When I was fourteen, it got the bicycle I had been saving money for, a vehicle I had earned by myself, which would allow me to discover other counties. No more than two weeks later, with a friend of the same age, we left our small rural village. After cycling about 100 kilometers, we arrived at Brussels, the capital city of Belgium. To our surprise, most of the people there did nor speak Flemish but French. The next day, we drove to Holland, although with a strange accent, they spoke our language. From Holland, we drove to Germany where we camped by the Rhine, where again I noticed that no one spoke Flemish. Those experiences, the limitation of my local language, and my interest to discover other cultures and countries induced me to study languages. Studying in Brussels, I could lend books, mainly poetry, from English, French, and German libraries. I discovered the poetry of those countries and devoured books like Americans devour hamburgers. Later, by car, I visited other European countries. Having read the most important German poets, including Goethe’s Mignon, I was in love with Italy before having visited it. But, although I had already studied French, English, and German, I had problems to converse with Italians. Only a few seemed to speak English or French. So I [MOVE studied] also studied Italian, and, since I later moved to Spain, also Spanish. It has been those experiences which convinced me how important languages, including translations, are for human understanding.
The importance of poetry translations
The American poet Robert Frost asserted that poetry is what gets lost in translation. Unfortunately, that happens quite often. Linguists and literary critics might know everything about their language, but are they able to bring a poem safely from one language to the other? Izet Sarajlic, one of the most important Servo-Croatian poets (Bosnian), asked in one of his excellent poems, “Why do critics not write poetry, if they do know so much about it?” Translating poetry is recreating poetry. The Germans call it correctly nachdichten, not übersetzen. The problem is that most poets only care about the promotion of their own poetry. For poets writing in a marginal language like Dutch, to find a capable translator is in many cases impossible. Which Arab, Chinese, Korean, or even German or Italian poet-translator knows Dutch or Danish or Polish? But even excellent poets writing in French or in Spanish have not been translated. Every poetry lover knows García Lorca, because he was murdered by Franco’s followers, or Neruda, because he was a diplomat. But who knows the poetry of Miguel Hernández whose best poem can compete with Lorca’s? Who knows the poetry of the best Spanish poets of the Generation of the Fifties: José Ángel Valente or Francisco Brines, the latter who, 88 years old, just received the Premio Cervantes, the “Spanish Nobel Prize of Literature”?
But, in spite of these difficulties, the translation of poetry, that rare firefly of literature was and remains important. How poor would be without the verses of the poets as they hold their finger at the artery of their people, write about their joys, their hopes and their misfortunes as did Homer, as did *Mahmud Darwish about the suffering of the Palestinians, Juan Gelman about the disappeared in Argentina, Paul Celan about the killing of Jews by the Nazis?
Therefore, to do something, however little for a more humane world, for a better understanding between people, to offer foreign poets, especially those of hardly or rarely translated languages, the possibility to be read by Flemish and Dutch readers and to offer to these readers the possibility to read the works of modern foreign poets, I founded in 1984 a small, noncommercial publishing house, POINT (POetry INTernational). The title of the first book, a verse by a Korean poet, was Waves, What Shall I Do?, a selection of international modern poetry. More than 80 publications would follow: poetry from Argentine, Austria, Bosnia, Chile, Croatia, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Italy, Austria, Palestine, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Taiwan…
Ten years ago, the editor of a Dutch magazine asked me to provide them weekly with a nice poem and] illustration: Thus, the Poem of the Week was born. A few months later, one of my Flemish fans asked me, why do you not translate the poems into English, and, since I live in Spain, into Spanish, since I did all that work to find every week a nice poem from all over the world? So I translated the poems into English and Spanish, and sent them to my foreign friends. They were all very enthusiastic about the project. Translations of the poems into Italian was offered my Italian translator and so wrote my Chinese, Romanian, and my other translators. So, finally the Poem of the Week is now translated and published every week in 28 languages; one of the poems was read 72.000 times on a Chinese literary website. A book with 160 Poems of the Week has been published in Kurdish at the beginning of this year, and last month Poetry Without Borders, a selection of 270 Poems of the Week by 200 poets has been published in Romania with poetry from such world-famous poets as Anna Achmatova, Yehudi Amihai, Bertolt Brecht, Fernando Pessoa, Ernesto Cardenal, Paul Celan, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Rabindranath Tagore, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Nazim Hikmet, but also excellent, lesser-known poets from Argentina, Austria, Bosnia, Bulgaria, China, Chile, Croatia, El Salvador, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Japan, Macedonia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Thailand, The Philippines, the USA and even from Korea, Uzbekistan, Taiwan, Palestine, and even from Kurdistan. The same book will be published in Dutch in Belgium and in the Netherlands, and book publications in Polish, Greek, Hindi, Iran, Farsi, Malay, and Icelandic are also planned.
The Poem of the Week project realized what politicians so far have been unable to realize: to create a human bridge, crossing all borders of nationalism, race, and religion.
Our Filipino translator recently wrote, “I am so much occupied, but Ithaca (The Poem of the Week) became part of my life.
The Poem of the week, called Ithaca poems, are translated and published every week in 28 languages.