Writing in Shetland

Nordic-Celtic Connections Explored Through Poetry
Christine de Luca
This article, by Christine De Luca, first appeared in The Shetland Times.
I recently had the privilege of taking part in a unique poetry translation event organised by the Scottish Poetry Library, in collaboration with Literature Across Frontiers and Welsh Literature Abroad. This was part of a wider programme to highlight minority languages within Europe and to bring these languages into direct dialogue with each other. The project also offered translators accustomed to working from one language the chance to discuss their translations directly with the writer concerned.

The project brought together an interesting group of poets: from Finland (the Swedish speaking part), Gösta Ågren who writes terse, metaphysical, abstract poems; from Norway, Arne Ruste with his quirky, well observed poems often linked to nature; from Iceland,Thorarinn Eldjarn with modern themes set in the ancient poetic forms of that country; from Wales, Elin ap Hywel with lyrical and touchingly humorous poems. To this mix were added myself writing in English and Shetland dialect and another Scot, Kenneth Steven writing in English, again many poems having an outdoor theme.

To help us make sense of each other's work we had three skilled translators, Karsten Sand Iversen, David MacDuff and Bernard Scudder. We were taken to Moniack Mhor, a writers' retreat in Inverness-shire. This proved to be a superb location.

I was a little apprehensive about taking part, being the only one writing in dialect, and possibly the only one with no experience of translating. I wondered how the dialect would respond to the cadences of Welsh, to the abstract ideas of Gosta's poems and the strict rhyme schemes of the Icelandic? And would the other poets make any sense of my dialect poems, albeit with an English version to help them?

I need not have worried. We melded quickly as a group and fell to translating each other's work with energy and imagination. We often worked in threes, two poets and a translator, for example translating a Welsh poem into Shetland and Danish and a Shetland poem into Welsh and Danish; or a triangulation involving Shetland, Wales and Norway. It was a fascinating business with lots of discussion about the meaning and mood intended, and much laughter.

Translating between the Nordic tongues and English was relatively straightforward compared to translating into Welsh. I can only liken the latter to driving a foreign car on the right-hand side of the road for the first time. Everything seemed outside in. The dialect also posed problems - or maybe it was more to do with my style of writing - in that when the meanings were unpacked, the poems became more flabby and cumbersome.

To overcome this my partners sometimes resorted to dialects in which they were unaccustomed to writing. That seemed to solve the problem and what they created sounded more muscular, more compact and more like the original. Intuition and imagination in equal doses.

We finished off our time together with two readings, one in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow. I think the record for any one poem was five languages.

I wasn't in the least surprised by the cross-over between the Shetland dialect and the Nordic languages, but it was touching to see experts in these languages being surprised at the expressive strength of the dialect and its obvious Nordic roots. They agreed that there is a much greater gap between the dialect and Standard English than between some of their languages.

It was a wonderful experience, and much of the credit must go to Dr Robyn Marsack, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library who made it happen.

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