Showing posts with label Teaching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Teaching. Show all posts

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Through Teachers' Eyes: Bringing Asian Poetry into the Classroom

Editor's note: Growing up in Singapore, my high-school literature curriculum as far as I can remember it – consisted of a steady diet of Sophocles and Shakespeare. It was not till much later, rooting through the shelves at libraries and used-book stores, that I encountered many of the tongues and voices of Asian poets for the first time. In this month's poetry column (just in time for World Poetry Day!), we hear from two writers and educators who are working to bring Asian poetry into the classroom. 

Here are Inez Tan and Ann Ang, on the Asian poems they love teaching. 

Left to Right: Inez Tan, E.J. Koh, Ann Ang, and Toeti Heraty

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INEZ TAN on E. J. KOH 

Saying “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” is a boring dead end. Here’s what I propose instead: “Poetry is what gets made in translation.”

Enter “BeyoncĂ©’s Single Ladies English to English Translation” by E. J. Koh – singing, dancing, and completely redefining what ‘translation’ meant to me. I vividly remember reading that title and feeling explosions going off in my brain. Who knew you could ‘translate’ English to English, pop song to poem, meaning to other meanings? But then again, why not? In poetry, we’re often taking emotions, experiences, beliefs, hopes – in short, every kind of ineffable thing! – and putting them into words. Isn’t that a kind of translation?

In Koh’s poem, ‘translation’ involves inviting in new associations and figurative meanings. The romantic language of “I’m the one you own,” translated to “president of your body,” now expands to interrogate darker ideas of political ownership. Even so, you can still hear the original in there. And best of all, you can hear it in new ways.

The etymology of the word translate is the Latin translatus, meaning to to bring or carry over, across, and beyond. E.J. Koh’s relationship to English, Korean, and Japanese has everything to do her efforts to carry over a transnational family history, with all its complexities of pain, shame, and difficult love. But Koh’s background also includes hip-hop dance, political science, and Dante’s Inferno, all of which went into her poetry. Translation’ then, is also a way we draw on our whole selves – every part of who we are and what we know – in order to write from that entirety.

At the start of my poetry classes, I ask my students what languages they speak, and I make the case that their linguistic background is a real resource for their writing. At that point, they don’t buy it. Although my students at the University of California, Irvine are incredibly multilingual, they usually describe themselves in terms of deficiency: they speak some rusty Spanish or Vietnamese at home, they took some high school French but they’ve forgotten most of it, English is their second language so they’re not as fluent as a native speaker… A few weeks later, we read Koh’s poem, and I ask them again what “languages” they know, inviting them to think about that concept very broadly. And suddenly the floodgates open, and their answers are incredible: love languages (like touch or acts of service), painting, computer programming, screenwriting, Voguing, retail, memes, puns, gothic horror… They have the same revelation I had from Koh’s poem – wait, this thing I know, this can be part of my voice? This experience I’ve had is something I can claim? This, too, is something I can include in my poetry?

Of course there will always be a place for translations that aim to render a text accurately in another language, striving to faithfully reproduce the original content, form, and register. But Koh’s poem taught me that there is also room for the many other acts translation can comprise – connecting, resonating, revealing, discovering. And it’s pure joy to see how many possibilities open up when students recognize that these are all things they can do in their own writing, too. When my students finally try their hand at “translating” an English poem into another English poem, I am always amazed at how their writing sounds. It sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before.


BeyoncĂ©’s Single Ladies English to English Translation
by E. J. Koh

All the big beautiful women, bondage women,
divorced women, bisexual, transgender women.
All drug-free, gay, non-religious, Latter Day Saints,
social drinker, straight, widowed-with-kids women.

Look at the blue ceiling.
Dance because the ghost is gone.
Your husk was brutalized. It’s gone too.
You’ve left the bear, the torpedo, the poodle moth.
There is someone else now.

The man is an almond in a bloom.
Don’t touch his childhood.
3 years is not like a straw, it’s a house.
Find liberty somewhere else.

You didn’t marry the bear.
You didn’t marry the torpedo.
You didn’t marry the poodle moth.
There was no ring for you.
There will be someone else now.

Remember the blue light.
Remember the man.
You can hear him thinking
until he forgets who you are.
Call him the president of your body,
then show him how it must be
to be a president without country.

First published in 'A Lesser Love' (Pleiades Press, 2017); reproduced with the author's permission. 

