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Poetry and Translation

The authors of rozdiLOVi project that combines poetry by Serhiy Zhadan, music by Alexey Vorsoba and Vlad Kreymer, and visual images by Olia Mukhailiuk present the English version of one of the tracks — The Simplest Words:

"Poetry is difficult to translate without losing the main features — rhythm, intonations, and pauses. We are looking for the new ways of work with text using voice, music, and graphics which together help to overcome language boundaries.”

A native English speaker, scientist and musician Benjamin Cope shares his impressions of this interdisciplinary translation:

More Poetry

My Dad, 2016.

Instructions to himself after my mum died, written in the handwriting that is so completely his own in the ‘things-to-do’ notepad that he keeps beside his bed, that I found on the morning before I returned to Poland.

How to translate one death in Bedfordshire (but mine, my mum’s) in relation to a war in East Ukraine?

“The simplest words” can explain it all, but this explanatory potential of language is reinforced, or compromised, by the electronic sound disturbance of a lost radio frequency crackling over the stretched vibrations of an accordion, by the contrast created between written words and the aural qualities of voices (“you were just another voice in her life” … “maybe the harshest” or “the clearest”, or one that “maybe she treats as your own”) and by the drifting in and out of focus of drawn lines, perhaps of a musical score or the blurred indentations of vibrating frequencies, with words, the simplest, hand-written in different languages rising from the lines and then descending back down into them.

The communicational function of language is shadowed or obstructed by a hand writing, or drawing. Against the spread of programmes that algorithmically predict words to use, handwriting stands at the intersection of language and the choreography of living. Mind and arm act to draw lines that can bring us together and that also keep us separated: signatures are the mark of individual identity and different nations’ handwritings are much more difficult to ‘read’ for an outsider than typed script. Is it the content or the materiality of hand-traced words that speaks to us of lives lived?

Or perhaps what we see are not words, but waves, or the icons of an as yet unknown calligraphy, or bumps along the moving electronic displays that indicate in a hospital whether life goes on, or not: thus not words or music, but images of war (or is the sounds of the piece that suggest this ‘reading’). Do we see the word “love” or circles (holes, wholes) and ridges along a lined landscape? Or does it all come together in “ж”, the “zh” of ‘nezhnist’, and is “nezhnist” the same as “tenderness”, with its sharp “t” drifting into the diminuendoing furrows of “s” “s”, or is something lost or moved in the processes of translation…? Or is it here the thickness, angle and shapes of the lines that are crucial in transmitting meaning, as on a map, or is the meaning of the piece that of the movement of the pen, the arm and the meditation experienced by the unseen writer/calligrapher…

Given the diversity of modes of expression, “Nobody knows what keeps you (me and you, us, the poem, the author and ‘her’, a ‘nation’, humanity) together”
“except the fear of losing one another” (at which point “nothing” appears on the musical script).

What can keep together such a torn cloth of epiphany…
And delirium…


The plurality of artistic effects both draw out associative parallels with the words of the poem, clothing weightless words in the thickness of experience, but at the same time challenge the words’ ability to speak (to us, to me, to you), to translate the experience from which it was born into the experience of my (your) life. The hesitations of the poem allow time for transformations, the rhythm of the piece makes movement visible, and thus the metamorphoses inherent in the other modes of expression (sound, music, line, image) palpable — weighing the words down with what they cannot grasp. And yet, grasp better than any other mode of language — for poetry fights with the limits of language’s ability to express, to give the passing moment the richness that it demands, and to articulate the perspective of those whom history has denied the right to speak. In a language that I can hear, understand or accept.

Then come further figures, sounds or elements of writing or erasure: “i’s” dots, or proof of floating, drips of apparatus sounds or of weightlessness, birds or the “w” of war rising over the score, words overwritten, blots of ink: the material essence of ancient and other civilisations’ approaches to writing that challenge our simplified sense of reading, or communication, or the blasts of explosions leaving holes in the words, handicapping or annihilating the ability to explain even the simplest things.

The dotting of moist blood-pomegranate stains brings colour to a world that, although multidimensional, was black and white. The poem utters a challenge to God, and with it comes the imposition of severe thick crosses and the rising volume of an indecipherable conversation. Hands appear, massaging the conflicted lines, overwritten words and icons, blurring, remoulding them together or rubbing them out? Moisture, tears or water, adds to the blurring, making possible new movements of ink and bringing the word “war” into a renewed clarity of focus. Or just as the poem seems to reach a dark climax, does the moisture provide a medium for the harpooner?

For wobbly drawn lines, (of trails of harpoon shots?), start to move vertically across the paper, along with the promise that the heather and the black grass (your eyes?), will flower, adding to the sense of destructive chaos or opening a new dimension, a sense of possibility, to this calligraphic cartography of the impact of war. The tone changes, but enigmatically:

Her voice will always be with you. A thank you and a dedication on the first page will always be for you. Carry them harpooner, like a weapon in your pocket…

Through the crumpled battlefield of paper in front of our eyes at the end of the poem, the arte povera of a broken land, poetry, the world, love and war emerge inter-tangled in the problematic image of the harpooner — in which faith in the act of communication despite all the check-points and hesitations, in the flowering of the heather and black grass, and in the dedication to you resonates with the faith which keeps you going after being abandoned by your commander.

Poetry in “The Simplest Words…” emerges assisted and attacked on all sides by tone, voice, sound, music, lines, colour, movement, still, shapes, gaps, hesitations, massage, and thus a deep immersion of an experience beyond what I recognise as language, and beyond my understanding. Poetry, conscious of its lacks, reaches out, translating experience into somewhere beyond meaning. Not meaningless: rather the harpoon to be fired to capture experience as meaning. Leaps of faith in life, love, war and reading poetry.

“More poetry.

Benjamin Cope — Ph.D, director of the Laboratory of Critical Urbanism. His scientific interests focus on socio-spatial change in the Eastern Europe, with a particular accent on cultural events and critical cartography. He is quite radical in his research, thus moved from the UK directly to the place of his interests — Poland. Now Benjamin lives in Warsaw, where he works in the Education Department at Zachęta National Gallery of Art, as a cultural activist in the Association "Stowarzyszenie My”. He is interested in the interdisciplinary translation, thus takes part in the various projects combining music, visual art, theatre, and in the interventions in public spaces.