I have a map of Europe, drawn from memory by the artist Emma Kay. Finland appears disproportionately large, and Hull is north of Newcastle. It’s a witty comment on how our inner views of the world do not coincide; how, in order to communicate at all, we must reveal those inner worlds, compare them, and seek translation.
When I went to university, I crossed a border between Scotland and England that has a certain linguistic consequence. I didn’t understand this, until, uttering what to me was normal English, ‘I’m away the messages,’ I encountered blank stares. ‘I am going to buy some shopping’ was, apparently, what I was trying to say, and I then tried so hard that my friends in Dundee were astonished by my new, English, accent.
As a poet, you both travel and translate. You may find yourself in the Uighur-speaking far west of China, trying to say ‘Thank you’ (Rahmat) to an audience; or in a taxi in the Balkans trying to find out how far to your destination (Koliko?). You find yourself trying to translate Chinese with a poet saturated in millennia of cultural references. Or working with an expert on a poem in Somali, the language they say makes Arabic look like Esperanto.
What happens when you try to speak, to understand, to read, to translate a phrase into what you think is English, is the same thing that enables us to talk to anyone. You must engage with the fact that what is exotic to you is utterly familiar to the speaker. You must listen to your own preconceptions, those cultural constructs you weren’t aware of constructing. You must seek the familiar in the other, and the exotic in yourself.
Fundamentally, we are all translators, and the act of translation is a flashpoint of partial understanding, or mutual incomprehension. There is no perfect translation, just as there is no perfect translator – or perfect source. There is, instead, the glorious muddle of being alive to confusion and empathy and contact. To translate, in a world that rages to establish one way of talking, one way of thinking, is to be that most perfectly imperfect thing: human.