Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Love in Many Tongues: Beauty in Translation

Abe Frato
Love in Many Tongues: Beauty in Translation was held at Slow Train Cafe.

The idea of meaning getting “lost in translation” slipped the minds of those in attendance at Love in Many Tongues at Slow Train Cafe on Valentine’s Day. Each person sharing a love poem in a different language then provided a coherent and comprehensive translation into English, replacing the audience members’ confusion with appreciation.

The aforementioned idea slipped my mind, too, as I heard poetry in Russian followed by Spanish followed by Yiddish, then poetry in six other languages — American Sign Language, German, Japanese, Arabic, Ancient Greek, and Latin. Though many could not understand the poems before translations were made, a loving energy dispersed throughout the room.

Audience members such as double-degree first-year El Arnold listened to the original poem and felt content hearing what love sounds like in a language other than one’s native tongue. 

“I really enjoyed this event because most of the languages that people read in, I have not really interacted with before,” Arnold said. “I think it’s really interesting to listen to something [even] if you genuinely have no idea what’s being said.”

Each participant had a connection with the language they shared a poem in, the poet they chose to translate a piece from, or the poem they shared. 

“I really liked whenever people would explain any reasoning or personal interest they had in translating the poem,” Arnold said. “For example, the last person that spoke, Anna Clark, said that she was introduced to the poet through someone else talking about him. It was interesting to see people’s personal connections with whatever they’re translating.” 

It was a love for Russian grammar and an offer of extra credit for class that made College third-year Amelia Huntsman decide to perform a poem by Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

“I have no familial connection [to Russian] like a lot of people who study Russian,” Huntsman said. “I started Russian because I think the grammar is really lovely, because I thought the sound was beautiful, and I had an interest in politics.”

Similar to Clark, Huntsman was introduced to the poem’s author by a friend. The poem she read in Russian and translated to English was a take on Hamlet, with a title she translated as “Dialogue with Hamlet and His Conscience.” Having read Hamlet in high school, she thought that it was an interesting take. Huntsman realized the importance and struggle that goes into translation while deciphering Tsvetaeva’s poem.

“I think translation is the best practice you can get for a language,” Huntsman said. “Forcing yourself to reconcile tone, rhythm, melody and meter all at once is a very difficult challenge. [The poem I presented] was probably a minute long in speech and I’ve been working on [translating it] all week.”

Huntsman also noted how rhythm and melody change across languages.

While translation can be a challenge, the act proves to be quite important for both learning and creativity. Nathan A. Greenberg Professor of Classics Kirk Ormand, who read “Poem 50” by Catullus, emphasized the importance of creativity in the act of translation. By organizing this event and preparing a translation of his own, Ormand showed the audience how significant and interesting the process of translating literature tends to be. 

“When people start translating poetry and prose about love and desire, most of it ends up not being what you think of as Hallmark card mushy,” Ormand said. “Usually a lot of the poems are a little bit edgy. Sometimes there’s some rejection involved. A lot of times there’s some really deep loss involved and that also makes it really interesting.”

Officially beginning in 2008, Love in Many Tongues continues to bring in poets, those who love poetry, and those who enjoy the act of translation each year. Ormand remarks at how important translation is to the College itself. 

“One of the things about our comparative literature program here at Oberlin [is that] it’s one of the few programs in the country that really emphasizes translation as a creative practice. [Translation is] a separate and independent creative project in and of itself.”

Although Love in Many Tongues is an event originally organized by Oberlin resident and former Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Lynn Powell as a way to celebrate local writers and give them a platform in 2008, it has transformed throughout the years. The event changed hands a few times,  with Powell handing the event to Professor of Hispanic Studies Sebastiaan Faber in 2014 and Ormand orchestrating it this year. The Comparative Literature department continues to be involved and it remains a Valentine’s Day event. 

“It’s just a lot of fun,” Ormand said. “People find brilliant, interesting [and] eclectic texts that have something to do with love or desire, and they show up and read them…. You get to hear love poetry in ten different languages in an hour.”

More to Discover