“Today my job is to create”: a poetry translation challenge

Ever wanted to translate a poem? We’ve teamed up with Clare Pollard, editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, to challenge young writers to do just that. You don’t need to know any other languages to take part – find out more below…

This challenge is now closed. Congratulations to the winners whose translations you can read in the sidebar. Congratulations, too, to the longlisted poets whose work impressed Clare: Shruti Agarwal, Marlene Agius, Lucy Best, Sarah Chitson, Jack Cooper, Marion Deal, Grace Alice Evans, Thomas Frost, Flora Hausammann, Beatrix Livesey-Stephens, Rhiannon Paton, Tom Rowe, Maggie Wang, Shona Whelan, Cindy Xin, and Fathima Zahra.
view of a city with mountain and clound in the background
Beirut. Photo: Adham Smart

Today your job is to co-translate a poem.

That poem is called ‘Today’, and is by the Armenian poet Lola Koundakjian. Now, I’m guessing (although I might be wrong) that you are unlikely to speak Armenian, a unique Indo-European language with its own alphabet. But that’s okay, because translations are always creative acts which result in a new text. Sometimes this text is made by two people working together. But sometimes three (or more) people are involved, and poets and linguists might collaborate to make poems that are both respectful of the original and work as new poems in English. I currently edit Modern Poetry in Translation and am not a linguist, but (like one of the original editors Ted Hughes) have been lucky to work with some extremely talented linguists over the years to co-create translations of Hungarian and Somali poetry.

If you haven’t tried translation before I think it can be a really useful exercise for any poet – it is a chance to really get into the nitty-gritty of another poet’s language and think about their technique, as well as engage with poetries outside the UK mainstream.

Foyle Young Poet and translator Adham Smart has produced a bridge translation for you here of a contemporary Armenian poet, which is included below. He is generously inviting you to co-translate the poem with him.

You might begin by looking at the poem in its original form. The Armenian alphabet has a strange beauty to an unfamiliar eye. Even without knowing the language, what can you understand from the poem’s layout on the page? Study the line lengths, the stanza lengths, the indents. Can you recognise any formal features? Are rhyme or alliteration suggested by repeated letters?

Next, read through the bridge translation. It is worth asking:

  • What do I think this poem is about? (Look at those final images particularly. Is creating a mask a positive thing?)
  • What is most interesting about this poem?
  • Do I have any questions or uncertainties? Does anything ‘clunk’?
  • Are there any verbs that could be stronger? Any synonyms that would be more musical than the ones Adham currently uses?
  • Would altering the grammar or lineation anywhere improve the poem’s fluency?
  • Am I trying to make a very faithful translation, or a looser ‘version’ that is more concerned with catching the poem’s spirit? Am I going to allow myself to experiment with aspects such as layout or imagery? (The Hungarians call such changes during a translation, when they work, ‘unfaithful beauties’). What aspects of the original poem do I need to preserve and what am I willing to sacrifice to make the poem sing in English?

Your final co-translated text might be very close to Adham’s or a wildly different version, but however you approach the material I hope it might expand your sense of poetry to spend time with Lola Koundakjian’s beautiful, lucid and ambiguous poem. If you are bilingual, perhaps it might also make you think about how you would translate between your own languages.

Submit your poetic translation by 25 August 2019. We will publish the best entry in Modern Poetry in Translation, where we are always keen to encourage and support emerging translators. We also hope you will join our community and learn more – do follow us on Twitter @MPTmagazine or think about subscribing.

On 14 August 2019 I ran a free poetry translation workshop at The Poetry Café in Covent Garden, where we co-translated Hungarian poet Anna Szabó’s poem ‘Hazafelé megy, este’, or ‘Heading home, dusk’. You can read the group’s translation here.

woman stands in a museum surrounded by wall-to-wall art

Original poem

Գրեց՝ Լօլա Գունտաքճեան

Այսօր գործս է թանգարան երթալ՝
Բարեւել հոն ապրող գոյները,
լոյսերն ու շուգերը.
մոռնալ անցեալը ու
երեւակայել ապագան։

Այսօր գործս է գիրք կարդալ՝
վերյիշել առօրեան, կեանքը ու հասարակ մարդը.
գրել քերթուածներ ու
ստեղծել նոր գաղափարներ։

Այսօր գործս է ներկել՝
չափել ու կիսել թուղթի էջերը
կատարել վրցինին մենապարը,
նախքան ջուրին հետ սիրաբանութիւնը։

Ինքնանկար մը.
վերացական պատկեր մը.
դիմակ մը.

Այսօր գործս է ստեղծել։

Read a transliteration of this poem here to get a feel for how this poem sounds.

Bridge translation

Lola Koundakjian

Today my job is to go to a museum;
to say hello to the colours that live there,
the lights and shadows:
to forget the past and
imagine the future.

Today my job is to read a book;
to remember the everyday, life and the common man:
to write poems and
create new ideas.

Today my job is to paint;
to measure and to cut the pages of paper
to carry out the solo dance/menabar of the brush,
before its flirting with the water.

