Michelle Elvy talks with Helen Heath and Mikaela Nyman about the recent translation of some of Helen’s poetry. Mikaela translated a set of Helen’s poetry in 2022, and it was included in the Helsinki Bookfair in October.
Michelle Elvy: Congratulations on this newly translated set of poetry! Let’s start at the beginning. Mikaela, you wrote an essay about Helen’s award-winning collection Are Friends Electric?, and contextualised it with a short introduction about the New Zealand poetry scene. Could you share more about this, please? Was this the starting point for this project?
Mikaela Nyman: Over the past few years I’ve published literary essays in New Zealand, the US and in the Nordic countries. I wanted to introduce New Zealand and Pacific writers to a Nordic readership (e.g. Ruby Solly, Lani Wendt Young, Patricia Grace, Grace Mera Molisa). In 2019, I was invited to the Helsinki Bookfair with my first poetry collection, När vändkrets läggs mot vändkrets (shortlisted for the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2020). I introduced my Finnish publisher Ralf Andtbacka of Ellips publishing to Helen Heath’s award-winning collection Are Friends Electric? (2018). Helen’s collection blew me away the with its multiple layers and clear-eyed observations of the world. I love the explorative nature of the longer narrative poems – they’re like small novellas! – how she’s managed to pair science with a speculative element that carries such emotional impact.
Ralf Andtbacka is a literary critic and award-winning poet. At the bookfair we ended up talking about AI. One of those invaluable lucky encounters that arise when writers have the opportunity to meet face-to-face. This is why emerging and mid-career writers need opportunities to mix with established authors, especially those of us in the provinces where literary opportunities are non-existent. We need nurturing too!
Ralf had just published his eleventh poetry collection, Potsdamer Platz (2019), which contains a voice that is both human and a synthetic construct (see www.potsdamerplatz.fi). He suggested that I write an essay about Helen’s work and publish it in a Finnish literary journal, perhaps translate the entire collection. I jumped at the opportunity, but suggested that we collaborate on the journal article. I offered to do the first draft and sent it to Andtbacka before Christmas 2021. I heard nothing for months and thought the text was not fit for publication. It turned out to be the opposite. I was invited to be part of Ellips’ imprint ‘lilla e’ (‘little e’), with a series of four high-quality chapbooks to be launched in 2022. Chinese-Swedish author Lan Xu and my essay and translation of Helen Heath’s poems are the first international contributions. The publishing date was set for November. To our delight, Ellips managed to get the books to the Helsinki Bookfair at the end of October.
ME: Helen, did you have any thoughts on which pieces should be included in this translated set, and how did you feel when you saw the Swedish on the page? Is it a new experience for you? Translation is a thing of beauty: the language, the flow, the lilt of a new set of sounds. But also: it’s a new way to carry your work to new readers. Can you tell us a bit more about your view on reasons behind translations in general, and your specific relationship to this project?
Helen Heath: This is the first time that I have seen a substantial chunk of my words translated and I found the experience really exciting. Mikaela kindly read some of the translation to me so I could hear how it sounded – I really love the sound of Swedish anyway, but listening to Mikaela and picking up bits I could identify was fascinating and musical. Mostly it was pure sound washing over me, mixed with little moments of recognition.
I guess a writer can never know where their readers are going to be or what culture might identify with their sensibility. I never expected this book would be translated, so I feel very grateful that Mikaela has given these words an extended reach. Personally, I like to read works translated into English partly to gain insight into another culture’s psyche. I have read a few novelists translated from Korean, for example. I do wonder what the Swedes and Finns will make of the inner workings of my mind! Haha.
I wanted Mikaela to choose pieces to translate that resonated with her, so I left the selection completely up to her and the publisher. New Zealand doesn’t seem to be a land that is strong on translations, although the Seraph Press translation series is a lovely exception and Rogelio Guedea’s recent translations of 60 NZ poets into Spanish was fantastic.
I haven’t heard of much New Zealand poetry from my peer group being translated (although I hear Helen Rickerby is big in Austria!) so I was pleasantly surprised to be approached.
It is a testament to Mikaela’s talents that something first commissioned as a journal essay became quite a substantial chapbook as the work progressed.
