Verfreundungseffekt: Is Love Enough? Versioning, Translating & Self-Translating Maltese Poetry

Having come across one another’s work on The Quietus, British-Maltese writers Jen Calleja and James Vella worked together to create versions of two poems by celebrated Maltese poet Adrian Grima using literal translations. But should ‘versioning’ be considered translating? And can Maltese poets do without English translators altogether? (Portrait of Adrian Grima by Richard Phœnix)

I’m keeping this column very much in the family this month, maybe Christmas has got me feeling sentimental…

My dad arrived in England from Malta in 1974. My brother and I are half-Maltese – our mum’s English – but we weren’t brought up speaking the language. People still get confused when I say I translate German literature when I look ‘kind of Spanish’, ‘a bit Greek’, ‘bonjour mademoiselle!’, ‘Italiano?’, ‘definitely Turkish’. Of course, Maltese has been around us our whole lives: whenever my dad talks with our uncle or our grandad, who both moved here a couple of years before he did, or our godfather back in Malta on the phone, it feels familiar; we can decipher pleasantries or anecdotes from the rhythm of speech. I understand certain things and can pronounce Maltese words without knowing how. I’m completely used to being called or referred to as hanini (which the Urban Dictionary defines as “a Maltese term of endearment used to describe someone so cute it’s unbelievable.” Ahem.)

Malta is a tiny island between Sicily and North Africa that has a fascinating history, and an especially important colonial history due to its prime position in the Mediterranean. It was colonised by the British in 1814, having previously been occupied by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Fatimids, the Arabs, the Spanish, the Sicilians, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and the French, among others. The island itself has been a treasure to barter with, a site of religious wars, and many of its people were enslaved, with the entire population of the Maltese island of Gozo (around 5,000 people) being taken as slaves to what is now Libya in the 16th century. Its strategic position was vital during the Second World War for the Allied Forces and in 1942 the Maltese people were awarded the George Cross for their bravery during the second Siege of Malta.

It gained independence from Britain in 1964 but English is still one of its two official languages; up to 90% of Maltese people speak English and nearly 40% are fluent in Italian. The language itself originates from an Arabic dialect once spoken in Sicily, with all of its occupiers proceeding to either forcefully or naturally influence it and it is the only official language of the EU that is a Semitic language. There are just under half a million native Maltese speakers in the world, which live a unique, multilingual existence. The Maltese poet Antoine Cassar, author of an open borders literary campaign called Passaport Project, is exemplary of this multiplicity and is renowned for writing poems that include four or more languages.

It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve had a bit of a crisis when it comes to my Maltese heritage. I can’t speak my family’s language beyond ‘how are you?, please, thank you very much’: ‘Kif inti?’, ‘Jekk jogħġbok’, ‘Grazzi ħafna’. But I’ve started teaching myself the same way I taught myself German: through books, literature and keeping my curiosity engaged by reading up about everything Maltese. Polyglot twins Matthew and Michael Youlden learnt it in a week, so maybe there’s hope.

Back in December 2013, The Quietus published two of my poems. Two months later, they published a short story by James Vella. Vella and Calleja suddenly appeared together on the same page and compelled us to message each other, almost at the same time, in a kind of excited frenzy to query: Maltese? I always find it exciting to meet British-Maltese people, just because there aren’t that many of us, and even more so another writer.

I immediately thought about a collaboration. I put forward the idea of co-translating something to enter for The Stephen Spender Prize, a competition for poetry translation, as a motivation and deadline. We didn’t get selected, so I wanted to showcase our work and process on the platform where we effectively ‘met’.

Much of James’ family still lives in Malta and he’s spent a lot of time there, but he grew up in England, like me. He says of his Maltese language skills that they’re ‘fairly shallow’ from never having lived in Malta and almost exclusively speaking English with his family, but he’s definitely in a better position than I am.

James got involved with the Maltese literary scene via his uncle who used to have a bookstore in the capital Valletta and who gave Adrian Grima, renowned poet and professor of Maltese literature at the University of Malta, a copy of his first fiction book Devourings. “Malta has considerably influenced my work” James explains, “and much of Devourings is set in Malta, and some of the pieces that are not are informed by it.”

