The Baltics Riveter: Transreading the Baltics by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

In Reading Rilke, his reflections on translating the poet, William H. Gass equates reading and translating and coins the term ‘transreading’ to suggest their inextricable relationship. Many, myself included, would agree that translation is the most acute form of reading. Which is why, in 2014, I used Gass’s concept as the title of the course I run at the Poetry School in London: ‘Transreading Central Europe’.

‘Transreading’ courses focus on reading poems brought to English by translation, English-language poems inhabiting other cultures, and multi-lingual poems where English is the door-opener to other tongues. In these courses, with the curiosity and inventiveness of language travellers entering the unknown, we transread in order to transwrite: we compose new poems that transcend our readings. Through such acts of transcreation, we also transform our habits of writing and existing in this multiliterate world.

With Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia this year’s London Book Fair Market Focus, the Poetry School has decided to respond to the event with a ‘Transreading the Baltics’ course, in which we will transwrite poetry sampled from Arc Publications’ three bilingual anthologies:  Six Latvian PoetsSix Lithuanian Poets and Six Estonian Poets. We will also write in response to the poems you will find in this, The Baltics Riveter. Our texts will thus become ‘poetic reviews’ and will be featured on the European Literature Network website (eurolitnetwork.com).

Since no knowledge of Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian will be required to turn our readings into new poems, the following question may well arise: can we bring the kind of acuteness we achieve when reading a poem written in our own language to a poem whose original language we don’t know? I believe we can – by creatively rereading the translation (which can be seen both as a copy or a more polished version of the original); this should lead to re-writing, which, in turn, allows us to inhabit the original poem.

Poets have always created new poems out of old through imaginative rewordings. This is how new versions of Homer, Catullus, Sappho, Dante, Rilke, Neruda and Ritsos have entered the English language. Some poets deliberately avoid fidelity to the original (surely ‘faithfulness’ in translation is a paradox); some purposefully collate versions by other translators who may or may not have known the original language of the poem in question. (Here, for me, the word ‘version’ is interchangeable with ‘translation,’ although I’m well aware that in the UK poets such as Don Patterson have argued for a different status for each concept.)

I side with Octavio Paz’s pronouncement that ‘each original poem is the translation of the unknown or absent text’; and I choose to ignore the largely misquoted Robert Frost assertion that poetry is what’s lost in translation. I see translation as creative rewriting. Which is why, in my transreading courses we opt for Derek Mahon’s approach, as explained in his preface to Echo’s Grove: ‘the best plan may be to approximate with zest, to refuse pedantry and intimidation.’

For me, Clive Scott, the translator of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, says it all: any translation is ‘an autobiography of the reading self’. I believe that in transfiguring unknown texts by unfamiliar poets we create new autobiographies of our reading selves. And this makes me wonder, therefore, what Baltic traits the poets who will transread the Baltics will soon display.

By Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese


Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese writes between English, Polish and Danish; her multilingual texts have appeared in a variety journals and anthologies. She teaches poetry-in-translation courses for the Poetry School in London and works at the Centre for Internationalisation and Parallel Language Use at the University of Copenhagen. She was shortlisted for The Poetry Society’s Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize in 2015.

Category: April 2018 - Baltic CountriesOther Blogs

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