Poets Translating Poets Traversing Diversity in Verse

Nusrat Sheikh, Daniela Danz and Andreas Altmann.
Nusrat Sheikh, Daniela Danz and Andreas Altmann. | © Goethe-Institut/Madiha Aijaz

Fifty poets, twenty languages: the Goethe-Institut teams up with the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin to organize an exchange between contemporary poets in South Asia and Germany. The results can be explored on a multi-lingual website.

Amar Sindhu is a writer and professor who holds the chair for philosophy at one of Pakistan’s oldest academic institutes, Sindh University in Jamshoro. She is also a human rights activist, a leading feminist and a poet. Now, her poetry has been translated into German by the poet Andreas Altmann as part of the project Poets Translating Poets: Poetry Traverses South Asia and Germany.

The project in South Asia by the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan and the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin brings poets together to cooperatively translate each other’s poems into their respective languages. In this form of direct dialogue, the writers “traverse” the stylistic correlations and poetic traditions of each other’s linguistic heritages. Since July 2015, a series of five-day workshops held in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have brought together about fifty poets writing in almost twenty different languages. Between June and December 2016, they will present their translations at events held in Germany and South Asia.

Participants in the project Poets Translating Poets. Participants in the project Poets Translating Poets. | © Goethe-Institut/Madiha Aijaz The initial results of the workshops such as Altmann’s translation of Sindhu’s poems are already documented on the website of Poets Translating Poets. There, the original and the translation of each work can be read side-by-side; some include previous English translations or original audio versions in Bengali, Gujarati, Kashmiri, Marathi or German.

The website not only highlights the diversity of the regional languages (and writing systems) of South Asia, but also the very different themes and traditions that influence contemporary poetry there. Themes include politics, war and displacement as well as the writing of poetry and creation myths. German poet Ulrike Draesner, for instance, translated Neerav Patel’s poem “Huṁ na ḍōśī (me and my old woman),” a poetic dialogue between and old man and his wife on upcoming elections, and gave it the title of the Grimm tale “The Fisherman and His Wife.” In “srishthi (Creation)” the Gujarati poet Harish Meenashru tells the story of an “ant that was not” that “bit the earth that was not” thus triggering a series of transformations.

The German poet-translators invent delightful phrases such as the Unbehaust Umherstreifenden in Shafi Shauq’s poem “بند مکانس منز روزن والین کن” in Gerhard Falkner’s translation. Here and there, they smuggle single words into the other language, for example the “hudhud” call of a hoopoe in Ulrike Almut Sandig’s translation of another poem by Shafi Shauq.

Some of the German poems have been translated into multiple languages of South Asia, but there are also two different versions in one and the same language such as Andreas Altmann’s “farben und geräusche” (colours and sounds) translated not only by Amar Sindhu into Sindhi, but also into Urdu by Afzal Ahmed Syed and again into Sindhi by Attiya Dawood. Comparing the two versions reveals the diverse possibilities for expression in one language.