“Adrian’s poetry is beautiful. I find it much easier to read the English translations than the Maltese originals, but his very pure and vivid imagery comes through even so. I also like Trevor Zahra very much. He’s a literary institution in Malta – something like 14 consecutive national literature prizes – but there is a reason. One of the finest storytellers I’ve ever read. He and I have plans to translate each other’s work in the future. Nadia Mifsud and Clare Azzopardi are fantastic too.”

He and Adrian began emailing and met on his trips to Malta, sharing their work back and forth. Eventually he invited James to read at this year’s Mediterranean Literature Festival in Valletta, where he met Maltese poets and writers, many of whom he had read but never met.

As James was already in contact with Adrian and a big admirer of his work, we asked Adrian for two of his poems. I asked my dad – Peter Calleja – who doesn’t read poetry (“can’t make head or tail of it”) to translate the two poems and point out any difficulties and multiplicities. James asked his Maltese tutor Annabelle Galea to do the same, and James also attempted his own translation. What we got were three similar but quite different translations of the poems. We met at James’ flat in Brighton to go over the three versions of each poem to get as close a reading as we could and (with a call to James’ dad about a particularly tricky line in the middle) we wrote our versions of the poems. Here they are with the original poems.

Dit-Tagħbija Barranija

Lanqas taħt id-doċċa ma jeħfief dal-piż.

Il-misħun jaħbat ’l hawn u ’l hinn bla kwiet

imma dahri jibqa’ maqbud

ġo did-diqa trasparenti.

Dirgħajja ma jintelqux,

lanqas ma’ ġenbejja,

u ndur ġo dal-kwadru nkejjuż

qisni tapp tas-sufra dieħel lura f’postu.

Nistenna l-misħun dejjem ġej

imma dit-tagħbija barranija ma trid teħfief b’xejn.

Listen to Adrian Grima read the poem in Maltese.

Dead Weight

Even under the shower the burden is not eased.

The hot water falls about me ceaselessly

but my back is still tight

from the invisible pressure.

My arms feel stiff,

even at my sides,

and I twist in this taunting box

like a cork returning to its position.

I am poised under the endless water

but this unfamiliar load doesn’t want to let up.

Ħofor Suwed

Mara li taqra x-xorti,

għidli jekk hemmx biżżejjed riżq fil-pala t’idi.

Għax jekk m’hemmx,

naqleb il-mejda bik b’kollox,

u naqbad l-ewwel ajruplan lejn il-ħofor suwed

li ma jinħbewx wara l-ħżuż ta’ jdejna.

Listen to Adrian Grima read the poem in Maltese.

Black Holes

Fortune teller,

tell me I’ve got a good hand.

Because if I don’t,

I’ll overturn the table, you and all,

and I’ll take the first plane to black holes

not concealed behind the scrawls on our palms.

Poems by Adrian Grima, from Hawn Jidħol il-Gawwi (Klabb Kotba Maltin, Valletta, 2006)

Instead of keeping the title as a version of ‘This Unfamiliar Load’ for ‘Dead Weight’ we wanted to accentuate the tone we found; one of sadness at aging and how one might describe their body during an existential crisis; the body beginning to betray and belie its owner. It’s sharper, more definite and less abstract. Originally we had ‘foreign cargo’ but I had the realisation that the word ‘barranija’ could be like the German word ‘Fremd’ in that it can mean ‘foreign’, ‘alien’ or ‘unfamiliar’, which it was. We thought about how showers usually bring comfort, but here water brings no relief. The water ‘falls about…ceaselessly’ almost like bombs, hailstones, a collapsing house. The closed space of the shower becomes coffin-like, death laughing nearby. We kept the repetitions – ‘even’/‘lanqas’, ‘but’/‘imma’ but added ‘I am’ before ‘poised’/’Nistenna’ in the penultimate line, mirroring ‘to its position’. The final line actually stumped everyone (waiting for/expecting endless water?), but I found that ‘Nistenna’ should have been more like ‘remain’ via translating it into German, hence ‘poised’ is perfect.

