The Poetry Translation Centre (PTC) was established by poet Sarah Maguire in 2004 to introduce new audiences to poetry from Africa, Asia and Latin America. In addition to hosting regular translation workshops, the London-based nonprofit publishes books, anthologies, and an international poetry archive online. We spoke to commissioning editor Edward Doegar about the PTC’s projects including the World Poet Series, featuring Eritrean storyteller and poet Ribka Sibhatu‘s collection Aulò! Aulò! Aulò!, translated by André Naffis-Sahely.

As the commissioning editor of the Poetry Translation Centre (PTC), what are your primary editorial goals and values?

The PTC endeavors to translate exciting, necessary poetry by living poets from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. We do this working with diaspora communities living in the UK, and through our relationships with both established and emerging literary translators. 

Our work can be broadly split into two main areas of translation practice. On the one hand, there are our collaborative poetry translation workshops. We try to create an inclusive environment where participants can engage with poetry in translation regardless of their linguistic or literary backgrounds. In the workshop, the translator and poet facilitator work to ensure that the translation does justice to the source material, discussing and reflecting on the group’s suggestions to ensure that the poem lives in English but doesn’t do so at the expense of the intentions of the original. These workshops are communal in ethos and, obviously, the final expression in the translation is very dependent on the group of people who were present for those particular hours on that given day. 

On the other hand, we have our publications, which come from literary collaborations where translators work over a much longer period of time, often—though not always—working in collaboration with an English-language poet to create exquisitely judged literary translations. In both practices, the PTC encourages translation that forefronts the intentionality and perspective of the source poet and the context within which that poetry has come to be written. 

The vast majority of the poets we translate are introduced to us by translators … but we are also always trying to explore languages we haven’t translated before … Which means, in practical terms, there is something of a balancing act between developing new relationships and getting to know a translator or poet really well by working together often.

How does the PTC find and decide which poets are featured in their workshops and publications?

The vast majority of the poets we translate are introduced to us by translators. We have a lot of existing relationships with translators, but we are also always trying to explore languages we haven’t translated before. We try to make sure there is a strong and growing diversity within our artistic programme. Which means, in practical terms, there is something of a balancing act between developing new relationships and getting to know a translator or poet really well by working together often. The books we’ve published tend to come from poets we started working with in the workshops. In more recent times, we’ve also commissioned reader’s reports from translators for certain languages or areas of focus. The reports provide a context and summary of current literary trends and highlight authors of particular interest. We’ve then commissioned further sample translations which, in turn, have led to workshops and publications.  

I’m assuming that you had to adapt the workshop programme to a virtual format in 2020. How has this affected the overall accessibility of poetry and translation in your view, if at all? Do you see virtual workshops sticking around, even after we’ve returned to more in-person events?

Yes, in 2020 we moved the workshops online out of necessity—although we’d been discussing it beforehand for some time. The results of moving online have been wonderful, really heartening. The increased reach—in terms of location—has been immediate and significant. Recently, in a single workshop, we had participants from Japan, the US and India—as well as people based in the UK, including one London regular who would often attend in person. During this time we also changed the workshops onto a ‘pay what you can’ basis to try and reduce barriers. We plan to continue with our online workshops alongside the work that we’ll offer in person. 

As I was looking through the PTC website, I appreciated the focus on the translation workshop being open and accessible to emerging as well as more experienced translators. Can you walk us through the translation process for a poem at PTC, from preparing for the first workshop to the translation’s final publication on the PTC’s online archive? 

Yes, the workshops are open to all—no prior knowledge of the source language or of poetry required. 

To start with, I’d have an initial conversation with a translator and we’d select a poet to focus on. If it’s the first time we’re working on the poet, the translator would give me a sense of the poet’s work in broad outlines: why they ought to be translated, what’s special about their work, and how they fit into the literary context of their country and/or wider culture. Next, the translator would produce 2-3 guide translations, from which the workshop participants will work collaboratively, steered along by the translator and an English-language poet facilitator. The guide translations are a tool that the translator provides to help those without access to the original explore and discuss the nuances involved with translating the poem. My colleague Nick Chapman, our Events and Workshops Manager, would send on these guide translations to the facilitator (where I am not acting in this role) and arrange for a brief online meeting between the translator and facilitator ahead of the session to clarify any questions. The guide translations, together with the originals, are then circulated to participants the day before the session. 

In the workshop itself, after listening to the poem read in the original, the facilitator will draw out suggestions from the participants, with the translator feeding back and offering technical clarifications. Often there are multiple participants who have some knowledge of the source language, though not always. The current online sessions are spread out over two weeks with each session lasting ninety minutes, as we feel this format allows the group to establish a rapport in the first session and have time to work through the poem on a line by line basis and then return to it as a whole and consider what changes in approach might be taken. At the end of the second session the facilitator will write up a brief summary of key aspects or points of interest in the discussion. This will be posted online alongside the original poem, the guide translation and workshop translation that the workshop collaboratively arrived at. 

