Thursday, February 04, 2016

An Evening with the Woodberry Translation Group brings the poetry of Paul Celan, Alda Merini and others to the Hastings Room Reading Series

Woodberry Poetry Room--Harvard University
The Hastings Room Reading Series is holding its first event for 2016 on Wednesday the 10th of February at 7:00pm, at First Church Congregationalist, 11 Garden Street in Cambridge. It’s a different kind of reading than we’ve had before. Instead of featuring a reader, we’re having a Poetry in Translation evening with members of the Woodberry Translation Group. The group takes its name from the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, which is where the group met until this year. It is an ad hoc group of translators that has over time included many languages including, Czech, Yiddish, Korean, Turkish, French, Russian, Spanish, German, Italian, Medieval Latin, and 9th century Chinese. They meet most Monday afternoons and help each other out with translations, most especially with the English, since none of them knows all the languages represented and all must create idiomatic English poem translations. They eagerly welcome new participants and new languages.

One of the group’s members, Mary Buchinger, has graciously undertaken to organize the reading for us. Mary read her own poetry for our series with George Kalogeris at the Franz Wright reading in November of 2014. She does some truly amazing things in her own writing. She published her second book of poems Aerialist last year, which attracted some brilliant reviews and praise. Susan Donnelly wrote that “Buchinger maintains [a] metaphysical balance…with poems both airy and grounded, introspective and outward-looking.” That seems to evoke the essence of poetry in the amplitude of its reaches.

Her lineup for this coming Wednesday looks very promising, including translations of the German poets Paul Celan and Karoline von Günderrode, the Italian poet Alda Merini, the Turkish poet Edip Cansever, and the Yiddish poets Kadya Molodowsky and Malka Heifetz Tussman.

Our great hope is to interest people in coming out to enjoy the poets reading before an audience. This event fits the bill to mark an auspicious beginning to our third year. With space to improvise special readings, The Hastings Room Series is scheduled quarterly. Due to ample intervals between events, there’s not a lot of intentional planning in the way of transitions from one reading to the next. Yet there’s an uncanny continuity to this Translation reading, following last autumn’s reading by David Ferry, well known and admired for his translations of the great Latin poets Horace and Virgil. The Woodberry Translation Group reading also makes an apt announcement to our projected spring segment, a memorial reading to honor the late Pulitzer Prize poet Franz Wright. That is to take place on May 11th. People will remember that Franz himself did significant translations of Rilke, René Char and others. Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright has also distinguished herself as a translator, notably of the German-Turkish poets Zafer Șenocak and Zehra Çιrak. So though these things haven’t been planned in the least, a spirit of interrelation between the readings it seems has been at work.

The list of poets who will be reading their translations is impressive. There will be Tufts emerita German professor Monika Totten, widely published  poet and author Adnan Adam Onart, and Gwendolyn Jensen who has wonderfully translated the Italian of Alda Merini. Kathryn Hellerstein, a professor and translator of Yiddish and German and recipient of the 2014 Barabara Dobkin Award for Women’s Studies, will be joining us also with Margaret Guillemin who has published a bilingual edition of Paul Celan’s Last Poems.

Although poetry would appear to be a very solitary, individual art for writer and for reader, its concentrated oddness ever challenges the status quo in our minds. That is why so many people from other areas, science, history, economics…benefit from reading poetry. It offers something different and questioning about the things we see, find, hold dear and take on with difficulty. There’s always the thing that really happens. Then there’s how that thing is expressed, determining what we feel and understand about what goes on. Gathering different perspectives is so important for us to have a range of possibilities in how we think about our world’s wonders and dangers, as well as in how we revisit those commonest of things that tend to hide in plain sight. When you take it one step further, to translating or reading translations of this otherness of mind, from other languages, you get this feeling of wonder, a possible grace where there had been none. It was expressed so admirably by Keats in his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

    Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
         That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
         Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
    Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold…

Elsewhere Keats told us,

    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

And all ye need to find your way and be welcomed to the Woodberry Translation Group reading Wednesday evening in the Hastings Room.

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