Meet the World: Translation as Witness
What are the politics and ethics of translating ‘witness’ poetry and essays?
Tuesday 1 February 2022 marks one year since the Spring Revolution in Myanmar. It is also the publication date for an anthology featuring voices from the ground of the Myanmar revolution: Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring: Witness poems and Essays from Burma/Myanmar (1988–2021), edited by Ko Ko Thett and Brian Haman.
Join Burma-born poet, editor and translator Ko Ko Thett in conversation with Shash Trevett, a Tamil from Sri Lanka who came to the UK to escape the civil war. A poet and a translator of Tamil poetry into English, Shash is currently working on the anthology Out of Sri Lanka: Post-Independence Poetry in Tamil, Sinhala and English from Sri Lanka and its Diaspora Communities.
We will talk about the importance of translating witness poetry and essays – the politics and ethics, and the challenges, both practical and emotional. Shash and Ko Ko will share their own poetry and explore the influence and interconnections between translation and poetry, as well as their relationship to the countries and languages where they were born but no longer live. The event will be chaired by So Mayer.
Please register in advance to receive a zoom link to the event.
Ko Ko Thett is a Burma-born poet, literary translator, and poetry editor for Mekong Review. He started writing poems for samizdat pamphlets at the Yangon Institute of Technology in the ’90s. After a brush with the authorities in the 1996 student protest, and a brief detention, he left Burma in 1997 and has led an itinerant life ever since. Thett has published and edited several collections of poetry and translations in both Burmese and English. His poems are widely translated and anthologised. His translation work has been recognised with an English PEN award. Thett’s most recent poetry collection is Bamboophobia (Zephyr Press, 2022). He lives in Norwich, UK.
Shash Trevett is a Tamil from Sri Lanka who came to the UK to escape the civil war. She is a poet and a translator of Tamil poetry into English, and has written about this in her piece Creativity and Claustrophobia on the NCW website. Her pamphlet From a Borrowed Land (which includes original translations) was published in 2021 by Smith|Doorstop. She is currently editing (and translating), with Vidyan Ravinthiran and Seni Seneviratne, Out of Sri Lanka: Post-Independence Poetry in Tamil, Sinhala and English from Sri Lanka and its Diaspora Communities, which will be published by Bloodaxe in 2023.
So Mayer is a writer, bookseller and organiser. Their most recent book is A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing (Peninsula, 2020), and they co-edited Unreal Sex with Adam Zmith (Cipher Press, 2021). They co-chair the PEN Translation Advisory Group with Preti Taneja, and work with Burley Fisher Books, queer feminist film curation collective Club Des Femmes, and campaign/community Raising Films. @Such_Mayer.
Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring: Witness poems and Essays from Burma/Myanmar (1988–2021)
Ed. Ko Ko Thett and Brian Haman (Ethos Books/ Balestier Press / Gaudy Boy, 2022)
Fallen innocents on blood-stained streets. The defiant banging of pots and pans echoing in the darkness. The birth of a springtime revolution amidst the interrupted lives of a country and its people. On the morning of 1 February 2021, a coup d’état was initiated by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, effectively overthrowing the democratically elected members of the country’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy, and casting Myanmar into chaos.
This volume collects the poetry and prose of the many writers, cultural figures, and everyday people on the ground in Myanmar’s urban centres, rural countryside and in the diaspora, as they document, memorialize, or merely try to come to grips with the violence and traumas unfolding before their eyes. Written in English or translated from the original Burmese the collection includes some of Myanmar’s most important contemporary authors and dissidents, such as Ma Thida, Nyipulay and K Za Win, as well as up and coming authors and poets from all over Myanmar, reflecting the country’s rich cultural and ethnic diversity.
In addition, poetry and essays that reflect socioeconomic life of the so-called transitional Myanmar (2010-2020), a period of relative freedom for writers when much of the censorship regime was lifted and the internet and social media were introduced in the country, as well as prominent protest poems and essays, by dissidents Min Ko Naing, U Win Tin and Min Lu, who lived through the hopes and horrors of the 1988 uprising of Myanmar are featured in this volume.
A feast for the literary imagination, an elegy to those who have fallen, and a courageous act of defiance by those that continue to fight, these firsthand accounts provide an important window into a crucial moment in Myanmar’s history.
Out of Sri Lanka: Post-Independence Poetry in Tamil, Sinhala and English from Sri Lanka and its Diaspora Communities
Ed. Vidyan Ravinthiran, Seni Seneviratne & Shash Trevett (Bloodaxe, 2023)
Ever since Megasthenes in 290 BC wrote about the green and verdant island of Taprobane filled with gold, gems and pearls, Sri Lanka has existed as a land on which to project infinite possibilities. An island of golden beaches and swaying palm trees, of delicious food and smiling locals. A place, perhaps because it is an island, seen as being safer, less wild, than neighbouring India. Our anthology of post-Independence Sri Lankan and diasporic poetry is a postcolonial corrective to this essentialising vision. How do the poets from this island view themselves and the world they live in?
The anthology will feature over 100 poets writing in English, Tamil or Sinhala (the latter two in translation). Each poet will be introduced by a critical summary contextualizing their achievements with reference to Sri Lanka’s history of multiple colonization, religious and subcultural division, and civil war. We feature a wide variety of voices, writing on a variety of preoccupations. Poets from the 1950s and 60s respond to the promise of independence. Many take a stance against societal injustices, write about love, the beauty of art, nature, the idealisation of the good life. As the anthology moves forward through time, poets speak of the JVP uprisings of the 1970s and 80s, the 2004 tsunami and its aftermath, the recent bombings linked with the demonization of Muslim communities, and the civil war between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers. They object to war crimes, corruption and assassinations, writing a poetry of witness that is of special intensity in face of the government’s determination to erase rather than enquire into a troubled past. Throughout the anthology poets answer what is means to write out of Sri Lanka; almost always their answer is the cultural imperative to remember.