Bill Herbert at The Scottish Poetry Library


Saturday 30 October 2010 Bill Herbert at the Scottish Poetry Library
“Translations are like women, if they are beautiful they are not faithful, if they are faithful they are not beautiful.” Attributed by member of audience to Yevtushenko.
Bill Herbert entertained us for an hour with extraordinary travel tales, poetry and the exigencies of translating poetry when you are unacquainted with the original language. So how do you do that? As examples Bill read us translations of Chinese poems. One based on the poet’s feelings about London gave us a barrage of images – as Bill put it – like a firework, going on and on and finally like a machine gun.” This is a characteristic of Chinese poetry, hardly surprising given that Chinese characters have not changed over 2000 years. Bill told us how he progresses a translation in a “ménage a trios” where Bill, the Chinese poet and a translator work together to create something as close to the original as possible. Again in a language 2000 years old it is important to catch all the allusions and references as well as the tone and rhythm.
There followed a tale of a visit by a group of poets to a part of China close to the Borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first thing the visitors had to do when they got off the bus was to run the gauntlet of pretty girls holding glasses of very strong rice spirit. Tradition decreed that they must drink up. A banquet followed for which in the visitors’ honour a mare had been slaughtered. Bill was seated by the most important local and kept being offered rare delicacies such as ears and entrails. The glasses gave way to bowls and these had to be drunk off in one. After a few of these Bill was horrified to hear that he was to give the toast. He managed this despite barely being able to see. Next it was on to the square to watch the goat tussling – from horseback. Then for the journey home. No sooner had the bus set off than it stopped again. The visitors had to drink farewell glasses of spirit.
Bill has no memory of the journey back. He woke up in a strange place with black corridors and thought for a while that he had died. Only turning the corner and hearing a Chinese poet greeting him with a hollered “Scotland!” reassured him.
Believing that English speaking people need to know what has been happening in Chinese poetry, Bill and others are working on a 400 page anthology of Chinese poetry. What is interesting is that despite the cultural break created by Communism there are many poets working in China. There is a parapet above which it is better not to put your writer head but it is not always clear where the parapet is.
Bill likens translation and indeed the production of all poems to being a slippery process rather like an eel. A member of the audience said “Translator/Traitor.” Bill agreed that a poetry translator is a double agent working for both sides.
Poems read included: London, Three Lost Films, The Yellow Mountain, The Dowager of Don’t and The Glacier.

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