Welcome to our Spring issue. The front section includes a new translation of Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński’s major poem ‘A Trip to Świder’ by Renata Senktas and Christopher Reid, supported by the Polish Cultural Institute. There are Indonesian poetry highlights from this year’s London Book Fair, and Zeina Hashem Beck shares the bilingual form she has invented called the Duet. We are also glad to provide a platform for an urgent feature on Rohingya poetry, assembled by James Byrne, that we believe to be the first in a UK magazine.
Then there is our focus on the languages of the United Kingdom. My idea was that, with the magazine published the same month the UK was committed to leave Europe, this could be our ‘Brexit’ issue. At the time of writing this, however, it is still not clear whether Article 50 will be extended (I have left it to the last moment, but am apparently not the only one). Brexit has, in many ways, been as much about the UK’s relationship with itself as that with Europe. ‘Leave’ rhetoric played into a fantasy of a pure, white Englishness: Churchill, beer and bunting. The question of what the people of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland might want was barely mentioned in Westminster or the media. Since the referendum, nationalist hate crime has risen fourfold. A database of 500 racist attacks, reported soon afterwards in The Independent, included swastikas, dog excrement through letterboxes and gangs prowling the streets demanding passers-by prove they speak English.
But to suggest these islands have ever been monocultural or monolingual is a brazen falsehood. The English language itself is a mixture of Anglo-Saxon brought over in the 5th century with Latin and French – created through waves of immigration, it is so mixed that some scholars have argued it is a kind of creole. It has many radically different local variants, though they are often erased or mocked in a culture uninterested in working-class voices. And English has always co-existed with Celtic languages – Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Irish, Welsh, Manx – on the British-Irish archipelago, despite attempts at suppression (it is a sobering thought that our greatest living Welsh language poet, Menna Elfyn, has twice been to prison as a Welsh language activist.) As far back as the 1500s, Roma Gypsies also brought over the Romani language which is now known to be descended from Indian origins.
I was brought up in Lancashire, where people still spoke dialect: ‘nowt’, ‘eigh up’, ‘mither’. Welsh was often spoken in my husband’s house, and my children, Gruffydd and Catrin, have a Nain and Taid. Now we live in Peckham, and their best friends speak Polish and German at home. I have spent much of the last decade co-translating a poet I believe is one of the UK’s finest, Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, who writes in Somali. Like most people, my lived experience of the United Kingdom is that it is a place of many tongues.
It has been an immense education researching this issue, reading superb anthologies such as Writing the Wind: A Celtic Resurgence (New Native Press, 1997) – kindly mailed to me by one of its editors, Thomas Rain Crowe – and discovering forgotten women’s voices with help from Professor Sarah Prescott and her team at Women’s Poetry in Ireland, Scotland and Wales 1400–1800. I am very pleased this issue includes translations from Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Arabic, Polish, Turkish and BSL, and poems drawing on Jamaican Patois, Scots, Ulster Scots, Shetlandic, Spanish, Angloromani, Black Country Dialect, Portuguese and the fabulous Inklisch of Sophie Herxheimer’s Grandmother. If Brexit has posed the question of who we are, we must listen for answers in all of our languages.
– Clare Pollard
Modern Poetry in Translation gratefully acknowledges the support of the Polish Cultural Institute and Creative Scotland