Poems for International Mother Language Day 2018

We’ve selected eight poems from the pages of Modern Poetry in Translation to mark International Mother Language Day 2018, celebrating linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

We’re focussing on translators that translate into English from their mother tongue, and in many cases, self-translate their own poetry or work ‘between languages’. All the poems featured beneath are available to read online for free – click through the links beneath to see more of their work.

1. Doireann Ní Ghríofa, translating Caitlin Maude

Doireann Ní Ghríofa is an award-winning bilingual poet, writing in English as well as Irish. In her introduction to Caitlin Maude, featured here, she writes, ‘Some time ago, I was invited to give a lecture on Irish language poetry at the Irish Writers’ Centre. As I read, one poem in particular took me by surprise – ‘Aimhréidh’ by Caitlín Maude… I looked out to the audience and noticed that some people were weeping. Maude’s poetry assumes a greater poignancy due to what we know of the poet’s life – that she died of cancer at the age of just 41, leaving bereft a husband, a young son, family and friends, and many admirers of her work.’

bitter undertooth
this cud
which I chew fiercely
this fitting taste of my days

Read ‘Driving the Cattle

2. Hama Tuma

Hama Tuma is an important Ethiopian political activist, poet and writer of satirical articles and short stories, recognised as one of Ethiopia’s greatest satirists. He currently lives in Paris with his wife and daughter. His first collection of stories, The Case of the Socialist Witch Doctor and Other Stories, was published by Heinemann London in 1993. ‘Just a Nobody’ is self-translated and appeared in MPT ‘The Great Flight’

The dead man was no one,
just a man in tattered clothes,
no shoes,
just a coin in his pocket,
no id cards, no bus ticket.

Read ‘Just a Nobody

3. Dunya Mikhail

Dunya Mikhail was born in Iraq and left  for the United States in 1996. Her books include The Iraqi Nights, Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea, and The War Works Hard.

In her introduction to ‘Tablets III’ in MPT, she writes: ‘I’m fascinated by Sumerian clay tablets and by the symbols and images inscribed on them; not only because they were the first recorded communication in history but also because they were poetic by default: they were the metaphors of things and not the things themselves. But they gradually lost their poetic features as they developed into modern languages. The tablets are our Iraqi Haiku, if you will.’

Like the turtle,
I walk everywhere
with my home on my back.

Read ‘Tablets III

4. George Szirtes, translating Kinga Fabó

Georgze Szirtes is an award-winning poet and acclaimed translator from Hungarian, including translations of László Krasznahorkai, winner of the 2015 Man Booker International prize. His translations of Hungarian poet Kinga Fabó were published in MPT ‘Songs of the Shattered Throat’.

In his introduction Szirtes writes, ‘The poems are in effect dialogues with an invisible other, racy in diction, almost chatty but at the same time metaphysical. It is the blend of fury and wit that determine the emotional key but it is the form and rhyme that lend both the sharp, hard-edged, proverbial, almost Villonesque quality I was trying to catch.’

Is it detached or all-forgiving?
We need a passport to get through.
It nods us past in quick succession
Just anyone, no matter who.
I can rely on its detachment
As I move from place to place.

Read ‘The Promiscuous Mirror

5. Shash Trevett

Shash Trevett, now living in York, came to the U.K. from Sri Lanka in 1987 to escape the civil war. For many years she stopped speaking and writing in Tamil, a language which she has now started to re-engage with in her poetry. She writes, ‘I have used both English and Tamil when writing about this case of glottophagy (or ‘linguicide’). It seems inconceivable when writing about the threatened loss of my mother tongue, not to draw on the beauty of its cadences (in Tamil as well as in translation) within my poem.’

And when we dreamed,
our dreams erupted
in அs and இs and உs:
building blocks of a nation
now without a homeland,
a people now without a place.

Read ‘Glottophagy

6. Czesław Miłosz

Recipient of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, Czesław Miłosz is one of the best-known post-war Polish poets, and was also a prolific translator of his contemporaries. The first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation includes several of his poems, self-translated, as well as his translations of Zbigniew Herbert. Readers can explore more of Miłosz’s work on our online archive – in this feature, we’ve selected his short, powerful poem ‘That Which Was Great’, published in the first issue of MPT.

That which was great seemed to be small,
Kingdoms faded like snow-covered brass.

Read ‘That Which Was Great

7. Sampurna Chattarji, translating Monika Kumar

Sampurna Chattarji is a poet, novelist and translator with 14 books to her credit, as well as translator of Monika Kumar. Kumar writes poetry in Punjabi and Hindi, and lectures in English in Govt College for Women Chandigarh, India. 

In her introduction, Chattarji writes, ‘The poems in this selection are symptomatic of her desire to record the world while retreating from it. It is this attention to the momentary – the urge to understand and inscribe, not in order to simplify the ‘mystique or incomprehensibility of the moment’, not even to resolve it, but to be in a conscious state of receptivity, even grace – that animates Monika’s poems.’

Approximations fail me
when I look at a watermelon.
How red it will be
how fleshy
how its meditative eyes would be arrayed inside.

Read ‘On Seeing a Watermelon

8. Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, translating Wojciech Bonowicz

Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese writes between English, Polish and Danish. We’ve chosen a short poetic fable by Wojciech Bonowicz for this feature. MPT ‘Secret Agents of Sense’, which focussed on Polish poetry, included her translations of numerous contemporary Polish poets – including Wojciech Bonowicz, Łukasz Jarosz, Krystyna Miłobędzka and Marcin Świetlicki.

The king decided that his beard had grown way too long, so he called for a barber. But the moment the barber touched the royal beard with his scissors, the beard started to shed golden watches and key rings, buttons and odd photos…

Read ‘Beard