Mad experiment on Write Out Loud – translating poems online!

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Look, here's an idea: let’s translate our poems so we can share them with the world, and the world can share theirs with us. Simple. I mean, look at our gig guide. Thousands of people reading their work out loud regularly, and get listened to. Still simple. But what if your first language is not English? Perhaps you are from one of the 100+ UK language groups referred to in the recent census report. You might have the same passion to write and share your words as anyone at an open-mic, but how?

And what about those poets who use our website from abroad and have non-English first languages? How can we read their work, or them read ours? So, how do you fancy  getting your work translated into Urdu or Uzbek, Swahili or Swedish?

Well, now you can we think (it's an experiment). We’ve set up a ‘poetry crowd-translation wiki’ so that writers – amateur or professional - can work cooperatively in translating each other’s work online. Many of you upload, discuss or read poems on the blogs. The wiki adds a dimension to that by allowing anyone with the language skills to have a go at helping translate the poem, and perhaps adding comments about the process. Our online community – you – already act as peer support to each other. Here’s a chance to widen that, help remove a barrier to wider participation; and to engage in something really interesting.

But you can't translate poetry!

Look, if we didn't, I'd not be able to read any of Neruda's fabulous verses, or Szymborska, or Yehuda Amichai, or ... someone help me out here.

One of the fabulous things about this live poetry stuff is all those people you meet, with their different ideas and approaches, styles and genres of writing and performing. We learn so much from each other. We just think/hope  you'll find this a wonderful way to learn more about other cultures and poetic traditions, about other poets’ lives - their hopes and fears - but also about our own culture and your own poetry. In  workshops run with the kind cooperation of Cartwheel Arts in Rochdale, it was fascinating what emerged in helping translate each other’s work. Questions about what translation means, what makes a poem a poem, how different Arabic poetry is from English poetry, etc. In being asked questions by the would-be translators about their own poems, individuals found that they looked more deeply at their own work, and sometimes rewrote in light of the questions.

Traditionally, poetry translation tends to be done by individual academics or established poets in thier garrets. They  create a translation of an established or published writers’ work so that readers’/speakers of other languages might be able to enjoy the poem. It is usually one person's view of how to translate their work, one person's ideas of what the finished poem shoudl be like.

But we at Write Out Loud are not limited to published poetry, are we? We are a broad movement of people who enjoy writing and reading poetry out loud, as well as those seeking publication. We have called this "crowd-translation' because we want it to be groups of people online helping each other with tips, hints, ideas suggestions, so as to arrive at a more considered translation, one that can be tested on our huge online community of poets. And so we can get some realy interesting discussions coming out of it.

it is based on an experience we had on one of our big Anglo-French poetry weekends in Bordeaux, where a group of French people helped translate my poem, Mr Grabowski, into French. As I was asked searching questions about the subtext of my poem - about going to Krakow in search of my father - a crowd gathered, English and French, and chipped in with their ideas. There was such a buzz around that group conversation. Crowd-translation was born. Now a small NALD grant has allowed us to just have a go at trying to reproduce that online, and widen the group size possibiliies (i.e. The World). Let's see what happens.

It is a bit crazy, as an idea, I know. After all, who are we going to get to do the translating? Well, we were told we were mad when we set up the website: who’s going to put their poems on a website?

We hope to attract a range of backgrounds and levels of linguistic expertise, including none. You don't need both languages to participate. A problem with one-person translators is that in acquiring their language skills they can become too close to the second language, their translations being not, ‘ow you say, English enough. This is a recognised syndrome with Brits living in France for a long time who start speaking ‘Franglais’ without realising it. By having a group of people chipping in and helping 'round the table', we believe a better, more valuable translation can emerge. And we hope to encourage a new sort of cooperation where, say, an English native speaker can read the English translation of a poem written in Cantonese, and the Cantonese speaker read her/his poem translated from English. The wiki has audio and video upload facilities This presents all sorts of possibilities for cooperation and new work.

The translation wiki is based on the recently upgraded group profiles on this site, permitting use of open and closed groups. Closed groups might be anything from two individuals working collaboratively to, say, the Anglo-French Poetry Society having their own group wiki, with participation limited by invitation to registered members. Open groups, by contrast, enable anyone to participate, subject to appropriate moderating principles. Just have a play and see.

We envisage it being used by individuals, by existing groups - language or poetry students perhaps – and by folks setting up new groupings with their own profile (effectively their own translation wiki).