We read ‘Black Holes’ as a comment on the uncertainty and frustration surrounding mysticism or religion. Pre-independence Maltese poetry can be seen to have focused on a religious and nationalistic foundation. ‘Woman who reads fortunes’ (‘xorti’ can be many different things, including luck, wealth, prosperity) sounded a little quaint and problematic for a contemporary Maltese poem coming into English. We didn’t want the reader to get a dated feel and the address of ‘Fortune teller’ grabs the reader’s attention, as if they were being talked to directly. The second line could have been something like ‘Tell me if there’s not enough luck in my palm/in the palm of my hand’, but we wanted to be daring and not repeat ‘fortune’ or another word for ‘luck’ and make an analogy to a card game, a game of chance. The poem is more aggressive and direct in a way, making the second line more of a dare and less of a plea. The end rhymes have been refashioned as half-rhymes (all, holes, palms) and repetitions (teller/tell me) and the second and third lines have been condensed to keep it snappy, like a flipped table.

Now, here is where I bring up that versioning is historically considered quite a problematic practice, and some would not consider it translation at all. At its best it’s a close reading and study of the original poem by a writer, hopefully in side-by-side collaboration with a native speaker the author can communicate well with or ideally with the author themselves. Arguably versioning is a practice reserved for when a literary translator isn’t available or perhaps doesn’t actually exist who can bridge both languages. At worst, it has and can be done by colonisers or writers from major languages mangling minor literatures for sport and without care from a position of imbedded prejudice, power and authority.

The Vietnamese-born American writer Linh Dinh recently rallied against the kind of blockbuster-author versions or ‘retellings’ by prominent writers in dominant languages (Ezra Pound’s now controversial free verse translations of Chinese and Egyptian poets for instance, even to an extent Ali Smith’s recent The Story of Antigone and Simon Armitage’s Homer’s Odyssey) as dishonest and disrespectful and not translations. In passing, Adam Thirlwell’s Multiples – much like the game of Chinese whispers in one of my previous columns – is a collection of ‘translations’ by writers who don’t always have a competent grasp of the language they’re translating. ‘Featuring a stellar line up of international authors’ the collection is ‘wilfully inventive’ and is self-pronounced ‘pure literary entertainment’. As a book of writing it is aimed at being delightful and celebrating inspiration and writing, but it is arguably a superficial engagement on a linguistic level with a foreign culture, language and story.

Versioning can also uphold myths around literary translators and literary translation too. For example, at the recent International Translation Day conference at The British Library, a panellist said that in order to get the best possible literary translations, a translator could work with a ‘real’ writer. Where does it leave literary translators if they are not considered or trusted to be the best writer for the job, but a monolingual writer can say they are a ‘poet and translator’?

Though James and I aren’t in any way ‘blockbuster’ writers, by bringing Adrian’s poems into English – a dominant language – we are, however, in a position of power and responsibility. We believe that we worked extremely closely with the translations and the original text in a conscious manner, and that we did this to get closer to and share a part of our identities we don’t often get to express. It was from a deep admiration and respect for this both familiar and still strange language and the poems themselves.

But what does Adrian think of our ‘translations’ and the practice of versioning in general?

Interview with Adrian Grima

What did you make of James and I’s ‘translations’/’versions’ of your poems?

Adrian Grima: I do a lot of my reading in English, but I can’t tell if a poem works well for a native English speaker or not. I can’t tell when a translation doesn’t sound good, even though it may be a correct or even interesting translation. I only have a feeling for Maltese literature, I suppose. I can see the layers of tradition, I can hear the literary allusions, I can read Maltese literature with ease and play with the sounds and silences. But when it comes to literary writing in English or other languages, I don’t see myself as a good judge.

I loved the comments you and James wrote about your translations of my two poems. I found them fascinating not only because they are close readings of the originals but also because they are about translation, the often maligned and rarely appreciated art of translation. I can’t tell whether they sound right in English, whether they sound almost as if they were originally written in English, but I found the play of fidelity to the original and creative distance from it inspiring – like when you talk about condensing the second and third lines of ‘Black Holes’ to make the poem "snappy, like a flipped table." I have to say that I hadn’t thought about age when I wrote ‘Dit-Tagħbija Barranija,’ but I’m sure it’s there if such a close reading of the poem led you to see it.

