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In My Own Accents

November 19, 2012 by · 3 comments

Katerina Stoykova Klemer

Many times people have asked me what it is like to write poetry in a second language and what the difference is between writing in English and writing in Bulgarian.

First, I want to say that I find joy in writing poems, and the joy of writing in English is identical to the joy of writing in Bulgarian. I think the pleasure of the creative process is universal and larger than an individual language.

Second, I have found that certain poems want to be written in English and certain poems want to be written in Bulgarian; in order to give each the opportunity to come to life, I need to be prepared and open to writing in both languages.

Furthermore, there are things that I myself want to say in one language, but not in the other. This is in part due to the fact that some poems I don’t believe would be understood completely—or as intended—in one language or the other, and I take that into consideration when I put bilingual or monolingual collections together.

Additionally, I could write a poem in English that does not work well in English at all, but makes for a good poem in Bulgarian, and vice versa. This experience has taught me not to become too attached to my own ideas of which language I should be writing in and to be prepared to accept anything that comes my way. Some poems even come in a mixture, sort of a mess of languages, and some poems start in one language and at a certain point switch to another without my even noticing until much later in the process.

I feel lucky to be using two languages for writing poetry, because translation can serve as a wonderful editing tool. If something doesn’t work in a poem or group of poems, translate it into another language to see what it looks like and to hear what it sounds like with completely different words.

It will really make you think about what you wanted to say in the first place. Even if you think your poem is perfect, taking it apart and reassembling it in another language may give you ideas on how to say something differently. Very rarely when I translate my poems do the originals stay intact.

English is wonderful for writing poetry because it has a large array of words to choose from. It’s one of the richest languages available. Also, the English language has many compound verbs that can be broken up creatively to make interesting lineation. No small advantage is the fact that virtually everybody speaks English, so you have the potential of a very large audience.

On the other hand, Bulgarian is more musical than English. Most of the words are longer and seem to have more vowels. That makes Bulgarian more natural for employing rhyme and rhythm. I feel that when all else is equal, my poems sound better in Bulgarian. Whenever I read poems in Bulgarian to an English-speaking audience, I see how many people close their eyes to better hear and experience the poem.

So, for you today I will read one of my own poems in two languages. First in Bulgarian, then in English. It has to do with writing in one language and not the other.

* * *

Език мой, враг мой.
Без тебе – кръв в устата.
Преглъщам, латинските
серифи дращят.
Език мой, брат мой.
Разкрасен, перфориран –
метална топка се търкаля
по зъбите като перверзен боздуган.
Език или смърт.
Език мой, труп мой.
Език мой, други мой приятелю,
когото предадох.
Невинният бяга гузен.
Език мой, вик мой –
вик от срам.
Език мой, лък мой –
отпускам те безстрелно.
Език мой, дом мой.
Прости ми. Няма ме.

My Tongue, My Enemy

Without you—blood in the mouth.
I swallow, the Latin
serifs scratch.
My tongue, my brother.
Decorated, perforated—
metal ball rolls
along the teeth like a
perverse arrowhead.
Tongue or Death.
My tongue, my own carcass.
My tongue, another friend
whom I’ve betrayed.
Shouldering guilt,
the innocent start running.
My tongue, my scream—
scream of shame.
My tongue, my bow—
I release you with no aim.
My tongue, my home.
Forgive me. I am gone.

Thank you for listening to this installment of In My Own Accent. I look forward to sharing with you again next week.

Your host,

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