On A Collaborative Poetry Translation

Kaitlin Rees

I don't know how it is possible to translate from an unknown language, but I think we all do it everyday, mostly for the silent languages that are without names. In this case, for this language unknown to me, I started with a new kind of listening.

I listened to Mario F. Lawi and Adimas Immanuel reading their poems and tried to give deep attention to their voices. If I noticed my mind wandering even a tiny bit, I’d start the poem over again. I realized that I rarely listen so closely like this, and it was a difficult exercise, listening with the whole body, not to the words, more to whatever was inside them.

I made some alternative translations of my own, just going on what I felt was transmitted through the sounds of the voices. These were by no means accurate, but I also felt that perhaps they were more pure translations than the ones I usually make when I consciously attend to (agonize over) word meaning (from Vietnamese).

After these experiments in listening, I read Mia’s translations. Of course, mine based solely on the voice and Mia’s more precise rendering of word meaning had great variance, but I could see a few moments of synchrony as well, particularly where shifts in tone occurred.

While reading Mia’s translation, I noted of the parts I wanted to ask her about in conversation. I also wanted to know which words in bahasa Indonesia she felt carried specific meaning in the poem. Our first conversation lasted nearly two hours and still we only managed to talk about the first section of the first poem!

We talked about the practical “events” of the poem, in order to get down to some kind of basic understanding, not necessarily an understanding of the poem’s meaning, but an understanding of simply what was occurring in the poem. It really felt at times like we were killing it in our discussion, dissecting a body until all its life was gone. But as she said, that is the work of translators, in order to bring it into a new life.

After this first conversation of plunging into half of one poem, I could have a sense of this one poem in particular and, more generally, a sense for how Mia worked and the things she cared about as a translator. I made a few changes to meaningful word choices, and then actually spent more time on the meaningless words, like ‘the’ ‘a’ ‘that’ ‘of’’. It always surprises me what a difference these little meaningless words make.


 Miagina Amal

Doing collaboration in translating—or in any line of work—is always an enriching, rewarding, and fun experience for me.  I was thrilled when I found out that Kaitlin Rees, a Vietnamese-into-English literary translator would collaborate with me in translating the works of two of the most brilliant young Indonesian poets, Mario F. Lawi and Adimas Immanuel, as a part of InterSastra’s Diverse Indonesia: Next Generation series.

The unusual thing about this collaboration in poetry translation was that aside from the original Indonesian texts, Kaitlin and I also were provided with the recordings of the two poets reading their poems, which proved very helpful in the translation process. This is something new for me, as I am accustomed to work mainly only with written text. The recordings made it possible for me, and for Kaitlin, to explore sound patterns and the range of emotions intended by the poets in their poems.  

Then I set to translate the poems into English, while Kaitlin experimented and tried to “blindly translate” the poems, using only the poets’ recordings and the Indonesian texts, a language she does not speak. She sent me her interpretation of the poems and it was very fun to read! We then agreed to have online chat to discuss my translation.

Juggling the time differences in our schedules (Kaitin was in Hanoi while I was in Jakarta), we finally managed to chat for more than two hours, poring over the translations. We discussed the contextual meanings, the descriptive process and lingered on the subtle nuances of word choices, for example the differences between menyadari, mengakui and mengetahui (recognize, acknowledge, know) in Adimas’s poem “At the Altar”. Having covered the basics, we then continued to work through emails, and Kaitlin gave new insights into the poems and did a great job in polishing the translations to perfection.

Kaitlin Rees translates Vietnamese poetry and makes her own in English sometimes, too. Her translations have appeared in the journals Masque & Spectacle and Asymptote. Her translation of Nhã Thuyên's book of poems words breathe, creatures of elsewhere was recently published by Vagabond Press. Kaitlin co-edits Ajar literary journal in Hanoi with Nhã Thuyên. Kaitlin's artwork of poetry called Fragments of an Infinite Dictionary was exhibited in December 2015 in Zalaegerszeg, Hungary.

Miagina Amal is a translator, writer, and editor. Her translations are several novels and plays from Indonesian writers, among them Triyanto Triwikromo, Ben Sohib, Goenawan Mohammad, and Hanna Rambe; also short stories and poems in anthologies of Utan Kayu and Salihara International Literary Biennale. She co-authored Cerita Rakyat Halmahera (Disparbud Maluku Utara, 2013), a collection of folklore of the island of Halmahera, with M. Adnan Amal. 


Eliza HandayaniComment