Poets Translating Poets
Three Poets, Two Languages, One Translator

Dhaka encounter
Photo: Goethe Institut Dhaka

In the second encounter of Poets Translating Poets, two Bangla poets, a German poet and an Indian translator converge in Dhaka to translate contexts, cultures and creativity. Rashmi Dhanwani reports. 

A cacophony of cycle whistles and car horns besiege Dhaka’s roads as Hendrik Jackson whips out his sound recorder to capture this life.  Jackson – a tall, bespectacled, baseball cap-wearing German poet – is perched on one of Bangladesh’s ubiquitous cycle rickshaws and seems amused and amazed by what surrounds him. Later, when asked about translating poems in the city that cradles its original language, he reveals, "To read it in Dhaka is totally different. In Berlin, I would have read it philosophically; here I read it physically.“

And it is the sheer ‘physicality‘ of interlinear translation – a raw, literal, naked combination of language reconstructions with colour, context and clarity – that defines this mammoth, ambitious year-long poetry translation project ‘Poets Translating Poets’. 48 South Asian and German poets spanning 19 languages will meet over eight encounters across four countries and translate each others’ poetry without actually knowing the language. How, one might ask? Through the interlinear translation method involving literal translations of their poems, subsequent to which the poets meet over intense workshops to retranslate the poems.

Presently, in Dhaka, Hendrik is joined by two Bengali poets and a Bengali-German translator for a 5-day ‘encounter’. Sajjad Sharif is a Bangladeshi journalist and poet who, along with fellow Bangla poet and journalist Shahnaz Munni, German poet Jackson, and Kolkata-based interlinear translator Partha Chattopadhyay unfurl an encounter of poetic translation.

The Project

Poets Translating Poets was initiated in July 2015 by the Goethe-Institut in Mumbai India, in Collaboration with Literaturwerkstatt Berlin and in Cooperation with Deutsche UNESCO, with an aim to create a platform for poets from South Asia and Germany to translate each other’s works. Contemporary poetry from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka will be translated into German by well-known German authors, while German poetry will be likewise translated into South Asian languages during the course of the project. By bringing together poets from across 19 languages through literary encounters in several South Asian locations, this project promises to stimulate new literary networks and open new avenues for transcultural understanding. A dedicated project website will bring all the threads of the project together. It will include readings, literature festivals, book fairs and events in the sub-continent as well as in Germany.

One of the most unique aspects of the project is that the poets will translate each others’ poems in spite of not knowing these languages intimately. This is achieved through the ‘Interlinear Translation’ method, first used by Literaturwerkstatt Berlin nearly a decade ago to explore the vast linguistic treasures of poetry beyond Germany. An interlinear translation consists of a) a word-to-word translation of the poem; b) a translation that clarifies the semantic and grammatical attributes; and, c) a translation that elucidates the culture-specific and historical meaning of a word, as well as the salient features of the grammatical attributes of a poem. Such a translation experiment could, among other things, lead to the emergence of an unimaginable literary network and the proliferation of works far beyond the culture in which they were originally formed.

The Process

In preparation for the Dhaka encounter, the poets had already sent across a set of four poems each a few months ago. These poems were translated in Bangla and German through the interlinear translation method, and these translations were shared with the respective poets days before the encounter. The participating literary figures then retranslated the works over five days in the presence of their counterparts and the interlinear translator. Each day at the Dhaka encounter, over a sharp, white demanding table strewn with papers, books and various Bangla-German dictionaries, contexts were unfurled and exposed, meanings broken down, images re-imagined and a new shared meaning arrived at together.

A key element of the process is the teamwork – Partha makes the interlinear translation, while the poets try to retranslate each line and ask Partha for help where they have issues. Often the group breaks into twos where they invoke everyone from Lorca to Saussure to devolve contexts and come to an understanding. Clarity is further layered with inputs from all involved.  For instance, one of Hendrik's poems, Riff-Raff, used an ancient line form a 15th century Bosch painting. The classical word 'kroppzeug' has no contemporary relevance (literally meaning dust, not waste?) and is rarely found in current usage, and decoding this context led to a spiraling discussion between Shahnaz, Partho and Hendrik.

The process is also made unique by the presence of the original poets in the same room, which leads to a negotiated translation process allowing both the translator and the translated to think through each word, its context and application. The word nirucchar (from Sajjid’s poem About the discourse beyond) meaning unpronounced/ one that has not yet been pronounced/ unuttered was translated in painful detail by Sajjad and Partha to Hendrik translating, often testing its various applications. As Sajjad, who has translated regularly in the past, says, "When you are translating someone else's work, you have some sense of the context in which the poem was written to go by and then that is it. Here, the translation is very particular in its experience of having gone through it with the original poet. Here, slowly, I discover a person behind the poem. It's like getting under the skin of the person, slipping into someone’s mind." The process is multi-layered and cuts deep.


This is Hendrik’s first time in Asia, and he had little exposure to the region or to the language prior to this trip. On the other hand, Spanish and Italian words permeate Dhaka’s living culture as signages sitting pompously on the city’s apartment complexes and highrises. Shahnaz ventured to explain, “We have read translations of German, Italian and Spanish writers – these aren’t entirely unfamiliar contexts. But poetry is different.”

