How can I listen to poetry in a language I don't speak?

Monday, October 2, 2017 - 09:00

At Southbank Centre, home of the National Poetry Library, we’re proud to host an inspiring programme of live poetry readings all year round. And we’re similarly delighted to be the venue of the biennial festival Poetry International, which has taken place here ever since it was founded by Ted Hughes in 1967.

Not only do we present poetry in English, but we also offer you the chance to hear work by poets who write in other languages. But what if you don’t speak that language? Is it merely a waste of your time to listen to the work of poets delivered in a foreign tongue?

We certainly don’t think so. Hearing poetry in any language is a meaningful, often moving, experience, and there is still much to gain from listening to verse, even when you don’t grasp the meaning of every word.

Poetry is a universal language of understanding in which we can all hope to meet
Ted Hughes, founder of Poetry International

But how can you listen to poetry in language you don’t speak? Here are a few pointers.

  • Focus on hearing the sound of the poem, rather than what individual words mean

  • Listen out for the music of the poem

  • Think of a poem as a ‘language game’, rather than operating in the world of information

  • Try exploring the idea that poetry exists as an ‘air language’, as poet and Southbank Centre Translator in Residence Stephen Watts puts it

  • Sometimes it’s OK to just trust that an artist (in any medium) has a clear intent, even if you don’t know exactly what it is

Want to put this advice to the test? Watch this short video of the famous Armenian poet Razmik Davoyan, recorded at the National Poetry Library’s Poetry Parnassus festival in 2012. Or, if you speak Armenian, try Ethiopian poet Bewetu Seyoum below, and if you’re fluent in both Armenian and Amharic, then please accept our apologies.

Razmik Davoyan - Armenia

Bewketu Seyoum - Ethiopia

Sound poetry

There is a great tradition of poets focusing on the sound of language rather than words. A good example of which is the Austrian writer Ernst Jandl, who translated Wordsworth’s ‘My heart leaps up’ using German words that sounded like the original English, changing the meaning entirely.

My heart leaps up when I behold           mai hart lieb zapfen eibe hold
A rainbow in the sky                                    er renn bohr in sees kai

More recently, the English poet Hannah Silva has combined sound and sign language in her work, to very powerful effect.

Schlock! by Hannah Silva trailer

If embracing poetry in another language still seems a little daunting you may be relieved to know that many of our events featuring works in languages other than English also have translations.

help save an endangered language

Do you know a poem in an endangered language? If so then you can help the National Poetry Library project to help save languages that are under threat and preserve them for future generations.