Farewell and Ahoy: Log of a Voyage, Part 4

15 Aug 2011 in Argyll & the Islands, Showcase, Writing

IAN STEPHEN makes landfall with a group of translators in Crear

THERE is a story of the factor’s boat leaving St Kilda and getting caught in a southerly gale. They run for it on the bare pole and make a landfall at North Rona. You would think they would find hope and shelter on that farmed offshore island.  But the families have not survived. Because rats from a ship have eaten their grain.

THIS is an unusual story, for the West of Scotland. I was able to tell it to Jo Shapcott (poet by trade) and two oceanographers, about to set sail for north of Lewis on Song of the Whale because it’s a story of survival. The carpenter is the hero, like the thrawn Dundonian who helped save the Shackleton expedition. He collected remnants of timber and repaired their vessel so it took them to Stornoway. Memorial services had already been said for that boatload of survivors.

But the catch is that Rona had a name for being a fertile Island. So much so that there were very rarely single births of lambs or calves. And the factor’s wife, in due course, gave birth to a fine set of twins.

Ian Stephen (centre) is flanked by his fellow translators at Crear

Ian Stephen (centre) is flanked by his fellow translators at Crear

Things also seem to come in pairs, here at Crear in Argyll. The study area for our small community of island poets and translators has not one but a brace of Steinway grands. The flamenco guitarist Paco Pena will play here on Saturday before we sound out the results of our discussions and drafting.  It seems an ideal venue for music, with an ultra wide angle view on the Sound of Jura. Though the drilling rainfall is audible on the insulated roof.

But we also see a high pair of golden eagles doing regular flypasts.

We have been for walks, as groups or individuals but really we have been working in a very focused and sustained way. Most of us had a small crisis on day one, when the provisional translations seemed so far from any worthwhile mark. Now there are nods.  It looks likely that we have some ringing language to present here at Crear and on to the Edinburgh Book Festival on Sunday.

So I’d like to continue the log of a voyage into the journey through the geography known to poets from Cyprus, Malta, Majorca, Ireland and Scotland.

Let’s start with a poem from Jenan Selçuk. This is one I took along the searoads of a week or two ago.  Now I’ve heard the poet’s voice and we’ve had a glass and eaten together.


The cadaver gnaws on growing nails

of diminishing days

deeper, deeper

down to the quick.

Outside, winter’s set of false-teeth chatters.

He watches the dripping water


He doesn’t tell anyone that

the tapwater of the city

comes from the sea.


He keeps wondering why he wonders

about things

no-one cares about.


He caresses the dust

of plastic flowers in plastic pots.

Spreads his ointment of healthgiving  herbs

on his balls, before bedtime.


Sailing boats, laden with rain,

slide away into the dark

from the illegal ports of his country.


Orion rises

whirling from side to side

like a semazan with arms wide

to the skies.

Translated by Ian Stephen and Robyn Marsack

Crear, Argyll, Scotland, 2011

I was invited to this workshop by Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library. Through her, I’ve met with Alexandra Buchler, director of Literature Across Frontiers. Robyn’s sneaky photo was sent to me, as a detached view of a part of the process of translations. But Robyn is a respected editor of many years standing.  She couldn’t resist entering the workshop area once the socket-sets were out and the engineering opened for scrutiny.

We seem to have become one team of translators, questioning and hearing the Catalan, Turkish or Maltese. Meanwhile Miriam Gamble, a fine poet, born and reared in Belfast, probes and proposes other lines of language with the Mediterranean poets.

This translation has come a long way in a short period. It has changed from the version sketched fast as a steel sailboat worked through the drizzle in the sound of Shiants. Three people with a compulsion to work language to fine-ness have met and been able to listen to each other’s voices. I know you can skype or text or mail but now I’ve the feeling that the process of translation is well-served by meeting.

Busy translating in Crear (photo Robyn Marsack)

Busy translating in Crear (photo Robyn Marsack)

HAVE you ever found yourself repeating received wisdoms? I caught my own words after they were out of my gob, repeating statements about the general lack of a sense of geography in a majority of citizens of the USA. I’ve never been to the USA.

This week I realised I had only the most vague idea of how the sea-route turns into the Mediterranean. I would not have been able to place the Archipelagoes in order along the way. But there is a large and fairly recent edition of the Times Atlas of the World, here in the oak-floored translators’ retreat, in Crear, Argyll.

I did already have a general sense of the placing of Gigha. That one’s tucked up a bit before or after you clear the demanding Mull, depending on where you’re coming from. I could also see Jura in relation to Islay and have a sense of the short span to Rathlin Island, even if it wasn’t possible to pick out the detail in the cloud that came with bursts of rain. I’ve had to take a bearing and identify these Scottish points in my recent past. But this week was a different breed of voyage.

It was an encounter with a range of languages as well as personalities. Last night we gathered to listen to Catalan; the Cypriot  versions of Turkish; Maltese and the accents of Belfast English and Stornoway English.   The dialogues have been continuing all week and hours have disappeared. We seem to be left with a body of translations which have been negotiated between the poet and the fellow poet who has  rendered it into a new poem in another language.

