Exeter Translation Festival

There was such a fantastic buzz in Exeter Central Library yesterday morning as the very first Exeter Translation Festival got underway. This brilliant initiative by Exeter University’s Professor Michelle Bolduc and her team brought translation down from the dizzy heights of academe right into the centre of town. The huge range of events offer made you want to be in four places at once – there were activities for children, Bounce and Rhyme, International Story Time, and translation games such as the Spectacular Translation Machine run by Andrea Reece,where the public were invited to try their hand at translating captions in the graphic novel Alpha -Abidjan to Gare du Nord. There were pop-up readings in different languages, a poète publique  Hervé Eléouet writing poetry on demand, as well as discovery sessions such as Translation, Migration and Polylingualism, The Wonderful World of Czech translation, Translating Russian, and Middle Eastern Translation. So much to see!

I particularly enjoyed a performance by Darina Al-Joundi and her translator Helen Vassallo of ‘The Day Nina Simone stopped singing’, a powerful story of being a ‘free woman’ in war-torn Lebanon –a great example of collaboration between author and translator, how to bring a performance alive to audiences in different languages and cultures.

One lovely surprise for me was the enchanting Translation Jazz session with Michelle Bolduc, Anne Julien and jazz musician Fred B.B. – a playful and innovative way of presenting music and poems in translation – jazz improvisation from, interwoven with performance poetry in French and English. This got me thinking about different ways of ‘presenting’ poetry translation, particularly as my own part in the Festival was a poetry translation duel with fellow translator Martin Sorrel and the invaluable Clare Horackova as mediator. We both translated two poems, Brise marine by Mallarmé and Le cancre by Jacques Prévert and discussed our own approaches to these two very distinct poems. No blood was spilled of course, translators are generous and friendly people, but it was fascinating example of how no two translations are ever the same and just how adventurous the translator can be if he/she is brave enough to break the rules (whatever they might be). There was also a Spanish duel, prose this time between Simon Bruni and Rosie Marteau under the watchful eye of  Rosalind Harvey.  This of course threw up quite different issues, and fascinating insights into the nitty-gritty of translating prose – is that colour purple or violet, when to use tremble, vibrate or…even throb? and why does one put a comma and the other leave it out -and that was just the first few lines! Time is one of the cruellest constraints when discussing translations!

I am sure there are events and people I haven’t mentioned – I certainly couldn’t get around to all the events, but there was truly something for everyone. People I spoke to were inspired by the events they had attended and by the energy generated by the whole festival. It really was a celebration of language and cultures from across the world, at a time when we need it most.So HUGE congratulations to everyone who worked so hard to make it happen! It would be wonderful to see it become an annual event.




*(I promised myself I wouldn’t use the B word.)

BACCHANTE by Lucien Jacques

BACCHANTE by Lucien Jacques                                                 (trans.Lesley Lawn)

Bacchante, red mistress of the vine

You stripped off the new fruit

ahead of autumn,

Your green juice is all of human blood.

Your face smeared with monstrous dregs,

your dreadful staff in hand,

entwined with tangled crops

of young and tender flesh,

of bodies live and full of promise, cropped yet scarcely ripe,

and you, engorged with red, but never sated, never weary,

beat your tympanums

to the booming thud of canon.

If only you could soon move on,

blind drunk on horror, inebriate forever more

on new blood brimful in your vats –

then, at last, life might return,

sweet, crowned with meadow flowers,

to the orchard

and the slopes of ravaged vines.


A l’auteur du Don de ma mère

 Bacchante, rouge vigneronne

Qui arrachas le fruit nouveau

Avant l’automne,

Ton vert jus est de sang humain.

Ta face barbouillée de monstrueuse lie.

Et le thyrse affreux de ta main

Tressé de grappes emmêlées –

Grappes de chairs tendres et jeunes,

Grappes de corps, grappes vivantes,

Prometteuses, mûres à peine,

Que tu trépignes, gouge rouge

Jamais gorgée, jamais lassée,

Au branle balourd des canons

Tes tympanons.

