What if our poetry only exists as translation? What if our words only arrive in a global seep, smuggled in through the space between others’ words, emerging sheepishly from the corridors of other countries? What if our phrases depend on foreign agents to bring them to the page? My way into poetry is through other lands and languages, my understanding comes in the process of pulling poetry into an idea that’s English, and now my poetry has no mother tongue: poems written in the hush between me and someone else.
Translating poetry has taught me about patience, what readers of one language will tolerate better than readers of another. About punctuation: how we can do without it. Translating rhyme and rhythm has taught me a new cleverness, what experimentation can mean, how languages can be forced to accommodate creativity.
Maybe the way forward is to build our poetic language from the cracks in our translations, the places where what we write differs from what the author wrote, where something rings out to us and we decide that what we have written is better than what they had in mind, and we gift ourselves the authority to invent. The shadowboxing of different versions of poems, and we win every time. Those words that reach out to us because they are the start of our voice, pieced together over the course [End Page 379] of multiple voices and styles already honed. We cannot speak but we listen, for that ringing on the page. And then we walk away from each translation with a clearer idea of what kind of writer we are, who we might be if we were to write poetry.
emma ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, Rhode Island. Her translations include Frédéric Forte’s 33 Flat Sonnets (2016), Anne F. Garréta’s Sphinx (2015), and Anne Parian’s Monospace (2015).