Usually we’ve worked from literal translations sprinkled with another drawn language of notes and questions. This is an easier track than one which involves threading a faint way through a previous translation. Some poets are trusting and encourage their translator to find a new angle – to pass on the sense and sound and tone of a poem by re-imagining it in a new language. Others want the challenge of seeking equivalents for rhythms and line-lengths and suggestions of meanings.

Let’s go to Malta for a specific example. Miriam Gamble, now a Glasgwegian with a Belfast voice, worked with Adrian Grima to make a new English version from his literal translation of a poem which has a friendship at its heart and a narrative of politics and crossings of one sea. I also worked on the same poem in a separate forum of questioning and suggesting.  We’ll read both our translations tonight, around Adrian’s original.

It seems to me that this situation – a poem in its original language and two very different approaches to making a version in English – might give a strong hint of what this workshop is about.  So here are the versions, with the permission of the poets and translators and Literature Across Frontiers.


The Sea Swell

How do you squeeze all that heart into a thin soul?

The salt burst of the Med is in your eyes.

Silent strife – the hard-headed in a hostile setting.

Your arms are quick to give a hug, Abder,

but you won’t sell out

for the hug, the hamburger or the donut.

But your embrace will close-in on itself

and so will this self-harming sea.


At the end of the day

all the large and small martyrdoms

in Algeria and everywhere else

will not be enough for them

so you’ll need to go

and I’ll have to meet you in France and you

will carry the pistol print in your temple.

You’ll tell me your story in the French tongue

from your other shore of remembered things,

the ones you took into that big heart.

This is not the place for its solid beat

even though you refuse to admit it.


This devious sea has promised you

the planet in the palm of your hand

and you stretch out for it

despite the taunts and the slappings down.

There’s nowhere for it –  that heart of yours.

And even you don’t believe it can

be housed in any other cage


In your eyes there’s the little house by the sea,

the place where you could observe great things

but it’s been occupied by others now

and your place is here

with the sense of weak answering waves

from the shore that’s now the far side.

Adrian Grima, translated Ian Stephen

For  Abder

Why seed your heart

in such inimical soil?

Your eyes are Mediterranean spray,

the mute battle

between tides and a rock-hugging people.


You smile and will not yield:

not for love, not money or bread.

But seas are self-destroying creatures,

and just so, Abder,

so it will be with you in the end.


These martyrdoms

will not suffice.

When we meet, pasts skeined

from our hands,  you will speak

in the cleft tongue of the city,


the city dream its dreams of glass.

There, the house by the sea.

And here, what passes as your destiny:

listening to waves breaking,

breaking on the other side.


Trans. Miriam Gamble

Adrian Grima reads while Ian Stephen looks on (photo courtesy Literature Across Frontiers)

Adrian Grima reads while Ian Stephen looks on (photo courtesy Literature Across Frontiers)

There’s another short example to be quoted in full.  The Majorcan poet Maria Rosa Llabrés offered us a tight memory of one moment in European history, from one Islander’s perspective.  Here is my own translation, devised with Maria Rosa alongside the translation into Turkish Cypriot language by Jenan Selçuk. The texts might give clues to the huge possibilities opened by the challenge of crossing languages and ignoring frontiers.





(A pro-amnesty demonstration)


The sky is grey,

Heavy with lead.

Only the tender boughs

Dare to tear the fog. Grey rows

Occupy the streets.

There is a thick silence,

A premonition of thunder,

And soon, everything  – streets, sky, trees –

Will burst out in grey.





(Genel af yanlısı gösteri)


Gökyüzü gri,

Kurunla aırla mı gibi.

Bir tek a açların dalları

Cüret ediyor sisi delmeye. Gri üniformalılar

i gal etmi sokakları, sıra sıra.

Gök gürültüsünün habercisi

Kalın bir sessizlik kaplamı meydanı,

– Sokaklar, gökyüzü, a açlar –infilak edip

Griye dönü ecek birazdan.


Çeviren Jenan Selçuk

Crear, Scotland, Aug, 2011


Barcelona, 1st February, 1976


The sky is grey,



Only young shoots

dare to tear fog.


Uniform grey lines occupy

the thick silence of the streets.


A premonition of thunder

and soon trees, sky, streets, the lot

will explode grey.


Translated Ian Stephen and Robyn Marsack


The guitarist Paco Pena will arrive in a few hours. Our languages will follow his – but his instrument won’t need any translation. Tomorrow, we’ll travel to Edinburgh to present our completed work at a Book Festival event. And I’d like to sign off then, with one last instalment. It’ s under construction now.



Maria Rosa handed some short prose sketches of fragments from stories and legends. Some of these are now associated with one version by one author – Homer for an example. But it seems to me now that stories are a bit more than stepping-stones in our oceans. Imagery and narrative offer us an easier way to link one mind and another, even though the communicators are operating in a different island language.

Time evaporated as Maria Rosa sat close to Robyn Marsack and myself.  We entered these stories together and made new short versions of them, seeking elegance. Our small team is happy to share them so thanks to the open nature of this forum, we can post them as examples.

© Ian Stephen, 2011