Ah ! Puisses-tu rouler bientôt

D’horreur pâmée

Et saoule pour l’éternité

Du sang nouveau de tes cuveaux.

Et qu’enfin revienne la vie

La douce couronnée des fleurs de la prairie

Dans la vigne aux ceps saccagés

Et le verger.


Extract of The Moleskin Notebook by Lucien Jacques (trans. Lesley Lawn)

So as not to slip on the banana skins of glory,

then unbalanced slither and fall into the mire

where Madame vox populi, cruel and foolish, pimps and preens,

day after day in a moleskin notebook

I set down the story, plain and simple, sad,

of my time as a stretcher bearer.

Fine talking strategist, chronicler of pompous utterance,

collector of faded laurels; hero sung with trumpet blast

or the glint of steel sabres on parade…no

…nothing to get your teeth into, nothing special,

nothing fabulous in all that I describe!

And yet, and yet!

That’s how it was – the great Epic!

Bickering over food, marching forward, marching back,

full kit and sodden flannel and then all over blood

­– blood – noise,­ then more blood in mud, in piss,

in everything.

Here and there a glimpse of violet dawn through rustic pines,

a tiny singing bird, the stubborn green of clover,

then blood, and more blood.

A miraculous tree blossoming

against a rectangle of blue sky

then blood, noise and canon fire.

Friendship, like a meteor

brilliant sometimes lights the night –

is then snuffed out in a pool of blood, more blood.

No doubt you find it tiresome,

this blood repeating every line

but I will give you more – new blood, bright, red blood,

then black, dried blood,

for that is how it is, page on page

day on day, for years on end.

Of course, there is plenty more besides

in this moleskin notebook

but it is no more edifying.

Did I say bickering over food?

No less frequent, sniping over bedding,

a handful of vermin-ridden hay, a bale of straw,

bickering over who gets what, bickering over everything

and nothing.

Passing through the moleskin notebook, the martial silhouettes:

(Quiet now, I’ll hold back my bile)

Medical Officer haughty, tough, Lieutenant, spineless,

Adjudant, a dismal sire.

God forgive those three and render unto them

the good they did, to ponder their remaining years.

Let each one do the same, I’ll pardon those by whose grace

I fathomed the abyss of human folly.

In the moleskin notebook though are mostly fellows,

warm-hearted, loyal, who talk and laugh, suffer,

sing their way through senseless toil.

Fine men!

For them I keep this notebook

– they live within each day, each hour.

Rereading it I laugh, I cry and bless them:

they helped me know that which makes us human.

A l’auteur de Clavel

Le cahier de moleskine

Afin de ne point perdre pied

Sur les épluchures de gloire

Et, de leur fait, glisser et choir

Au beau mitan du bourbier,

Là où barbote et fait la belle

Madame l’opinion courante,

Cruelle sotte !

Sur un cahier de moleskine

J’ai consigné jour après jour

La terne, simple et triste histoire

Des temps où j’étais brancardier.

Stratège au spécieux palabre,

Chroniqueur au ronflant vocable,

Collectionneur de vieux lauriers ;

Héros que suscite un appel de fanfare

Ou bien l’éclair d’acier des sabres

D’une parade,

Rien à vous mettre sous la dent,

Rien de rare dans mes graphiques,

De spécial, de mirifique !

Et pourtant ! Pourtant !

Ce fut ça

L’Epopée !

Des chipotages de cuisines ;

Marches en arrière, en avant,

Fourniments complets, flanelles trempées

Et puis un peu partout du sang

– du sang- du bruit et puis du sang

Dans de la boue, dans de la pisse

Et dans le reste.

  • De ci, de là une aube violette

Vue au travers d’agrestes pins.

  • Un minuscule oiseau chanteur.
  • La tache têtue d’une luzerne verte

Et puis du sang, encore du sang.