In the workshop, the translator and poet facilitator work to ensure that the translation does justice to the source material, discussing and reflecting on the group’s suggestions to ensure that the poem lives in English but doesn’t do so at the expense of the intentions of the original.

This coming May 2021, the PTC will hold its first translation workshop on Igbo poetry, featuring the work of Nigerian Igbo poet Amarachi Attamah. What is an aspect of Attamah’s poetry that drew you to her work, or that you look forward to unpacking in the workshop?

This is a new adventure for us and will be the first time we’ve worked from Igbo. This workshop came about because of a collaboration we’d planned with Aké Arts and Books Festival in Nigeria. We’ve worked often with the translator Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún translating from Yoruba and he suggested Joseph Ogbonna Ike as an excellent translator from Igbo. Joseph suggested we focus the session on Amarachi Attamah. The poem we’ll be looking at in the workshop has an enthralling form of address, so it will be fascinating to learn more about this and try to find a way to make this work in English. 

The PTC also publishes chapbooks, full-length collections and anthologies. In 2019 you introduced the World Poet Series, which provides pocket-sized introductions to the work of contemporary poets from around the world. One of the poets published in 2020 was Ribka Sibhatu, who writes in Tigrinya, Amharic and Italian and reflects on the immigrant experience in Europe. Do you have a favorite? 

I’m very fond of “To the Sycamore” [from Sibhatu’s collection titled Aulò! Aulò! Aulò!, translated by André Naffis-Sahely and published by the Poetry Translation Centre in 2020]. In Eritrean culture the sycamore has a special place as the traditional meeting point and parliament of the village. It was the place where debate and critique, often in the form of poetic address (an ‘aulò’), would occur. The poem manages to lament the political realities that obliterated this free exchange and debate in Ribka’s homeland whilst, at the same time, producing a moving lyrical account:

Al Sicomoro

Passati amari anni, 
d’esilio e umiliazioni, 
baciai prostrata Himbirti, 
la terra dei miei avi 
che mi portarono 
per mano al Sicomoro. 

Sentii discorsi rimati, 
ai vivi e ai morti, 
leggi e compromessi… 

Poi svanirono dietro 
il maestoso Sicomoro 
recitando indicibili aulò, 
recenti canti-pianti 
e del lontano passato. 

Era settembre, 
tornando sola e triste, 
dalle case e chiese 
sentii profumi d’incenso 
e canti di capodanno. 

Da lontano 
aspetto il richiamo 
del Sicomoro.
To the Sycamore

After years of bitter exile 
and humiliation, I knelt 
to kiss Himbirti, the land 
of my ancestors 
who led me by the hand 
all the way to the Sycamore. 

There, I heard rhyming speeches 
to the living and the dead in rhyme, 
laws and compromises… 

Then they vanished behind 
the stately Sycamore 
reciting unsayable aulòs, 
howling-songs of the present 
and distant past. 

It was September and winding 
my way, sad and lonely, 
among houses and churches, 
I smelt the incense 
and heard the new year’s songs. 

Now, from afar, 
I wait for the call 
of the Sycamore tree

What do you find are the highlights of André Naffis-Sahely’s translations in this collection?

The poems and fables that make up Sibhatu’s collection Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! are remarkably varied—in style, form and language! There are original works from three languages (Italian, Amharic and Tigrinya) in the book, and the poems range in subject matter from the tragedy of refugees dying at sea to traditional oral fables. In each instance André was working from Ribka’s Italian—whether that was the original or Ribka’s own translation of the Tigrinya or Amharic into Italian. André’s translations capture the tremendous variety of approach, from direct denunciation to a generous lyric warmth. One of the most impressive aspects of the collection is that André’s translations feel like complete unified events. They each get across the sense of an entire gesture—and yet, together, they read convincingly as the poems of a single, albeit stunningly varied, poet. 

PTC’s 2020 World Poet Series books from Eritrean poet Ribka Sibhatu (tr. André Naffis-Sahely); Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish (tr. Atef Alshaer and Paul Batchelor); and reissues by Hindi poets Mohan Rana (tr. Lucy Rosenstein and Bernard O’Donoghue) and Gagan Gill (tr. Lucy Rosenstein & poet Jane Duran)

What other upcoming events or publications can we look forward to from the PTC? Who are other women poets you’re looking forward to featuring in the PTC’s workshop or publications in the future?

This year we’ll be publishing the Sri Lankan poet Anar and the Argentinian poet Diana Bellessi. Anar is a leading figure in Tamil poetry and one of the few prominent Muslim female poets publishing in Sri Lanka. Her striking immediate poems bring together mystical, personal and religious themes. She will be translated by Hari Rajaledchumy working with the English-language poet Fran Lock

Diana Bellessi is a ground-breaking poet with a vast poetic oeuvre. Her work ranges from queer love poetry to politically engaged dissent and ecological concern. This hugely influential figure will be translated by Leo Boix. Both Anar and Diana Bellessi will be published in our World Poet Series. Alongside these publications, we’ll also be running our workshop programme which will feature new poets every month.  

Interview by Cassandra Bertolini