/ 29 May 2018

From the Shock of Ideas Gushes Forth the Light: Interview with two translation collectives

In the context of the Poetry International Festival, over the past few years, the Poëziekrant / Poetry Newspaper has led discussions with poetry translators in each May edition. Two years ago we spoke with translators who translated poetry into Dutch. Last year we looked across borders to see who translated Dutch-language poetry. For the present issue we spoke with two poetry translation collectives: the Brussels Translators' Collective and the Ghent Collective of Poetry Translators. The first group consists of Katelijne De Vuyst, Bart Vonck, Danielle Losman and Pierre Geron, and they translate Belgian poetry from French into Dutch and vice versa. The Ghent collective consists of Phaedra Claeys, Jan Debergh, Hubert De Vogelaere, Elisabeth Ghysels, Geertrui Libbrecht, Miriam Van hee and Jeannine Vereecken, and translates Russian poetry under the direction of Thomas Langerak.

The Ghent Collective was founded in 2001 by Thomas Langerak, professor of Russian literature at the University of Ghent. It initially consisted of students, then of former students and colleagues, and over the years experienced diverse constellations. At one point they were a dozen, now it is a more or less fixed group of about eight people who meet every fortnight. Geertrui Libbrecht has been part of the group for a long time, just like Jan Debergh; Hubert De Vogelaere and Miriam Van hee joined the group in 2006, at the time of Europalia Russia. We meet them in an office on the Blandijnberg, the campus of Arts and Humanities at the University of Ghent.

We spoke with the Brussels Translators' Collective just before the recital of The Tour of Belgium / Le tour de Belgique of the 2016-2017 poet laureate Laurence Vielle as well as Els Moors, who will hold the position in 2018-2019. At the end of the performance the translators received recognition for their work for this project. The Brussels collective grew out of an initiative by Passa Porta. They put together a group of translators who each translated from a different language – which was an experimental and complex method of translation, because there was always only one person who mastered the source language. 'For example, in the case of Arabic we had to start from a transcription to see if there were rhymes or alliterations,' says Katelijne De Vuyst, 'and for the rest we relied very heavily on each other’s abilities. From this experiment came a very nice publication, You reach me in translation. Afterwards, Passa Porta looked into changing the working method and so a collective was created, which now translates Belgian – both French and Dutch language – poets. Bart Vonck and I then looked for two other people to join us and we decided on Danielle Losman and Pierre Geron. The advantage is that all of us are fluent in both languages ​​which makes the working process both easier and more intense.'

Of course there are plenty of fascinating poets that one could present to a Dutch-speaking audience, but how does a collective select who they work on? Do they get assignments or do they take their own initiatives? At the start of each year the Brussels group discusses what has come up in their own recent reading. A longlist is then drawn up and the ultimate decision is made in a group-led discussion about the work planned for the coming year. Each year four poets are selected: two Dutch-speaking, two French-speaking.

In Ghent it is Thomas Langerak who presents the material, and most often the choice falls to metrical poetry. 'Not only because contemporary Russian poetry is still very formal, but also because the challenge is greater', explains Miriam Van hee. 'You have to take into account rhythm, meter, rhyme and try to retain that in Dutch. This way we always try to preserve the number of syllables, the accents and the meter; the rhyme scheme is more loosley treated. Russian almost rhymes automatically, whereas in Dutch this is much less evident.’ In her most recent poetry collection, awarded the Ultima Arts Prize, As if We Were Summoned, Van hee included a diptych dedicated to Thomas Langerak, in which she describes the working method of the Ghent collective of poetry translators. This is the first poem:

rhyme is the problem

we sit on a hill and pore over

words from abroad, on Fridays

from four to seven we revive poems

by the dead, fumbling, stubborn and

waiting, rhyme is a problem, if it’s good

it creates distance and meaning, a new

link; but sometimes the search is fruitless

despite the wine, the vista, the dusk

over the city below, then we sigh, there are

many words, clear ones, sad ones, and also

enigmatic ones like vlonder, wonderolie, nevel

or sering, words that linger with us and

that we think of, later, when cycling back home

at high speed down the hill in the lilac ravine,

as if words are places where we felt connected

and we know, rhyme is not the end.

Sometimes the group also receives tips. For example, Boris Chersonski, by whom they translated a collection, was a suggestion by Aleksey Yudin, professor of Slavonic Linguistics at Ghent University. Likewise, sometimes there are assignments. The Brussels Collective – supplemented by Isabelle Hessel for German translations – acts as translator of the poems of the Belgian Poet Laureate, but also provides work for the Collection de Flandre of the Liège-based publishing house Tétras Lyre. The Ghent-based translators were asked, among other things, to translate poems by Alexander Pushkin for the well-known series De mooiste van / The Best Ones By, and verses by Joseph Brodsky and Osip Mandelstam for the voluminous collections Strohalmen voor de lezer / Straws for the reader and Neem mijn verzen in acht / Mind my verse. ‘One way or another, the poems that are considered difficult or even untranslatable, come to us,’ says Jan Debergh. ‘It is likely that that has something to do with the fact that we know a lot more as a collective, and can therefore find better solutions.’

