Review: poet Sasha Dugdale in conversation with Tara Bergin

Anth Graham reviews the poet Sasha Dugdale's live lecture as part of Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts' 'Inside Writing' online poetry festival.

Anth Graham
21st July 2020

As part of the NCLA's Inside Writing Festival, Sasha Dugdale and Tara Bergin deliver a lecture on literary translation during lockdown.

Certain themes protruded in Sasha Dugdale’s experience of translating Poem of the Air by Marina Tsvetaeva: passion, isolation and a looming sense of questionable futility. All of which was spearheaded by the closing statement of the lecture: lockdown provides a landscape of introversion to the point of fragmentation.

Sasha Dugdale | Poetry Foundation
Sasha Dugdale | Credit: Poetry Foundation

Most, if not all, of the lecture was dominated by passion. Tara Bergin opens the discussion by establishing Dugdale’s work and consequent influence. The adage 'translation is impossible' puts into perspective the necessary difficulty of Dugdale’s project. Translation, as Bergin puts it, is essentially a social practice both culturally and linguistically, and is now confined into the walls of lockdown.

Yet there is such adoration for Tsvetaeva that the question of the famously insurmountable task of translating was not the focus of Dugdale’s lecture. Rather, it was the opportunity to expand the potential of English that drove the motivation.

A point made about translation, and perhaps the most important for tackling Tsvetaeva's work, is the difficulty in separating the poet’s biography from the text.

Dugdale urges that Tsvetaeva’s poetry was a celebration of life, despite the poet being widely understood to have experienced a life of bereavement and poverty.

The influence of modernity came from Tsvetaeva’s time in early 20th century Paris as a socialite, away from her home country of Russia. She later returned to Russia, amongst a heavy political climate, and this move led to her suicide. To acknowledge this troubled life is the central danger of influencing the translation. Dugdale even admits that it is unfortunate there is a cultural focus on the author’s life, and that this can imbue with the author's work.

Tsvetaeva’s work is categorised as complex; her strikingly long poetry is linked together thematically by sound, not necessarily by grammar. The true sense of futility in translation is capturing the imagery within the English syntax. A poem about the loss of a lover, and the the spiritual connotations of that loss, could naturally change during the transition. Dugdale describes an almost ‘syntactic contortion’ to iron out the original grammar and crumple it up again for an English audience.

The wide philosophical structure of the lecture leads Dugdale to briefly read the poem in both languages, capturing the simple beauty of the Russian language in its sound and intonation.

Unexpectedly, this lecture focused much more on the philosophy of literary translation rather than pure textual work. It was undoubtedly a pleasure to hear the sheer love of a poet seep through.

The project is still continuing, and can be found on Dugdale’s twitter (@SashaDugdale). You can also find out about the remaining 'Inside Festival' events on their webpage here.

Featured Image: NCLA

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