ME: Mikaela, you’ve said before that translation is both a huge responsibility and a labour of love. Can you elaborate?
MN: Yes, for me translation is both a labour of love as well as a responsibility, an obligation, to do the original justice. At times this responsibility threatens to crush my trust in my own ability to deliver. Like when I was commissioned to translate my grandfather Valdemar Nyman’s poem into English last year for a magnificent artistic book, essentially a long photographic essay. The poem was the inspiration for it. I ended up with three versions that I discussed with the wonderful Elizabeth Smither. They ranged from the very literal (too archaic) to a more light-handed version that was more true to the poem’s spirit.
I was very close to my grandfather and wanted to make him proud. He died in 1998, but the integrity of his work had to remain intact. I’m so grateful for Elizabeth Smither, one of the few writerly perks living in New Plymouth. She’s such an accomplished poet, so supportive, wise and generous. Our conversations gave me permission to stay true to the meaning and feel of the poem rather than opting for a literal (and dull) translation. In the end, I presented the photographer with three versions. He knew my grandfather and went for my preferred option. Said it was a very elegant solution, it really spoke to him. Which instantly made me worried. Because the intention is always to stay true to the original. Not to improve, not to embellish. Not to insert myself into someone else’s work, but make myself invisible. And therein lies the problem for me, as a writer who sometimes struggles to faithfully translate my own poems: to stay true, to do the original justice, to allow others to experience the multiple layers hidden within, while not distorting it.
ME: Can you both talk about how language and meaning might change under translation – that space between languages, where there is perhaps quite a lot unspoken?
HH: Yes, as a poet especially, that space – the unsaid or lightly gestured – is so important to writing, so it is nerve wracking to put yourself in another’s hands. I trusted Mikaela, she’s been in New Zealand and the Pacific a while now and I think she gets us. Also, the population of Finland is similar to New Zealand I believe, so perhaps the relationship between New Zealand and Australia might be similar to that of Finland and Sweden – maybe there are parallels in our national psyches from being little sisters so, to speak?
I do feel Mikaela and I are sympatico in other ways. We went through the same PhD programme for one but, far more unusually, we belatedly discovered we both have fathers who are not only entomologists but tick specialists! I don’t know what the chances of that are but perhaps it was only natural that this project came about.
One interesting change in translation was that my use of ‘Bellbird’ was translated back to ‘Korimako’ in the Swedish version. In the English version, the choice of ‘Bellbird’ mirrors or chimes with references to phone ringtones in ‘The Anthropocene’. My direct translation of Korimako into English is: Kori – flitting movement or a live-wire – coupled with Mako – fast moving. I think this reversion to te Reo, within the Swedish, fittingly retains a connection to the spirit of technology and telephone wires merging with nature. Even if it might have been just a happy co-incidence in this case!
MN: I was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking linguistic minority. My own extended family is split along linguistic lines, i.e. Swedish and Finnish. I started primary school in German. English came later, followed by Bahasa Indonesia and Bislama in due course. Languages have always fascinated me, both written and spoken. I can decipher the Cyrillic, Greek and Thai alphabets, even make out words to catch buses and find places without necessarily knowing what the words mean. And even if I did, individual words are not enough to fully understand. Languages are complex. They are mirrors of society and culture, of other ways of looking at the world. A web of meaning. Unless you understand the sub-text and the cultural context, or can seek advice from someone who is fully immersed, you’ll only ever skim the surface. Metaphors, jokes, and words that carry multiple meanings are tricky territory. Fortunately, I could consult Helen. E.g. on a section where “new ideas are on the fence”: how important was the double meaning of sitting on the fence? There wasn’t a similar idiom in Swedish. And who was Mr Murphy? (Mr Murphy turned out to be a dog!)
From an early age, I noted the difference translations could make. In comics, it could even alter the character of Mickey Mouse. I remember the shame of opening my mouth to talk to my maternal grandmother when she came to visit and only Swedish words flew out. It took a day for the language brain to adapt to Finnish again.
At our family gatherings, I was the constant simultaneous interpreter. But that feeling of shame, of not being able to communicate with my own kin, is deep-rooted. For years I’ve been carrying this sorrow and fear of losing my mother tongue and the universe it belongs to. Maybe it explains this urge to want to facilitate the reading of texts that are not necessarily written by me, while at the same time being cautious of overstepping my mark. Translation can only ever be an imperfect approximation of the original. Skilful translation nevertheless offers more people an opportunity to discover writers they might otherwise never get to read, maybe a whole new universe.
