Scottish poetry comes to Prague


For two weeks this month, the nationwide ‘Den poezie’ or Poetry Day festival took place in roughly 50 towns and cities throughout the Czech Republic. The festival, now in its 24th year, takes place annually around the birthday of the great Czech Romantic poet, Karel Hynek Mácha. This year, there were two events in English – one involving a project where three Scottish poets and three Czech poets translated each other’s work – despite none of the Scottish poets speaking Czech.

Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea. But the small and diligent group of people involved with organising Poetry Day hope that the festival will promote interest in poetry and share some of its joy among a wider audience. In this vein, all the events that are part of the festival are free.

Poetry Day is not just a day – it’s a two-week event. But its misleading name has its origins in the fact that the first Den poezie took place on just one day in 1999. Year by year, more and more towns and organisations joined in and the length of the festival gradually extended to reach its current two-week duration.

The festival describes itself as international and multicultural – this year, as well as featuring Czech poets, it included authors from Ukraine, Spain, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia. And for an English-speaking audience, one of the two English-language events in this year´s Poetry Day festival involved an interesting translation and cultural exchange project between three Czech and three Scottish poets – one of whom writes in Gaelic. The six poets worked together on translating one another's poetry into their native languages.

Alexandra Buchler is the director of Literature Across Frontiers, which has been organizing poetry translation workshops for 20 years, and by now has held over 100 workshops in 20 countries with poets writing in over 50 languages. But Buchler says that this project was special because of the pandemic.

Alexandra Büchler | Photo: Festival Den poezie

“Before we used to squeeze everything into a week. The workshops would be residential, the poets would live together for about a week and then they would appear at a festival. What we did this time was that the actual translation workshops took place online.”

Anyone who has ever tried their hand at translating knows how difficult a task it can be to do well, so one balks at the challenge these poets must have faced in trying to translate one another’s poetry in a way that was both faithful to the original essence of the poem and also sounded good in their own language.

Two of the Scottish poets write in English, but the third, Niall O’Gallagher, writes in Gaelic. How did the Czech poets translate from Gaelic? And, for that matter, how did the Scottish poets translate from Czech? This is where the concept of a ‘bridge language’ comes in, Alexandra Buchler explains.

“So normally you would expect the translator to know the language from which they are translating. But in the case of poetry, for example, you have a situation where, especially between the less widely-spoken languages, there really are no translators who could do this. So you take a text, which would typically be an English translation, and it could be produced specifically for this purpose, so it would be like a crib – a literal translation. And then the poet, who knows English, translates into their language.”

Niall O’Gallagher | Photo: Twitter of Niall O’Gallagher

In the case of Gaelic, Niall translated his poems into English, from where the Czech poets were able to translate into Czech. However, Niall’s poems presented a unique challenge in that, in the cultural tradition of Gaelic poetry, his poems are written in rhyme and in a specific meter, which had to be retained when translating into Czech.

Alexandra Buchler says that although it is often underappreciated in the English-speaking world, literary translation offers unique opportunities for cultural exhange.

“Literary translation is not something that’s terribly popular in the English-speaking world because there’s this sense that we already have fantastic writing, and that even if we want something a bit exotic we can go to English-language writing that comes from different parts of the world, different parts of the Commonwealth. So English-speaking countries translate less than any other country in the world.”

But, she says that literary translation is beginning to gain attention even in the English-speaking world, and hopefully cross-cultural, multi-lingual events like these will help that to continue.