Reel Iraq poetry translation workshop

  • Ryan Van Winkle and Dan Gorman from Reel Festivals
  • Poets at Work - John Glenday and Sabreen Khadhim
  • Poets at play
  • At the workshop
  • Poets on the bus
  • Scottish poets (William Letford and John Glenday) arrive in Iraq
  • Translation...?
  • Jen Hadfield and Zaher Mousa at 'Found in Translation: Poetry from and for Iraq, in collaboration with Maintenant' (Photograph: Michael Brydon/Reel Festivals)
  • Awezan Nouri at 'Found in Translation- Poetry from and for Iraq, in collaboration with Maintenant' (Photograph- Michael Brydon/Reel Festivals)

In January 2013, ahead of Reel Iraq festival of arts in the UK, a group of Scottish poets met with Iraqi poets in northern Iraq for a translation workshop and performance at the Erbil Festival of Literature. The Iraqi poets then visited the UK in March 2013 to perform at the Reel Iraq festival. The Reel Festivals website has a series of blogs and photos from the workshop.

Here poet and workshop leader Ryan Van Winkle tells us how the workshop went:

“Making translations, like making poems, is not a science. You hope that by choosing interesting poets and affording them the right, peaceful, atmosphere – you will be rewarded by a rich harvest. However, as with anything artistic, there is always a risk of failure. With that in mind, Reel Festivals brought four Scottish poets to the mountains of Kurdistan in order to work with their four Iraqi counterparts. Some such as Jen Hadfield or John Glenday already have an established and lauded career. Some, like Krystelle Bamford and William Letford are obviously on the rise. Likewise, Ghareeb Iskandar and Awezan Nouri are respected and well published in their region while Sabreen Khadim and Zahir Mousa are younger but building solid reputations as engaging new poets.

Most had not done translations before and had no idea how rare and powerful an experience it would be. In order for the poet to create a translation we had commissioned ‘bridge’ translations in rough English, Arabic and Kurdish. However, the best resource for a strong translation was the presence of the author who broke down the images and ideas of each poem line by line and word by word. Each poem would, of course, throw up unique problems – what is an aphrodisiac vegetable, how can you say ‘no fucking way’ in Arabic? Having the poets there to discuss, question, and empathise with meant we were able to create artistically sound versions but, also, as the poets entered each other’s skin – strangers became friends.

While it is always nice to have good new poems and translations, to me the real magic and importance of these sessions was to celebrate the common concerns, worries and aspirations of people. And, in that way, all the poets began to understand another culture which was not, really, so dissimilar to their own. I’m not sure what I thought of Iraq before I went – nor what I expected to find. It turns out, as we strolled around Schaqlawa, that even in the Sabreen mountains you can find a pool hall, people selling tea, getting on with life in full living colour. I hope, from our work, the reader will be able to see some of that colour for herself.”

Watch a film poem – made by Ryan at the workshop – of Zahir Mousa’s affecting poem ‘Born to Die’…

Filmpoem 29/ Born to Die from Alastair Cook on Vimeo.

You can read more about how Jen Hadfield translated this poem on the Reel Iraq guest blog – First the Light. There’s also a blog from Zahir: Dialogue Through Poetry. And in the film below Jen and Zahir read the poem at a performance at Rich Mix in London, part of the Reel Iraq festival.