ME: Mikaela, with poetry, rhythm and sound are so important. Can you talk about how this kind of translation might be different to other translation work? How do you convey not only meaning and context, but also subtleties of sonic connection and sensibility in translated lines of poetry?
MN: Rhythm and sound – ‘the music’, as Siobhan Harvey calls it – are important, as are slant rhymes and surprise. It’s like a puzzle. Begin by reading it out loud. In translating Helen’s work I’ve read myself hoarse in the hunt for perfection. The main traps include being too literal, or muddling up those crisp lines by being too wordy. A first draft might even veer into ‘Swenglish’ [shudder].
The aim is that the poem should hold its own and be equally exciting in translation. The only way to do it is to read it out loud, mark words that are not quite right, places where the rhythm is off or the phrasing awkward. Then the translation has to rest. To detect its flaws, I have to come back to it with fresh eyes and a fresh mind.
Ralf Andtbacka provided a poet’s and editor’s critical ears and eyes, and reassurance that my translations hit the mark. As a way of ensuring the integrity of my work, I sought permission from Helen Heath to reproduce the five poems that are translated in full in both English and Swedish. It’s quite a terrifying prospect, and I’m sure someone will nitpick the choices I’ve made, but to me it’s important to also be held accountable. I think it makes the book more interesting when you can hear our voices side by side.
ME: Mikaela, you selected a particular set for translation. How did you choose which poems to include? What makes them work as a distinct set?
MN: The publisher wanted the long narrative poems, ‘The Anthropocene’ and ‘Strandbeests’, to showcase Helen’s skilful poetry that speaks to our times, and they are among my favourites too. I also love the more speculative second part of the book and wanted to elaborate on issues relating to women’s bodies, the uncanny, AI, avatars, and setting up electronic shrines to our dead loved ones. I chose the poems that fit with the narrative of my essay. Apart from the five poems translated in full – i.e. in addition to the two I’ve mentioned, ‘Possession’, ‘Cooking the hantu’ and ‘Saying goodbye’ – there are a few translated stanzas from other poems (e.g. ‘The owners’, ‘Anatomical Venus’).
ME: Helen, ‘The Anthropocene / Antropocen‘ and ‘Strandbeests’ work as sets of poems, with what one might consider small ‘chapters’. Each holds a kind of narrative arc, a quiet story – and sometimes story within story. They are specific and also a way of looking at the wider world. There are references that might create common ground between poet and reader, and also points of departure. Do you think this is part of your focus in poetry, Helen – or in this collection, in generally?
Helen: Thanks for noticing that. When I was writing this collection, I often struggled to capture the topics and big ideas I was trying to explore and understand in just one poem. As a result, many poems grew into short sequences that circled a topic, trying to capture it from different angles. They started to feel like mini essays in the true sense of the term – an attempt. All attempts can fall short but perhaps many attempts might succeed collectively? I think this was also the result of the collection being the creative component of a PhD thesis. The more expansive and prosaic writing I was doing in parallel definitely influenced my poetry. I made a deliberate choice to start taking up more space on the page.
ME: The book was part of the Helsinki Bookfair in October. What did this mean for the project, and for other possible collaborations?
MN: The Helsinki Bookfair was a great opportunity to be showcased, just wish I could have sleeved myself within! It has now been picked up by bookshops in Stockholm. Ellips is a well-connected independent publisher willing to take creative risks and branch out into new exciting territory. The titles in this chapbook series can be bought individually; it’s also possible to subscribe to the whole series. It’s an innovative initiative that’s been positively received from what I’ve seen on social media, including reviews in the largest Swedish daily newspapers, like Svenska Dagbladet.
What it means for Helen and me is that our work may attract some attention in Finland’s and Sweden’s literary circles. In a way, it’s an elaborate calling card that may prompt a Nordic publisher to purchase the foreign language rights for Helen’s poetry collection. Maybe they’ll contact me about translation, which means I would get paid for my work.
