On 4 November I read extracts from works by the Dutch and Flemish authors Benno Barnard, Gerrit Kouwenaar and Hugo Claus at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. The multilingual multimedia performance ‘I Died in Hell - They Called it Passchendaele’ showcased lyrical responses to the ‘Great War’ from across Europe.
Over the past few weeks, I got to know someone special. It sparked off as an online encounter – an email trail about translations.
Her name is Ester Naomi Perquin, and she is an award-winning Dutch poet. I was invited to translate her work for the Contemporary European Poets series.
Translating someone’s poems is a slightly schizophrenic experience. Whilst weighing Ester’s words and analysing her work, I felt I was peeking into her brain, aligning my thoughts with hers. I quickly realised her poems were products of literary craftsmanship: with depth and a refreshingly humorous side to them, though often heavy in subject matter. However, when Perquin flew over last Thursday to read her poetry in London for the first time, I realised that to meet the poet Ester Naomi Perquin in person is something else. This live bi-lingual poetry event allowed for an inspiring dialogue about literary translations, and poetry, as a means of erasing the poet.
Perquin’s observant, almost distanced outlook on, for instance, a shooting in a shopping centre may come from her endeavour to get rid of all individual connotation. Poetry goes beyond the personal, she says: “I write to erase myself. A good poem has nothing to do with me.” Erosion of the self also rings through in a poem in which Perquin describes a response to a misdialled phone call by a woman who asks for “a Richard”:
There are people from whom I differ less than a number
but their mothers do not know me, will never call
You are wasting your time, I merely exist out of partial voices
partial faces, not worthy of a Richard, not a dog
have I ever brought more than hesitant semi-presence
But Perquin introduces and reads out her poetry in such a personal and engaged style. She readily admits: “It’s a difficult process; I simply cannot not be myself.” She returns to the seemingly contradictory ideas of both erasing oneself and the individual poet’s creative approach, when discussing gender: “I do not approach writing poetry ‘as a woman’. But I can’t help being a woman. I understand that women have more, and more complex, social layers than men; I appreciate that. But a thing that women often do is to pretend these layers aren’t there.”
Perquin beautifully expresses her awareness of social pretence, among a group of teenagers on the beach, in ‘The Girls’:
Untouched from tip to toe
there they all lie, with the same voice
discussing the same mother.
What they are sums up all of their
eternities. This silent and sunlit sharing
of age, body, sun lotion.
Perquin's ideas about translation are well-defined and, at the same time, humbling: “Translation enables me to look at my work afresh. I am lucky to understand enough English to comment on some of their work, but I have to trust my translators and let go. A good translation is a work of art in itself.”
Of course, she says this in exceptionally good English. Then she starts reading out her verses in Dutch, and silence reigns among the mainly English-speaking audience.
To listen to poems in a foreign language, live, is surrendering to a new rhythm, foreign sounds, feeling at loss for a moment. Before you capture what has been said in translation, you briefly inhabit a lyrical landscape of in-between. Live poetry is something else.
Perquin’s work has been translated into English previously and some of these translations are available online.
The Contemporary European Poets series was an initiative of the School of European Languages, Culture and Society at UCL, in partnership with the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Poet in the City.
It brought to London celebrated poets from Hungary, Holland, France, Germany, the Faroe Islands and Italy, for showcase events at Europe House.
This post originally appeared on the UCL Events Blog. I convened the event in May 2013 and organised another evening with Ester Naomi Perquin in September 2014 at Senate House.
What makes me tick?
I am interested in the links between art and society. I never doubted that art can help us gain insight into societal issues. I like to work on projects that confirm this.
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