible heightening of the natural flow of language.

However, it would be a crass mistake for readers and critics to pigeonhole Meg Cox’s work, as this collection offers evidence of a more wide-ranging talent. Cox is capable of adopting and adapting a variety of poetic techniques while binding them together via a cohesive approach to both writing and life.

One such example is the following extract from ‘Cowlick’:

 …One cow is licking her calf’s ear,
thoroughly and roughly,
and the calf’s head is turned
to one side, reluctant but compliant
and I recognise my mother
washing my ears and behind my ears
and my head turned at just that angle
with a flannel as coarse as a cow’s tongue.

An initial comparison with ‘The Third Person in the Marriage’ might reveal superficial differences in technique in terms of rhyme and metrics, while this second poem also showcases a delicious poetic leap from the cow to the human that’s then capped off by a terrific simile. Nevertheless, both poems share qualities. These include turns of phrase that startle but then feel just right, alongside acute observation of the dynamics of relationships.

The poems in this book are brave. There’s a co-existence of a huge zest for life with an awareness of the ageing process to such an extent that it’s impossible to read the collection without being infected with an urge to make the most of life. And then there’s Cox’s embracing and subverting of poetic influences to layer them with her own idiosyncrasies, as in ‘Marmalade’…

There’s a pot of your dark orange marmalade in my cupboard,
still unopened. It lasts a long time but I might never open it now.
The last time you gave me some jars I asked how much
you’d made and you said enough to see us out…

This poem doesn’t hide from its connection with Larkin’s ‘An April Sunday brings the snow’. Instead, it takes his male, filial perspective and filters it through an intensely female view of friendship.

In other words, Meg Cox’s poetry is a joy. Whether savoured in sips or gulped down in one, A Square of Sunlight is an excellent read. As mentioned above, it will probably lodge in people’s minds thanks to its excellent rhyming pieces. However, the collection’s greatest value perhaps lies in Cox’s diction. It’s claimed that the best radio presenters manage to speak as if addressing a single person, striking up a conversation, making the addressee feel special and unique, as if the presenter in question is talking only to them. Few poets achieve such an effect, but Meg Cox does so. Get hold of her book and let her talk to you too…

Friday, 11 June 2021

I'm on The Friday Poem!

I'm absolutely delighted to report that my poem, Las Cigüeñas, is The Friday Poem today (you can read it by following this link). Very grateful to the editor, Hilary Menos, for the chance to take part in this exciting new project.

Moreover, you might be interested to note that their submissions are now open if you'd like to see your poem in due course where mine appears today...!