Poems from the Edge of Extinction

Riding the line between educational and lyrical, Poems from the Edge of Extinction features 50 poems from around the world in languages that even the seasoned linguists among us may never have heard of. The anthology was produced in association with the National Poetry Library in London, and was released at the end of 2019, the Year of Endangered Languages. Some of the original works from vulnerable cultures across the globe are without written form, translated from oral traditions — Gondi and Rohingya from Asia, for example.

The book is organized by continent, but several themes are repeated throughout. Many poems deal with the effects of globalization and the poets’ culture disappearing. In “The ever-touring Englishmen,” translated from the Gondi oral tradition, the people describe how the colonizers of India “have built their bungalows/ All over our sweet forest… With their wires they have bound the whole world together for themselves.”

Other poems take on language itself. “My grandmother never learned Spanish/ was afraid of forgetting her gods,” Mikeas Sanchez describes in Zoque, an indigenous language of Mexico. The English translation of the poem includes curses her grandmother would shout in Zoque — Sanchez describes them as prayers that go unanswered.

Translation is given an honored front seat in the anthology, the painstaking effort of preserving meaning and style described in detail by editor Chris McCabe. Individual translators retain the copyrights of their translations.

Translation crosses into the subject matter itself. “Tonight, my friends, there will be no translations, nothing trans-lated, altered, diluted with hub-bubbly English that turns my ferment of poems/ to lemonade,” writes Gearóid Mac Lochlainn in Irish Gaelic. The lines, ironically or not, are later translated into English by the author himself and Frankie Sewell in “Translations.”

Welsh writer and translator Gwyneth Lewis offers a particularly delightful twist on this subject. In her poem “Cyfweliadâ’r Bardd,” (“Interview with the Poet,”) she claims to be responsible for the death of Welsh. “Looking back, I blame translation,” she writes “for the bite of another language’s smoke in the back of my throat, its bitter chemicals. Soon I was hooked on whole sentences behind the shed, and lessons in Welsh seemed very boring.” She describes going on to overdose on Proust; she experiences the buzz of the German poet Rilke, calls herself a language fetishist. “Umlauts make me sweat, so I need a multilingual man, but they’re rare in West Wales,” she opines. The poem ends with her hitting on the detective looking for the murderer of Welsh: “you speak Russian, I hear, and Japanese. Could you whisper some softly? I’m begging you. Please…”

The book features poets like Sanchez, Mac Lochlainn and Lewis who have won national fame, and lesser-known writers such as Henrique Miguel Rodrigues, the youngest speaker of the nearly-extinct Patua, a creole spoken in Macau. Some poems are historic: Taniel Varoujan, a poet killed in the Armenian genocide, is featured in his original Armenian writing “to the starving people” in an excerpt from a book of his poetry published in 1909. All of the languages themselves are highly historic, offering snapshots into the words of centuries past — Assyrian, Hawaiian, Navajo.

After each poem there is a short explanation of the language in question, the author and the poem itself. The poetic tradition of each language may get brief treatment, but this is where the book actually falls short. Too often, I am left wondering if the translations are capturing the specific markers of that language’s traditional poetry — if in fact the poems are written in any traditional format at all, or if they, too, are influenced by modernity and globalization.

Anglo-Saxon, for example, is not included in this anthology because it is entirely dead, but in traditional Anglo-Saxon poetry, alliteration and syllabic pacing are paramount. Good translations pay homage to this in some way. At times, McCabe does address cultural and literary traditions such as this, and the translations themselves offer hints. An Islamic prayer in the Bantu language Chimiini is paced much differently than familiar verses in Scots or Shetlandish, and some poems retain words of the original as a literary device.

Only one poem is not translated. “Fiere Love Poem,” written by Jackie Kay in Scots, is intelligible to readers of English, especially if read aloud. “The nicht I kent oor love/ wad go on and on, darlin, the clouds mirrored the moth/ we fund in the fields.” If you didn’t get that at first try, the translation would be “the night I knew our love would go on and on, darling, the clouds mirrored the moth we found the fields.” McCabe explains that “Fiere” means “companion” in Scots; the poem is pulled from a published collection by Kay.

Shetlandish, only slightly further from standard English, gets its own translation in an older poem about fishermen in the Northern seas from John Peterson, who fought with the Seaforth Highlanders in WWI. “What’s da price, and da squall comes dirrlin; Black aa roond, nor ever a glaem” is still (relatively) readable as “What’s the price, and the squall comes shuddering; Black all around, not even a gleam.”

All in all, the anthology is a good read, both from a literary and linguistic perspective, simultaneously tragic and hopeful. It is a collection of words from waning cultures, from tribes with centuries of battle scars — from defiant lips preserving the old ways.