Translating Kazakh poetry

Last week I took part in a collaborative poetry translation workshop run by the Poetry Translation Centre. Led by Liz Berry and expert Kazakh translator Assiya Issemberdiyeva, our group met together online to prepare a translation of an untitled poem by acclaimed poet Gulnar Salykbay (pictured left).

portrait of Gulnar Salykbay

Not only was the evening great fun, but I also learned a good deal about Kazakh language and poetry in the process, especially about its musicality, inbuilt system of vowel harmonies, the agglutinative nature of the language and the fact that the oral tradition of poetry is unbroken to this day in Kazakhstan. Assiya first read us the poem and, even though I could understand nothing that she said, the repetitions and echoes of sounds and even the mood of the poem were all strongly apparent.

Liz then very carefully took us line by line through a ‘guide translation’, prepared by Assiya. This guide translation gave us the bones of the poem in four four-line stanzas. Each word or each line could be rephrased or rearranged, depending on what the group decided. Liz typed out our ideas/alternatives on her shared screen and made sure that everyone had chance to chip in with suggestions. We could ask Assiya questions when we reached the sticky bits of the poem which needed extra explanation before they could be transformed into lines or images that would be more recognisable to readers of contemporary English poetry. One example of this was the phrase ‘ A nostalgia followed by its foal’ which occupied us for many minutes.

What was particularly interesting to me was how everyone in the group made different kinds of contributions. Some of us, and I include myself in this, went for individual word choices or word combinations whereas others were much more focused on tenses or articles or subject agreements. Some of us could also draw on our knowledge of other languages and literatures such as Persian and Turkish. There was a real determination in the group to listen to each other and to try to make choices that seemed best for the poem. Two hours raced by but by 8.30 we had arrived at a new translation which can be seen, with the original and the guide translation, at: https://www.poetrytranslation.org/poems/the-sun-is-one-who-sees-and-knows-everything

It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and I shall certainly be going back for more. The centre have three further events planned for January 2021:
12 January: looking at poet Tanagoz Tolkynkyzy with Liz Berry and Assiya Issemberdiyeva
19 January: looking at poet Akberen Yelgezek with Jon Stone and Assiya Issemberdiyeva
26 January: looking at poet Yerlan Junis with Liz Berry and Assiya Issemberdiyeva

For booking details go to: https://www.poetrytranslation.org/events/workshops

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