A self-portrait:
               an abstract picture:
                              a mask:

Today my job is to create.

paint brushes gathered together on a blank background

Translator’s note

This little poem by Lola Koundakjian, an Armenian-American poet writing in English and Western Armenian, is a simple, tactile description of an artist being inspired to work by other art and by the world around them generally. ‘Today my job is to create’ reads the last line of the poem, and that is what it’s all about – we write poems or paint pictures or whatever else it may be because we want to make something. Armenian makes a lot of use of compound words; for example, the word ‘poetry’ in Armenian is panasdeghdzoutyoun, which derives from pan (‘word’ in Classical Armenian) and ësdeghdzel (‘to create’) plus the noun-making suffix -outyoun. You could imagine it as ‘word-making-itude’, which I think is a lovely way of thinking about poetry.

If you look at the original in Armenian script, you might notice that the punctuation marks used are different from what you’re used to. While , is a comma just as in English, ՝ is more or less equivalent to a semi-colon, and although . and ։ look like a full stop and colon, they’re actually the other way round!

There’s no rhyme or metre to worry about in this poem, but although it’s quite a simple one, there are some parts where you’ll have to make choices:

  • I’ve translated the word parevel as ‘to say hello’; it derives from the word parev ‘hello’ plus a verb suffix -el, so it could be literally rendered in English as ‘to hello’.
  • Although I’ve translated hon abrogh kouynerë as ‘the colours that live there’, there’s no ‘that’ or ‘which’ in the Armenian sentence; abrogh is an active participle which means ‘living’, so the literal meaning of this phrase is something like ‘the there-living colours’. I wouldn’t read too much into that, though, because while it might sound strange in English, it’s perfectly normal in Armenian, so I would translate it as something equally normal.
  • The word I’ve translated as ‘to remember’ is verhishel. ‘Remember’ can be translated into Armenian simply as hishel, but with the prefix ver its meaning is one of bringing to mind, recalling, thinking about something not for the first time – that sort of thing.
  • Menabar is a compound word – it derives from mi/men, the root for ‘one, single’, and bar ‘dance’, hence my translation as ‘solo dance’. It is performed by female dancers and is characterised by graceful sweeping movements of the arms. Click here and here for some examples.
  • The word I’ve translated as ‘flirting’ here is sirapanoutyoun, which derives from the words ser ‘love’ and (as in the word for ‘poetry’ above) pan ‘word’ plus the suffix -outyoun.

Note from the poet, Lola Koundakjian

Lola Koundakjian at The Cloisters Museum, NYC. Photo by Farida Soumar

My poetry stems partly from my early education: from Kindergarten to 10th grade, I was in an Armenian private school in Beirut, Lebanon, where literature was mandatory at all levels, and in various languages. My kindergarten teacher entertained us with Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, translated into Western Armenian and modified for a young audience.

I then immigrated to the US, due to the civil war in Lebanon. I finished high school, then university in New York. At Hunter College, we had to fulfill core requirements; I took a survey of English poetry, which was excellent. In graduate school, at Columbia University, I did a Masters in ancient Armenian history and civilization; we did some translations of classical Armenian texts, such as the Medieval poem on the invasion of Mongols, and a treatise on fevers by Mkhitar Heratsi. Armenian Classical literature has lots of poetry, secular and religious but I am not a specialist. Jobs in academia were already getting scarce so I didn’t pursue a PhD. 

 Literature was never a primary goal in my education, but after all these courses, somehow Clotho, Lachesis and Atrophos came in a dream, so I wrote about them; I kept imagining Orpheus and Eurydice in the New York subway tunnels, so I wrote about it; I kept thinking about Armenian colophons, so I wrote about myself as a lonely Armenian scribe in the monasteries. 

You may be able to tell from this poem that I love museums, and the visual arts, which I studied in college. I was a potter for many years and I still love painting watercolors and taking photos. Although I turned to writing, some of my poems are inspired by the arts. I love sitting and writing while listening to music, for example.

Sometimes I read poems out loud, especially the works of others, to understand them better. I encourage you to read, in a soft voice, your first draft(s) and see if it sounds good, then make changes where necessary. I use this often as a technique when editing my own work: for example, I find that I can catch repetitions of words in the same stanza more easily.


Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook as well as poetry goodies. The first-prize poem in this challenge will also be published in Modern Poetry in Translation, an international poetry magazine founded by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort that publishes the best of world poetry in English translation. You could appear in print alongside some of the leading poets and translators of the global poetry scene!

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 25 August 2019. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file; however, do bear in mind that the first-prize winner will have the text of their poem published in Modern Poetry in Translation. You can send as many poems as you like. For this challenge, submissions must be in English.

If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poem(s) to [email protected] with your name, date of birth/age, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in and the subject line ‘Translation challenge’. If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 25 August 2019, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society and Modern Poetry in Translation to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at [email protected].

Clare Pollard. Photo: Justine Stoddart

Clare Pollard is the editor of Modern Poetry in Translation. She has published five collections of poetry with Bloodaxe, the latest of which is Incarnation (2017). Her translation projects have included a new version of Ovid’s Heroines (2013), which she toured as a one-woman show with Jaybird Live Literature, and a co-translation of Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s The Sea-Migrations (2017) which was The Sunday Times Poetry Book of the Year 2017.


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Published June 2019

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