Cream cover with grey and pink lettering covering much of itCold-shiver-oil, Sigurbjörg Thrastardóttir 

Versopolis, 2020  

Several minds, various tongues

There’s something special, for me, about the clear, graphic presentation of poems as subjects of collaborative work. Sigurbjörg Thrastardóttir wrote these Icelandic poems which appear with facing English translations by Pétur Knútsson, Bernard Scudder, Sarah Brownsberger and the author herself.

The blurb says: ‘Versopolis […] gives emerging European poets the chance to reach an audience beyond the boundaries of the language they write in by translating and publishing their poems and inviting them to perform at festivals’. I feel the thrill of texts nurtured in the mash of more than one language, and in dialogue between minds.

Comparing left and right pages, I enjoy identifying the meaning of a few Icelandic words, thanks to parallel translations and some resemblance to Old and Middle English. I find myself exploring what exactly it is that tells me that the English is not the original.

I notice, for instance, the use of unusual combinations (here to make phrasal verbs) such as ‘wither apart’ and ‘clutch together’ (from the poem ‘requiem’). I clock the use of some terms that are rare in contemporary English except in particular geographical regions: ‘I know these dales / beneath my eyes’, from ‘washout’ — my italics. And I spot customs that are Icelandic — such as, in ‘murder story’, the mention of a tradition of children putting a shoe in the window on each of the thirteen days leading up to Christmas.

If the poems were read apart from the original versions, any of these might nudge a reader to think not originally written in English. For me, the poetry itself often resides in such surprises.

Reading translations, we may miss some choices and references that are key to interpreting the poem, but their strangeness or otherness can itself also alert us to much. I find myself wondering why particular English words or structures have been chosen, or why something hasn’t been explained.

There are layers of complexity and poetry to discover in this slowed-down way of reading. It offers, to my mind, a particularly fascinating angle on interrogating text.

Clare Best