TRAPPED IN THE ALPHABET
by Niels Hav
When Barack Obama was inaugurated as president in USA, the poet Elizabeth Alexander was reading at the ceremony. The poet may take on a similar role in different cultures. But in everyday life, and most of the time, the poet is an outsider. A lonely bandit in the desert. That’s how it is in Europe, and so it is in the rest of the world.
We writers are soloists. We celebrate the same virtues as the Bedouins: perseverance and generosity. Some poets among our best colleagues know about hunger and thirst, heroic poverty and longing. There are other values than the material, and retaining this knowledge is one of poetry’s tasks.
Never before in the world history have so many people been living in exile—today we are all a kind of nomad. It is a paradox that nationalism flourishes at the same time. We are poets and reside in the literary republic. Physically we are in Shanghai, Bogota, Istanbul or Copenhagen, but poetry is our mental and spiritual homeland.
Poetry is not for cowards. The task is to keep an eye on those in power and to speak about things as they are. If the truth is suppressed, poets are the first ones to be jailed, and this is logical. But poetry is adjacent to the music, and when a poem is successful, the words have a deep resonance in mind and soul. Good poetry is magical.
Poetry must be committed to life’s beauty and grandeur—and to the problems of daily life of ordinary people. To seek truth is like hunting lizards in the dark, and no matter how we twist and turn, the ass is at the back. We must be honest about our confusion. Art is in search of a deeper truth than political solutions, but still poetry always wants to be a critical instance with the additional duty of telling the truth about real problems in the real world.
In this context it is essential that we get more good translations. As a European writer I am trapped in the Latin alphabet. Chinese and Arab writers have the advantage over European colleagues; many of them read two alphabets. How many alphabets are there in this world? I asked my Mom; she doesn’t know. I asked the taxi driver; he can’t answer the question either. Nobody knows for sure, but there are many, and alone Chinese, Hindi, Bengali and other Asian alphabets are used by more than one third of the planet’s population.
So let’s pay tribute to our translators, they build bridges between the many alphabets in this world—and they thereby create the conditions for a growing international understanding. Let’s hope for a new flowering of art and poetry in a peaceful world. International communication is more important than ever. Poetry can contribute to the understanding between the world’s peoples and cultures, and contribute to the respect for the individual and his personal dream of a life in happiness and harmony. We all share that dream.
Niels Hav is a poet and writer based in Copenhagen. His publications in English include a book of poetry, We Are Here, as well as poetry and fiction in numerous magazines. In his native Danish, he is the author of six collections of poetry and three books of short fiction. His work has been translated into several languages including Arabic, Turkish, Spanish and Chinese.