Video, poetry and translation…

From Greek to English… We also have a version in Greek and Spanish.

I’ve always loved language and languages. I did Latin, French and German at school and I could easily have ended up studying linguistics in a slightly different universe. For me, poetry and experimental writing are fundamental ways to explore the limits of language: to try to describe what cannot be put into words, to find out what happens when language is stripped down to its essentials (whatever they are…), to discover how the visual, oral and aural aspects of language interact.

Combining video with poetry and experimental writing has been a revelation in this context. In a video, text can be dynamic, as it changes and morphs in multiple dimensions. Voices can be added, distorted, re-timed, presented in counter-point to each other and to on-screen text; they can even be made to articulate the literally unspeakable via increasingly sophisticated text-to-speech algorithms. And then there are all the possible interactions between the text of the video and its audio-visual content.

Over the last few years, I’ve been increasingly interested in how we deal with translation in poetry videos. I have had many videos screened in non-English speaking festivals and installations where there is usually a requirement for subtitles in either English or the native language. But sometimes, there is an absolute requirement for subtitles in the native language. I also have collaborated with non-English speaking poets which has required me become familiar with at least some aspects their native tongue. And I have even created a genuine bi-lingual video poem.

English and French as equal partners…

So how do we deal with multi-lingualism? How should the translations work? There is a large literature on the nature of translation, as well as the underlying neuroscience of bi- and multi-lingualism. But I have been strongly influenced by a couple of books in particular, both of which have been written by authors who have translated some of the most influential experimental poetry and writing :

Mark Polizzotti: Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto (MIT Press, 2018).
David Bellos: Is That A Fish In Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Farrar, Straus and Giroux / MacMillan 2011).

Poetry videos offer a unique slant on translation that is not available for written text: videos give us the option to hear the original language, and, indeed, read the original written text itself as well as a translation. And we still have access to all the same audio-visual material and its interactions with the text. One corollary of this is that the translated text does not necessarily have to be as “poetic” as the original. It may not even need to be a complete translation, if the sound of the original and its accompanying imagery allow.

It is very common for translated poetry videos to have subtitles added in a similar way to any other video or film. However, conventional subtitles can clash with the visual aesthetic of the video. Nearly all my poetry videos have at least some of the text embedded in them, as part of the overall visual design. When adding translated text, I try to use the same fonts, layouts and designs as the original, so that the look of the video is not changed and the translation is seen as a natural component of the work. Another option is to use closed captions for a translated version. It does not look very elegant, but it allows the user to turn the translation on or off. A further advantage is that the text exists as a separate underlying time-stamped file (eg .srt format) that can be translated by a third party as required.

English and Spanish translation share a common design…

So now to the big question: how do we actually get the translation? Ideally, you are sufficiently knowledgable in the appropriate languages to do it yourself. I can do that well enough for German or French, and I have made a genuine bilingual English-French video based on a poem of mine, Signature, originally published in the French journal Recours Au Poème. But although I have become familiar with some aspects of other languages, most notably Spanish, Italian, Greek and Swedish, I cannot translate from English into them. Instead, I rely on machine translation, good dictionaries and, when necessary, advice from a native speaker.

Machine translation…

My preferred machine translation system is DeepL which, when tested on languages I do know, performs better than Google Translate across the board, especially when the language becomes more idiomatic or figurative. The suggested translations can be checked and fine tuned in several ways. One is to simply back-translate the phrase to see if you get the same thing. Using a different system for the back-translation (such as Google Translate) can also be useful. Another good strategy is to replace some of the words in the original with synonyms or near-equivalents and compare how they get translated. If the translation offers options, I often look them up in the native language dictionary or thesaurus (eg Wiktionary) that shows how they understand the meaning of the word and how it should be used. And I always keep a grammar book at hand for the language in question to find out how it is structured and how things like tenses, cases, pronouns, adjectives, etc, actually function. These resources have been critical for most of my translations.

Sometimes, the translation simply will not work. An implied meaning in one language perhaps cannot be made in another, often because of the way the grammar rules operate. As is well known to translators, there are idioms and turns of phrase that do not cross languages or cultures. Experimental writing or visual poetry that relies on the intrinsic structure of words and their grammatical variations may be impossible to translate in any literal manner. What do we do then? We simply watch the video, listen to the ebbs and flows of words that even a native speaker may not understand, and revel in the uncertainty of it all.

Fragmented language that can be barely spoken… impossible to translate…

Click here to see all Ian’s videos with translations.