  • Un miraculeux arbre en fleurs

Sur un rectangle de ciel bleu

Et puis du sang, du bruit, du feu.

  • L’amitié, comme un météore

Fulgurant parfois dans la nuit

Et s’éteignant dans une flaque

De sang encore.

Ah, n’est-ce pas que c’est lassant

Ce sang qui revient à toutes les lignes.

Je vous en passe cependant

Du bon sang neuf, du beau sang rouge

Et du plus noir et du plus sec,

Car c’est ainsi de page en page,

De jour en jour pendant des ans.

Oh ! Il y a bien d’autres choses

Sur le cahier de moleskine

Mais ça n’est pas plus exaltant.

J’ai dit chicanes de cuisine ?

Mais avec égale fréquence

Chicane à propos du couchage ;

Pour la poignée de foin

Grouillante de vermine

Et la bottée de paille ;

Chicane à propos des partages ;

Chicanes à propos de tout

Et de rien.

Dans le cahier de moleskine

Passent, martiales silhouettes

(ô mes rancoeurs je vous musèle)

Monsieur le Médecin-Major

un être dur et suffisant ;

le lieutenant, un homme veule

et l’adjudant, un triste sire.

Dieu leur pardonne à ces trois-là

Et leur rende le bien qu’ils ont fait.

Pour réfléchir la vie leur reste.

Et que chacun en fasse autant

Que moi qui leur pardonne aussi.

Grâce à eux j’ai pu me pencher

Sur l’abîme de la bêtise.

Dans le cahier de moleskine

Il y a surtout quelques bougres

Affectueux, loyaux, humains,

Qui parlent, rient, souffrent et chantent

En faisant d’obscures besognes.

Belles figures !

Pour elles seules j’ai conservé

Le vieux cahier de moleskine.

Elles y vivent heure par heure.

Le relisant, je ris, je pleure

Et les bénis :

Par elles j’ai pu mesurer

Tout ce qui dans l’homme est humain.

from La Pâque dans la Grange

Bibliothèque du Hérisson. Edgar Malfère 2050 ex. 2 janvier 1924


Don’t call me migrant
My country is torn apart
By war and horror

Don’t call me migrant
I saw them kill my parents
I fled for my life

Don’t call me migrant
They burned my village
I cannot go back

Don’t call me migrant
I am a doctor teacher
Grandmother a child

Don’t call me migrant
I am a human being
Don’t close your borders

Don’t call me migrant
How can you turn a blind eye
To thousands drowning?

Don’t call me migrant
Don’t negate my life with words
Call me refugee

Call me brother

This poem has been beautifully translated into French  by Alain Lecomte  (https://rumeurdespace.wordpress.com)

Ne m’appelez pas migrant
mon pays est déchiré
par la guerre et l’horreur

ne m’appelez pas migrant
je les ai vus tuer mes parents
j’ai fui pour ma vie

ne m’appelez pas migrant
ils ont brûlé mon village
je ne peux pas y retourner

ne m’appelez pas migrant
j’enseigne la médecine
et j’ai une petite fille

ne m’appelez pas migrant
je suis un être humain
ne fermez pas vos frontières

ne m’appelez pas migrant
comment détourner le regard
des milliers de noyés ?

Ne m’appelez pas migrant
ne niez pas ma vie avec des mots
appelez-moi réfugié

appelez-moi mon frère

WRITING THE MOUND (with apologies to Clive Scott)*

Translation does not preserve does not perform
 it is not static nor is it a sort of approximation 
a pale imitation of style or form – even meaning 

fixed or immovable in time or space not a sacred 
image held in aspic a single aesthetic set in stone

                                                                                    layers of A
                                                                               an accumulation
                                                                            of a metamorphosis 
                                                                       modulation perpetuation
                                                                     projects the text in variation
                                                              TRANSLATION IS dynamic  it evolves

*inspired by a lecture he gave at BCLT Summer School this year on “The aesthetics of literary translation”