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Simon Armitage: Translating Voice

A post written by Adrian Blackledg, focusing on the Translation and Translanguaging project, that extended its gaze to include literary translation. On 16 November 2014 Simon Armitage went to the Library of Birmingham to hold a Masterclass on translating poetry and gave a public reading of his poems. 

The Translation and Translanguaging project recently extended its gaze to include literary translation. On 16 November 2014 Simon Armitage came to the Library of Birmingham to hold a Masterclass on translating poetry, and to give a public reading of his poems.

Simon Armitage is one of the leading poets of his generation, who has received many awards throughout his career, including a Forward Prize, a Lannan Award, and the Hay Medal for Poetry.

He was awarded the CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to poetry and his 2012 non-fiction book, Walking Home, an account of his troubadour journey along the Pennine Way, was a Sunday Times bestseller and was shortlisted for the 2012 Portico Prize for Literature. He has translated The Odyssey (Spoken Word Award), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Death of King Arthur (shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize). Simon Armitage is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Vice President of the Poetry Society, and a patron of the Arvon Foundation.

The events were part of the Being Human festival of the humanities, a national forum for public engagement with humanities research. Over the course of nine days the festival highlighted the ways in which the humanities can inspire and enrich our everyday lives, and foster world-class knowledge that is vibrant, vital, and accessible to all.

Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the British Academy, the festival enabled University of Birmingham’s AHRC-funded Translation and Translanguaging project to collaborate with the Library of Birmingham to engage with literary translation.

Simon Armitage began the master class by pointing out that he does not speak any languages other than English. In fact what the public participants soon learned was that they would be offered the opportunity to translate part of a fourteenth century poem into twenty-first century English. Simon asked the members of the group to have a go at reading aloud a section of the original text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to feel not just the rhythm, metre, and unfamiliar vocabulary of the ancient poetry, but particularly what he called its ‘noise’.

Focusing on alliteration, the poet set the group the task of predicting, or imagining, or creating, or perhaps translating, words hidden behind redactions similar to those in letters home from the trenches. This was not mere guesswork: it was a creative activity which required the fledgling translators to produce words which fitted that alliterative ‘noise’.

A final activity demanded that the group translate a section of the great old poem into contemporary English – but in engaging, original English that would grab the attention of the reader. As with any translation, precision was not the crucial requirement. It was more important to capture something of the mood and tone of the dramatic Arthurian tale. Everyone had a go, and before we knew it the masterclass was drawing to an end. A measure of the success of a workshop is whether it leaves people wanting more. This one certainly did. But as Simon Armitage pointed out, there are a further 2,524 lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight awaiting our translational attentions. In the evening Simon Armitage gave a wonderful reading of his poems, including an extract from the Gawain poem, at the Studio Theatre in the Library of Birmingham. The library had donated the theatre space as a contribution to the festival, and the collaboration between the University of Birmingham’s Translation and Translanguaging research project and the Library of Birmingham enabled 200 people to enjoy a reading from one of our leading authors which was at once funny, moving, serious, and memorable. 

Professor Adrian Blackledge and Professor Angela Creese with Simon Armitage

Thanks to the School of Advanced Study, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, and the British Academy, both the masterclass and the reading were provided free to the public as part of the Being Human festival. If an aim of the festival was to inspire and enrich our everyday lives, the events at the Library of Birmingham on 16November certainly achieved this. Following the evening poetry reading a Twitter post read:

‘Simon Armitage rekindled my passion for poetry @BeingHumanFest tonight!’

What more needs to be said?