I was involved in the translation of my first book of poems into English in the 1990s. That didn’t work well and I haven’t done anything like that again. What I have done is provided annotated literal translations of my poems. They were the taken up by an English language poet and reworked into poetry. It was fascinating to see how that happened, and how many versions were put to the test. But I couldn’t do any of that myself. Doing the intermediary or bridge translations is fun though, because there I’m very much on home ground, testing my knowledge, understanding, feeling for the original Maltese texts. So I enjoyed doing the initial translations for Maurice Riordan’s English versions of Immanuel Mifsud’s poems in Confidential Reports, for instance.

What are your views on translation, versioning and self-translation?

AG: I think one should always show great respect to the word and spirit of the original but the translation has to work in the target language, and even more importantly, in the target literature. It’s not only about translating into another language: it’s about placing that work into another literary tradition. That’s the tough part, the exciting part.

I think my friend the Northern Irish poet Miriam Gamble produced a fascinating version of a very “Maltese” poem of mine called ‘Andrew Jħebb in-Nar.’ This became ‘Andrew Dreams of Catherine Wheels’ and was published in her collection Pirate Music (Bloodaxe, 2014). The change in title is significant and gives an indication of how Miriam rewrote my poem, respecting however, I feel, the spirit of the original. In the Maltese title, there’s a double meaning: Andrew Loves/Assaults Fireworks, and the meaning ‘loves’ comes from a dialectal variant. The English title refers to what happens in the poem: it goes to the very core. Miriam’s version is shorter, leaner, tighter perhaps. It has lost some elements from the original but it has also given it something new. And I love that.

When I read in other countries I have no real idea what the audience is hearing, what is being conjured in their mind, what feelings the works provoke. What I can say is what people in the audience tell me after the reading. I know that the English versions in the book Deciphered Lips and the French translations in my collection Ici arrivent les mouettes both work very well, in spite of the fact that the translation processes were very different. The French translations by Elizabeth Grech, who has been living and working in Paris for many years, were made from the Maltese originals. Elizabeth does most of her reading in French but she has also kept very much in touch with the Maltese language and literature. I couldn’t be luckier. People are moved by her translations.

Have you translated writers yourself?

AG: I have done a few translations myself, but not as many as I would have liked to. My book of poems for adolescents, Vleġġa Kkargata, includes some translations of poems written by friends of mine writing in French, Italian, Catalan, and Icelandic. With the latter two languages I discussed the poems at length with their authors and used literal English translations to start with. I wanted these translations in my book because they can encourage readers to look at other literatures and cultures and because they always tease something new out of Maltese and its literature.

Could you tell us a little about your career as a poet and lecturer?

AG: I suppose I’m one of those lucky people who, while having a passion for writing literature, are also happy to teach and do research about literature to earn a living. Some writers want to have nothing to do with literature in the rest of their life. The brilliant Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa believes that writers should dedicate themselves wholly to writing. And nothing else.

I’m happy to both lecture about literature and write creatively myself. However, I’m wary of thinking that life “out there” is all about literature. I make it a point to regularly step outside of myself to try to see things from completely different perspectives. It’s something I need to do anyway as a writer.

What festivals, projects and events have you attended outside of Malta?

AG: I’ve read at literature festivals and literary events in all continents. As a lecturer I take part in academic conferences in many parts of the world, and sometimes we do poetry readings at conferences too – to get away from the intellectual exercises of academia that can dampen our relationship with literature.

Literary events can be great human experiences. The International Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicaragua, in 2014 was an extraordinary experience because it made me rethink my understanding of the relationship between poetry and society. Literally thousands of people take part in the festival because poetry has deep roots in Nicaragua. It is intimately tied to their recent history but it is also very much part of their culture. Perhaps it’s like this in much of Latin America.

In Makassar, Indonesia, it was the massive participation of youth in all events that made me think about my responsibility towards poetry and its readers. My poems allowed me to engage with people in very enriching ways. The festival Days of Poetry and Wine in Ptuj in Slovenia also struck me because of the way it is weaved into the local community and because we read to large audiences that are passionate about poetry. However, I treasure all my readings abroad, for many different reasons. Lodève, Sète, Melbourne, Belfast, Budapest, Paris, Cairo, Casablanca, Algiers, Berlin… Engaging with people through words and silences, through image and rhythm inevitably brings home the essence of our deep and fragile humanity.