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ANN ANG on TOETI HERATY

Pronouns are powerful. In a poem, “I” signals to readers and listeners that the speaker is present, whereas “You” immediately establishes a mode of address, filling the page with the charged energies of a distinctive relationship between addresser and addressee; between a speaker and an intended audience. Depending on the poem being discussed, the mode of address can be very revealing of attitudes towards self-and-other, especially when we further consider cultural attitudes towards naming and interaction in various Asian contexts.

In a recent online workshop on the anthology Poetry Moves, a cross-cultural educational resource for young people, participants and I enjoyed discussing an Indonesian poem, “Two Women”, by Toeti Heraty, in its English translation from the Bahasa. As the title suggests, the poem is about friendship between women, who are neighbours and the text delves into the shadowy undercurrents that belie everyday courtesies.

I wanted my participants to understand the various modes of address at play in the poem, as the speaker switches from talking to her neighbour to her internal thoughts, and to a third-person perspective that is more descriptive of the appearance of the living room. Together, we read a voice-script, which is a re-creation of the poem as a script where the lines are identified as spoken by different characters, or a narrator, complete with stage directions:

Woman A: Please — please come in.

Narrator: Easy smile, pregnant with meanings — masks on the back wall —

Woman A: this is an open house, my heart is open

Narrator: see all the flowers on the table

Woman A (to Woman B): — the phone is ringing, just unplug it — spacious and pleasant, here we can sit in peace beside the children playing on the floor

Woman A (to herself??) take off your armour, life's paraphernalia

Narrator: — the chaos of the city lies outside the fence —

With the poem and voice-script side-by-side, we could see how Woman A in fact has two faces, the everyday one that she presents to Woman B, and an inner voice that expresses a conflicting wish for a more sincere friendship amidst the busy-ness of motherhood. The humour of her excessive hospitality --“the phone is ringing, just unplug it” -- is also heightened in the voice-script. By going between the original text, and this dramatized version, we could better appreciate the complexity of Woman A’s position as expressed through the shifting modes of address. While I composed and provided the voice-script as a companion text, participants could also write their own version of a voice-script, which might throw up some interesting variations on the original poem.

Though we did not have the time to explore questions of translation in the workshop, as a further activity, one could also consider how pronouns, and by extension, modes of address are translated across languages. For instance, in Heraty’s original Bahasa poem, the phrase “this is an open house, my heart is open” is translated from “rumah ini rumah terbuka terbuka hatiku”. In the Bahasa, “my” is indicated by the suffix “-ku”, which leads us to question further if the customary courtesy of “terbuka terbuka hatiku” is truly addressed from Woman A’s heart. The last line in Bahasa “dua wanita bicara” carries undertones of negotiation in the verb “bicara” that “talk” does not quite convey. If these interlingual considerations could inflect the voice scripts that the class creates as a para-text, modes of address would be excitingly unpacked both as poetic technique and as cross-cultural learning.


Two Women by Toeti Heraty (trans. Ulrich Kratz, with Carole Satyamurti) Please — please come in. Easy smile, pregnant with meanings — masks on the back wall — this is an open house, my heart is open see all the flowers on the table — the phone is ringing, just unplug it — spacious and pleasant, here we can sit in peace beside the children playing on the floor take off your armour, life's paraphernalia — the chaos of the city lies outside the fence — here there is space, ease, refreshments on the table and we can be open with each other, entrust ourselves to words your life, my life in bright colours against an ashen backdrop, specks of black and crimson brushed off our clothes a fragrant mist enveloping the stage as coloured sparks circle, glittering words, reflections, are displayed on the table between the cups, car keys the good intentions that have come to nothing — the chaos of the city lies outside the fence — plans to chase up an hour, a day, the essence of life squeezed for an instant… Ah, this charade has been going on far too long whenever two women talk.

This translation first appears on the website of the Poetry Translation Centre, where you can also read the original poem. Reproduced with the Centre's permission.    


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Inez Tan is the author of This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone: Stories, which was a national bestseller. She teaches creative writing at the University of California, Irvine.

E. J. Koh is author of the memoir The Magical Language of Others, winner of the Pacific Northwest Book Award, and the poetry collection A Lesser Love, winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize in Poetry.

Ann Ang is the author of Bang My Car, a Singlish-English collection of short stories, as well as the editor of Poetry Moves, Food Republic and PR&TA journal. Ann is currently reading for a DPhil in English at the University of Oxford. 

Toeti Heraty was born in 1933. An outstanding Indonesian poet with a powerful vision, she is also a philosopher, an art historian and a human rights activist who is well known for her opposition to the Suharto regime and for her feminism. (Bio and photograph from the Poetry Translation Centre).