Before we can arrive at mass global participation (it'd be nice but...), we are asking you to help us test the wiki. PLEASE:

  • tell anyone you think who might be interested, with or without language skills
  • share it on your networks
  • where you don’t have language skills, help us turn drafts into better ‘English’ (or your own language), and better poems
  • offer comments or suggestions
  • create your own group, perhaps for a particular language or country or writing group
  • help us get the instructions translated
  • volunteer to help run the wiki (we need helpers)
  • etc

As I said, it might be bonkers, but it might not. We’d like to think it can widen access to the huge live literature movement whose daily activities are spelled out in our gig guide, and perhaps encourage its adoption in other countries; it might encourage a more internationalist outlook for Anglophone writers and stimulate debate, discussion and, we hope, practical action towards increasing opportunities for individuals to write, to read the work of others from different backgrounds, and to share and discuss their work. Above all, we see it as another step towards the democratisation of poetry. Which is what we are all about really, innit?

And do leave your comments here (any language but bad language please). Danke schon, merci, shokria, shokran, mochakeram, origato (sp?), obrigado, gracias, grazia, dzenkuje bardzo, dekuji, toosan tak, spasiba, sesie, thanks very much...

NB anyone correcting my spelling of 'thanks' is expected to sign up as a helper/translator on the wiki.



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Julian (Admin)

Sat 18th May 2013 09:19

Thank you all for the supportive comments. Uschi and Kate, you are not registered on the site, which is fine, but means I don't have your email addresses to keep in touch over using the wiki. Can you either register - you will need to to experiment with the wiki - or contact me via Thanks, danke schon, merci.

Uschi Wheeler

Wed 15th May 2013 15:36

"Mad Experiment" sounds like a fantastic concept!
My first language is German but I write poetry in English. At school I was fascinated how well Shakespeare translated, to the point of suspecting an underlying conspiracy.
I have six publications to show for and had an article about rhyme published in the October issue of WOL.
If I can help, I'm up for it!

Uschi Wheeler

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vivienne blake

Mon 13th May 2013 09:16

Bi-lingual English French, I often write the same poem in both languages - not the same thing as translating it! I'd like to join in, but the Out Loud part is difficult as I only know two other (British) poets in my area of NW France.

I shall forward this to Joseph Harker, ( he is a poet/translator of lots of languages, including Japanese.

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Julian (Admin)

Sun 12th May 2013 14:37

Kate, where are you exactly - Gers? Les Landes, La Gironde? I have several contacts in le sud-ouest, having once lived in Les Landes Girondine for almost five years and regularly revisiting friends there. Can you get in touch please?
Thank you all for your comments. There is much to be done to make it work, get people using it, so forth. We have the classic difficulty of many of the groups I worked with in Rochdale and Oldham being what are described as 'hard-to-reach', most not being internet savvy. The upshot of that is that they were delighted to work with other groups producing handwritten translations, but find it too daunting, for now, to venture onto the computer, something that I should have realised. And the Urdu, Panjabi, Arabic and Bangla translations are in a script that I cannot understand enough to type in myself, in spite of the existence of online virtual keyboards. I think we might be able to solve that element for now for the work on my desk awaiting uploading, but it is getting people using the wiki for themselves - along the lines of hat happens with the blogs - that is the medium-term aim.

Kate Britten

Sun 12th May 2013 12:57

I am living and working in South West France- have set up 'Verteuil Verse' with a friend in a French/Anglo Bar in a pretty town and getting about 20 + people come and read their poems or other people's. Hoping to build on the richness of our different mother tongue/languages and the richness of different cultures creating together.

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Freda Davis

Sat 11th May 2013 13:17

sounds like a great idea.

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Julian (Admin)

Sat 11th May 2013 09:12

Thank you Dorinda. My maternal great grandmother was French, too. I am hoping to get some French poetry on the wiki soon.
However, the idea of 'playing around' with the initial draft translations, or the word-for-word translations is definitely a part of this exercise. In the workshops I found a great deal of interest in using a translation to create a new version of something, as well as the original idea of trying to translate the poet's intentions.
I hope to see you on Monday at Stockport Write Out Loud.

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dorinda macdowell

Fri 10th May 2013 13:54

Julian, I recall you talking about this some weeks ago at WOL Stockport, and I remember thinking what a brilliant idea it was! In fact (since we are 'going global'), as a lovely Jewish friend of mine would say: "When I tell you let me tell you, I wish you well to wear it" - that is, the new mantle of crowd translation, poetry shared with many a nation....
I do not have a second language, so perhaps I could help a little with turning 'drafts' into better English (I have a great love of the French language - my maternal grandmother was born there - but my skill at speaking it is sadly lacking, I am sorry to say).
Well done for this; I would be glad to help.

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Greg Freeman

Fri 10th May 2013 12:26

Well done for all your hard work on this, Julian, and congratulations on the technical work to aid it carried out by Paul and Michael behind the scenes. I see that Cynthia has already dipped her toe into the poetry translation water ...

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