Unfamiliarity with the language also brings in a unique dilemma of being unable to see the worldview of a culture, nation and its identity. Hendrik brought up this dilemma while translating one of Shahnaz's poems, he spoke about translating contexts: "You have six seasons, we have four. How should I translate your poems without making it unfamiliar or exoticising it to my audience is something I need to figure." The word he eventually chose was "Monsoon". As he explained later in the evening when questioned about the process, "It is the balance you strike as a translator. You have to choose to be moderate, to not exoticise. As a translator you are constantly taking a stance."

Shahnaz, on the other hand, hasn't translated at all, so for her this is a new experience. For her, it's an exchange of emotions and feeling with the other poet. She was translating Hendrik's new poem on his son, and found it to be as "sentimental as much of Bengali poetry". She explains, “While I am translating Hendrik’s poems, I am also trying to understand his feelings, emotions, expressions as a poet... I am able to take all of this in rather than just rely on words.” In translations, they found commonalities; a culture didn't seem as alien anymore.

Another aspect of translating contexts emerged in a conversation between Sajjad and Hendrik. The latter was translating one of Sajjad's more strong poems titled 'Knife-Surgery' (previously called Operation). Sajjad tried to explain the form of the poem - soft, metrical, mainly used in romantic poetry. But he had chosen to use it in a harsh poem about current affairs and the conditions in Bangladesh since the Liberation War. This triggered a conversation between the two on articulation of poems, stresses on the words, use of accents and how that is reflective of a culture.


The interlinear translator perhaps plays the most crucial role in the process. It is through him/ her that the process becomes clearer, the output achieves its quality, and the poets appreciate the other's context more. But the process isn’t without its challenges. At the Dhaka encounter, Partha elaborated on the dichotomy he faces as a translator – of having to curb his creative impulses and to be objective, of having to tune himself into the poets' needs and tune out of his own voice. He explained, "A poet creates his/ her own language within the language of the poem. It was exciting to get into the mind of the poet, and yet I had to be careful to not translate poetically, but instead focus on the literal meaning."

This brought to mind an old (16th century) poem on translation by the fourth Earl of Roscommon who himself was a poet and translator:

‘Tis True, Composing is the nobler Part,
But good Translation is no Easie Art,
For the materials have long since been found,
Yet both your Fancy and your Hands are bound,
And by improving what was writ before,
Invention labours less, but Judgement more.
Each poet with a different talent writes,
One praises, one instructions, another bites.
Horace did ne’er aspire to Epick Bays,
Nor lofty Maro stoop to Lyrick Lays.
Examine how your Humour is inclin’d,
And which the Ruling Passion of your Mind;
Then seek a Poet who your ways does bend,
And choose an Author as you choose a Friend;
United by this sympathetick Bond,
Your grow familiar, intimate and fond.
Your Thoughts, your Words, your Stiles, your Souls agree,
Nor longer his Interpreter, but He.

Partha identifies with this challenge of staying true to this voice of the poet, and how the interlinear method differs significantly, for it is a three-layered filtered translation. "First is the act of the poet in putting the poem on paper and translating his/ her thoughts, the second is my role as an interlinear translator, and then third is the other poet who is using my translation and view of the original poet's work to then make another translation. That's the third generation translation," Partha explained.


Much of the encounter reflected battles on paper and wrestling with words anew, but at the same time, many of the battles were internal. On the way from the Bangla Academy (Bangladesh’s national language authority) after a visit, Sajjad sought to seek his own intimacy with Bangla and how it shapes his own thoughts and ideas. "This entire interlinear translation process, and seeing my language through someone else's eyes makes me think about how my own language, the shape of the words, the structure shapes my own thinking and approach to things."

Hendrik was reflective of the language but more about how the process transforms the poem. "When I give my input in its German translation, I push something out, but that the process allows also brings something new to the poem." So in a way, it's a translation... but also some sort of a new work, meant for a different audience.

Ending the ‘Encounter’

On the fifth day, the encounter was slated to end with a public presentation. That morning, in a reflective moment over tea, Partha explained how the encounter as a word was dealt with all its meanings in the project. "The word encounter can mean many things — meeting, happenstance, resistance and even some sort of a battle. There was a process of maneuvering, of suggesting to another poet about the apt word in the context, of convincing her/ him of her/ his own translation. So in a way, in the last five days, we dealt with all meanings of encounter during our workshop.” It remained to be seen how the encounter had panned out.

It was nearly 7 pm and the audience slowly trickled in. Outside, the angry traffic had raged further as University students were out on streets in a protest against the Government’s new Value Added Tax announcement for private universities. Inside, the poets were eager to start: introductions were made, backgrounds given, processes explained and finally, poems read. One by one, each scribble hewn, well-ordered paper with the translation was cradled and read to a quiet crowd. They were the same poem, but they sounded different. The words were sharper here, where it should have been soft there. The syllables ached for a jump, where quiet dignity prevailed. The poets’ thoughts were being read and held in the minds of those who saw their world in different words, with the hope that these thoughts and word would go on to create new images of new cultures in new languages.