Translating Voice with Simon Armitage

Translating Voice with Simon Armitage

2014 has seen the first ever festival of the Humanities being held, poignantly titled Being Human. I for one was surprised that this is the first event of its kind that’s celebrating the breadth of the Arts and Humanities in the UK. According to figures published in 2002 by The British Academy (that’s the most up to date source I could locate on my lunch break) 53% of all first year students were studying for an Arts or Humanities related degree. So this has been a long time coming indeed.

The festival, which is being led by the School of Advanced Study in partnership with the British Academy and Arts and Humanities Research Council, aims to educate the general public about how the Humanities can enrich our lives and make us think about things that we perhaps wouldn’t necessarily have thought about before. With a myriad of events taking place across the country, Being Human is exploring everything from British Propaganda in the Second World War to the role of food in historic and contemporary practice (in my opinion, another excuse to gorge on Garibaldis – yes people do still eat those).

One of the events taking place in the Midlands region was carried out in conjunction with the University of Birmingham (my stomping ground for the last ten years) who are being funded by the AHRC on a project entitled Translation and Translanguaging : Investigating Linguistic and Cultural Transformations in ‘Superdiverse’  Wards in Four Cities. Headed by Angela Creese, a leading Professor of Educational Linguistics, the project is investigating multilingualism in communities of Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds and London. I also happen to have a small role in the running of this project so I have been excited about this event for some time. Keeping in line with the theme of translation, we managed to enlist the help of prolific poet Simon Armitage CBE to lead a Translating Voice masterclass followed by a reading of his work in the evening. Simon is one of the most decorated poets of recent years with a plethora of awards under his belt including a BAFTA and Ivor Novello for song-writing. He recently released Paper Aeroplane; a selection of his poetry from 1989 – 2014. I, like many before and after me studied his work at school and his poetry had a profound effect on the way I perceived literature therein. He even inspired my friend and me to start our own little club, The Poetry Corner. So basically, this guy is like a celebrity for me *cue tiny squeal*.

Simon Armitage reads from Paper Aeroplane

Simon Armitage reads from Paper Aeroplane

As well as writing poetry according to the The Guardian of ‘game changing influence’, Simon has also translated epic tales from Old English including The Death of King Arthur, The Last Days of Troy and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – which was the subject of the workshop. Simon informed us about the background of the tale; the actual author is unknown and it was probably written by someone from the area between Staffordshire and Cheshire in the late 14th century. In an hour we read through an extract of the poem and attempted to hear the voices in the poem. One point that resonated repeatedly in the masterclass was that when translating poetry it is vital not to lose meaning when trying to find voice. What may sound better may not be the correct translation, which defeats the purpose of the exercise. As a translator myself I can completely relate to this. Translation is an art in its own right and translators have a huge responsibility to make sure that the interpretation is as true to the original as can possibly be in way of context, syntax and meaning. The participants of the workshop then got the chance to fill in some of the gaps in Simon’s translation as well being given six lines to translate ourselves, keeping the ideas of voice and alliteration in our minds. This was a fantastic exercise as Simon encouraged us to add our own spin and remember that we were writing in 2014 and make it contemporary. In my case, Gawain gripping his axe became Gary grabbing his gun. The whole exercise reminded me why I love poetry and language – always open to your interpretation and you can let your imagination run wild! It felt like a GCSE lesson again…

12 years later - thanks for the A in English Literature Simon!

12 years later – thanks for the A in English Literature Simon!

The second part of the event was a reading from Paper Aeroplane in the spanking new Library of Birmingham’s Studio Theatre. Simon read various poems from his impressive oeuvre, peppered with anecdotes from his childhood living in the village of Marsden in West Yorkshire to his time as a probation officer in Manchester. One story which stayed with me was when of one his students found a copy of the influential modernist poet Ezra Pound’s letters – in Poundland. This inspired Simon to write a poem, reflecting modern day life with a story about Ezra Pound as his muse. Simon is a charismatic orator who connects with the audience and someone whose poetry is day by day becoming a bigger part of this country’s literary heritage. Unfortunately he didn’t read any of the poems that I studied at school but introduced me to a whole lot more that I won’t forget anytime soon. I did get my book signed though and this will go down perfectly well with a cup of tea. Now, where did I put those Garibaldis?