Who or what excites you most about the Maltese literary scene?

AG: So many things have happened in the Maltese literary scene in the past twenty years or so, since the mid-90s. So much that is notable has been published by our “cosmopolitan generation,” as I like to call it, that it’s impossible to essentialise. What I can say, however, is that when I started out there were hardly any women writers. Inizjamed, a voluntary cultural organization focusing on literature which I co-founded in 1998, has contributed massively to allow young women to write and promote their work. Many of the key figures in Inizjamed over the years have been women: Maria Grech Ganado, Simone Inguanez, Clare Azzopardi, Claudia Gauci, Nadia Mifsud… they’re a great inspiration to all of us. And there are already a number of younger, very talented writers, ready to break into the scene.

This is a generation of authors who are constantly seeking to break new ground. In a way we have no choice, because so much that is noteworthy is being published around us that we cannot afford to retreat into our comfort zone.

Another important phenomenon is that a lot of writing (and reading) in Maltese is now happening outside Malta. Maltese writers living in the UK, France, Brussels, Luxembourg, Jordan, Australia are producing literature that speaks to both Maltese and international audiences. And so are those of us who are based in Malta. It’s something of a sea change, I suppose. There’s so much being done but there’s also so much more that is impatiently waiting to happen.

You’ve just been working on a review of a book of English translations of poems by the unrivalled modernist poet Daniel Massa. What can you tell us about him?

AG: Daniel Massa’s first complete, and I suppose definitive collection of poems in English comes 50 years after he published his first poems in Maltese and immediately established himself as one of the richest, deepest voices of Modernist Maltese poetry. Over the years he has published in anthologies his own free English versions of some of his now classic poems in Maltese, but Barefoot in the Saltpans (Malta: Allied, 2015) is a carefully constructed organic whole that takes the reader into Massa’s alternative “republic” of the Mediterranean sea and coast.

Unlike much of Maltese literature, which is in awe of the sea while it observes it from a distance, Daniel Massa’s poetry is often written from within the sea, from its depths. Jim Crace describes it in the introduction as “wind-blown, salty, sun-kissed and unambiguously Mediterranean.” The rhythms are seductive and the free unpredictable internal rhymes semantically significant. Massa revisits his key images in various poems and slowly builds an unmistakable and irresistible visual tempo.

Do you feel there is an international interest in Maltese poetry and writers?

AG: Definitely, especially contemporary literature. Wherever we read our work, audiences are fascinated by the sounds and echoes of Arabic, Italian and English in Maltese and by the rhythms of our literature. It’s crucial for us to make available as many good translations of our literature in as many languages as possible. But what is also crucial is to allow audiences to actually listen to Maltese literature.

I think we need to see our literature in the context of what is being written in the Mediterranean, and to be aware of this immense heritage even when we write it – something Daniel Massa has done so effectively. But the Mediterranean is not only about heritage: it’s about today, about how the Mediterranean is a miniature of the complex, interrelated, profoundly unjust world we live in. Maltese literature is also literature from the Mediterranean: not some kind of elusive, essentialist breed of writing, but a literature that engages with an ever-changing, dramatically fragile world, both around us and within.

Adrian Grima teaches Maltese literature at the University of Malta. He has written and edited a number of academic works in Maltese, English and Italian, and has published poetry collections and short stories in Maltese for both adults and adolescents. His work has been translated into 16 languages.

James Vella is an emerging British-Maltese writer living and working in Brighton, UK. His debut short story collection Devourings was published in 2014 by Wounded Wolf Press, and was followed in Autumn 2015 by a shorter fiction collection named Devoured Further, which was serialized into audio readings and published by literary magazine Open Pen. His most recent publication is a short story entitled Feliz Natal, written for Norway’s Julegaven collection, a charitable project in aid of Syrian war orphans. He is currently writing his debut novel.

Jen Calleja is a writer, literary translator and musician based in London. Her short fiction, poetry, articles and reviews have been published by The Quietus, Structo, Huck and Modern Poetry in Translation, and she has translated prose and poetry from German for Bloomsbury, PEN International and the Goethe-Institut. She edits the Anglo-German arts journal Verfreundungseffekt. She plays in the bands Sauna Youth, Feature and Monotony.

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