Because the reality of translation is that unless you’re in academia, or a publisher has acquired foreign language rights and commissioned the translation, it is unpaid work. A labour of love with a huge responsibility. Sadly, it’s a double whammy: it takes me away from paid work and my own writing. Yet I’m delighted that Ellips gave me this opportunity to be part of something greater. It’s a project that helps me forge new connections and opens up new career possibilities. And Helen’s work deserves to be widely read.
HH: We will see what other possibilities come from the amazing exposure at Helsinki, but personally, I would love to find some funding to enable Mikaela to translate the entire collection. In a broader context, just imagine if a relationship formed between the literary communities of Helsinki and Wellington – that would be incredible.
The Anthropocene, part 1
For the whole poem translated, please see the feature translation at At the Bay | I te Kokoru.
i. The phone that sounds like a ruru
I am walking up Aro Street, on a late spring evening
between pools of lamplight and darkness, well as dark as it
gets in the city. A ruru calls, I check my phone for messages
– nothing. A ruru calls, I check my phone for messages – a
ruru calls. I put my phone back in my pocket. The warm
night air presses against my face, insects in lamplight dance
their version of a mating call. Are all songs and dances about
reproduction? A ruru calls, the night air presses.
i. Telefonen som låter som en ruru
Jag vandrar upp längs Aro Street en sen vårkväll
mellan fläckar av lyktsken och mörker, nåja, så mörkt det nu kan bli
i stan. En ruru kallar, jag kollar meddelanden på min mobil
– ingenting. En ruru kallar, jag kollar meddelanden på mobilen –
ingenting. En ruru kallar, kollar av min mobil – en
ruru kallar. Stoppar mobilen i fickan. Varm
nattluft pressar mot mitt ansikte, insekterna i lyktskenet dansar
sin version av parningsrop. Handlar alla sånger och danser om
reproduktion? En ruru kallar, nattluften trycker.
About the book
Are Friends Electric? was winner of the 2019 Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry at the Ockham NZ Book Awards. It offers a vivid and moving vision of a past, present and future mediated by technology. The first part of Helen Heath’s bold new collection is comprised largely of found poems which emerge from conversations about sex bots, people who feel an intimate love for bridges, fences and buildings, a meditation on Theo Jansen’s beautifully strange animal sculptures, and the lives of birds in cities. A series of speculative poems in the second half further explores questions of how we incorporate technology into our lives and bodies. In these poems on grief, Heath asks how technology can keep us close with those we have lost. How might our experiences of grieving and remembering be altered?
Mikaela Nyman: Helen Heaths elektriska vänner – A literary essay in Swedish about Helen Heath’s award-winning poetry collection Are Friends Electric? published in 2018 by Te Herenga Waka University Press, including a selection of Helen’s poems in the original English version and in Mikaela’s Swedish translation.
Essay and poetry in translation | ISBN 978-952-7081-30-3| ISSN 2814–5062 | soft cover | 42 pages | 10,90 € | published by Ellips, Vasa, Finland | Imprint: lilla e
Publisher’s website: ellips.fi/utgivning-nya-titlar/
Helen Heath is a poet and essayist from the Kapiti Coast. Her debut collection of poetry, Graft, won the Best First Book of Poetry award and was the first book of fiction or poetry to be shortlisted for the Royal Society of NZ Science Book Prize. Helen thinks poetry can be a way of engaging people with big ideas and trying them on for size – a public conversation about what we want the future to be like. Her most recent collection, called Are Friends Electric?, is about people, animals and technology.
Mikaela Nyman was born in the autonomous, demilitarised Åland Islands in Finland and lives in Taranaki. Her latest poetry can be found in World Literature Today, Landfall 244, The Spinoff Friday poem, the climate change anthology No Other Place to Stand (AUP, 2022), and Trasdemar (in Spanish translation). Nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2020 for her first Swedish-language poetry collection När vändkrets läggs mot vändkrets (Ellips, 2019). Her poem ‘Fem år senare’ was set to music by Finnish composer Peter Hägerstrand as part of the Åland Islands’ centenary celebrations 2022 and will be released as an album in February 2023. Co-editor of Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology (THWUP, 2021). Her first novel Sado was published by THWUP in 2020. Her second poetry collection in Swedish is forthcoming in 2023.