The latter is also what Danielle Losman thinks is the great advantage of working as part of a collective. 'The group discussions often ensure that hermetic poems become clearer. You make a draft of the translation and then submit it to the group. During the conversation, it happens that you realise that you hadn’t seen things the others do notice in the poem. In fact, working as a collective leads to constant constructive criticism.’ Katelijne agrees: ‘Of course, things can always escape your attention. I always say: a translator is primarily a reader who reads from his or her own perspective. The collective brings several of these perspectives together. For example, Bart Vonck is very well versed in philosophy and sees philosophical references more clearly than we do. As such we all have our own strengths that provide different visions of the poem.’

Does it ever happen that they cannot agree on something? Who eventually makes the decisions? ‘Yes, the discussions can definitely be intense,’ Miriam Van hee admits. 'Sometimes we move problems on to the next session, sometimes it helps to read aloud. In any case, the atmosphere is always respectful and friendly. We listen to each other and criticism is offered rather reluctantly. We are all people with different backgrounds and that helps as well: one person might know more precisely what it says, the other has perhaps more sense of rhythm, but experience and a feeling for language also play a part. Jan loves archaisms, Thomas is a Dutchman and his Dutch sometimes deviates from what the Flemings propose – all of this makes our language richer.’ Jan Debergh uses a quote from Boileau to illustrate the process: ‘Du choc des idées jaillit la lumière’, or ‘From the shock of ideas gushes forth the light’, the perfect summary according to the others.

Tempers can also flare in Brussels. Katelijne (laughing): ‘I once left the room...’. If they really do not reach an agreement, it is the person who initiated and made the first translation that ultimately has final responsibility: ‘That way we can avoid ending up with a compromise that doesn’t satisfy anyone. But actually we are all very complementary to one another: Bart is very rational, Danielle is very thorough, Pierre loves graceful writing and I am intuitive. If Pierre and I have a tendency to go on tangents, the other two will keep us on the right track; and conversely we may notice that something is too dry or could be put more imaginative.’ Bart: ‘I am rather analytical. I want to read the poem as thoroughly as possible, in depth and in breadth. It is my belief that a poem in translation stands or falls with that.’

Translating poetry is not a well-paid job anyway – is there still something to earn in a group or is this a labour of love? ‘We really do not do it for the money,’ says Geertrui Libbrecht, ‘but because it's fun, and fascinating. We work from four to seven and around six o'clock we usually open a bottle. With the fees we receive for the published poems, we prefer to enjoy a good meal together, or we invite a poet to join us for the meal and then we fire off all our questions at them. It’s fun and very enriching!’ Hubert De Vogelaere is reminded of late 2014, when Chersonski came to visit. ‘He was here for three days, and we took him out for lunch. He gave a lecture for the students of Russian at the university, we were able to speak with him extensively and he was at the Limerick bookstore for the presentation of Familiearchief / Family Archive, the collection that we translated for him. Or that time when five Russian poets were in Belgium for Europalia: we all felt that this was a real highlight.’ The Brussels Collective also invites the poets they translate. Charles Ducal enjoyed his visit so much that he regretted he sometimes had to miss a session.

Do any of these poets also learn things about their own poetry during such a session? ‘Definitely,’ says Pierre Geron. ‘Ducal noticed a new meaning in a specific verse, something he had not considered before then. The same happened to Ruth Lasters when we confronted her with our questions.’ Katelijne adds: ‘We tend to assume, if there are several layers in a poem, that these are consciously constructed by the poet. But we have found that this is often not the case. A poet can have a specific vision for a poem and does not always realise that one can read it differently as well. That's fun! If we then offer up the various possibilities and ask which ones we should select – because it is not always possible to retain all meanings in translation – it can be really interesting to see that a poet then chooses a specific solution without any hesitation.’

What are they working on at the moment? The Brussels Translators' Collective is preparing the translation of Dode kamer / Dead Room by Erik Spinoy, a publication that will appear in the series ‘De Flandre' / ‘From Flanders’ by Tétras Lyre, and Herlida Vekemans is also on the programme. Likewise, Vincent Tholomé is on the table as an option. In Ghent the translators are diligently polishing poems by Leonid Aronson for a new book that is due to appear in the series 'Slavic Cahiers' by publishing house Pegasus.


‘We know a lot more as a collective, and can therefore find better solutions.'

‘Working as a collective leads to constant constructive criticism.’

‘Ducal noticed a new meaning in a specific verse, something he had not considered before then. The same happened to Ruth Lasters when we confronted her with our questions.’

By Carl De Strycker and Patrick Peeters