New Language Worlds: ecopoetry translation workshop for Being Human Festival (Nov 2020)

Artwork by Rhys Trimble: ‘Coed Paill Olrain / Trees Pollen Traces’

Something to look forward to this semester: I’m genuinely really pleased & looking ahead to being able to work with members of the public on translating/rewriting/exploding & imploding three ecopoems in ‘minor’ / non-dominant languages, as part of an online workshop – one of Sheffield’s Faculty of Arts & Humanities contributions to this year’s fully digital Being Human Festival – in collaboration with amazing experts in Welsh (avant-bard(e) Rhys Trimble), Galician (poet, novelist & translator Isaac Xubín), and Nahuatl (Fidel Martínez Bautista, from Raíces: the School of Maternal Languages in Nuevo Leon, and Emma Freeman, Tec Monterrey, Mexico).

The idea is partly a response to the poet and multidisciplinary artist Caroline Bergvall’s linked projects Language Stations and Ragadawn, which propose an alignment between linguistic diversity and biodiversity, both of which are threatened by extinction. These works give prominence to those Bergvall calls ‘language keepers’, speakers of threatened and/or minoritarian languages. As the saying goes, a language is a dialect with repressive state apparatuses [sorry, ‘an army & a navy’]. Languages other than the dominant colonial mono-tongues (e.g. English, Spanish, French) index plural ways of caring for the world, which are locally sensitive to environmental conditions.

So I thought it would be valuable and enjoyable for people to experience some of these languages, to get a sense of their texture close-up, and to think about how they express relations to nature, the nonhuman, perhaps different kinds of taxonomy in natural history, and so on. Whatever the poems throw up! I am aware, however, of the major limitation with this exercise, which is that participants will be translating their poem into a ‘new’ English poem, moving from a ‘minor’ to a ‘major’ language. Part of the problem is indicated by the title, designed to link into and hopefully gently critique Being Human’s 2020 theme, ‘New Worlds’, whose colonial overtones are inescapable. As an exercise the workshop is caught up, in a self-aware and critical way, in what Kavita Bhanot calls, in a recent essay up at PEN Transmissions, ‘the importance and impossibility of decolonising translation‘:

From a place of power, the interaction is inevitably colonial – a form of domination. Is the act of translating from Punjabi or Hindi into English, I have often wondered, exploitative and extractive – does it make me a native informant? In other words, is the idea of decolonising translation a contradiction?

Bhanot critiques translation’s apparent smoothness on a cultural playing field weighted in favour of dominant language cultures, and the over-easiness of the conceit of “crossing borders” as a gesture of inclusion and connection. Of course, the imperial histories contouring the resistance and persistence of Nahuatl, Welsh, and Galician are differently inflected to one another; the terrain is anything but seamless. But the form of the workshop should help to mitigate against these concerns, as it is not geared towards the production of anything other than a provisional version of a poem set in relation to another poem, in a different language, with the emphasis firmly on the process. I hope the chance to play around with the words and structures of Nahuatl, Welsh and Galician will at least allow English-speakers to get a feel for the other “language-worlds” that are out there, beyond the dominance of a few world languages and their political, cultural and economic hegemony. Bergvall indeed goes further, translating into marginalised tongues to produce a ‘Dawn Chorus of Languages’, performed across the world to raise awareness of the danger language extinction poses for planetary health.

The workshop will be free & open to the public, although places will be limited. I’ll share details on signing up once the Being Human programme is out. Sheffield is one of four ‘Festival Hubs’ this year (the others are Derby, Glasgow, and Swansea). The Festival runs 12-22 November, and this event will be at 2pm on 21st November (a Saturday). Here is the text that will appear in the programme, alongside wonderful collage work by Rhys Trimble, ‘Coed Paill Olrain / Trees Pollen Traces’:

New Language Worlds: Ecopoetry Translation Workshop

Being Human Festival 2020

Conceived & facilitated by Dr Dan Eltringham (School of English)

How do non-dominant languages preserve ways of seeing and relating to the natural world? This online workshop – for those curious about intersections between poetry, translation, ‘minor’ languages and biodiversity – explores this question, taking inspiration from the Mapuche-Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña’s statement that ‘poetry is life’s reserve, a forest for the renewal of language, a biodiversity of the soul’. As a participant, you’ll translate from one of three such ‘minor’, non-dominant languages: Galician, Welsh, and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. You will choose an ecopoem written in one of these three languages, selected by expert poets, translators and scholars Isaac Xubín (Galician); Rhys Trimble (Welsh); and Fidel Martínez Bautista (Raíces: Escuela de Lenguas Maternas de Nuevo Leon) and Emma Freeman (Nahuatl), who will prepare a guide and glossary enabling you to translate the poem into English. In digital groups, your poem-making will be shaped by Dan Eltringham. At the end you’ll have a new language-object – a translated poem – to take away with you.

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