By Rebecca Henely
Poets come to colleges to read their poems to students, but when former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan came to LaGuardia Community College last week students read one of Ryan’s poems to her — in 25 different languages.
“It’s the reddest, hottest project that anyone’s done with my work,” Ryan said.
Kristen Gallagher, an English professor at LaGuardia, said when she heard late last year that Ryan would be visiting the college, she got the idea to have students and faculty translate one of Ryan’s poems into multiple languages. The poem Gallagher chose for translation was “Say Uncle,” as the titular phrase is idiomatic to English and would require creativity to translate.
Gallagher said 88 people worked on the translations, most of them students, but they were assisted by LaGuardia faculty and staff. Different groups were formed around languages. These groups were made up of several people who spoke the language the poem was being translated into, as well as people who spoke only English. The poem was translated during four sessions, two in the spring and two in the fall.
Some of the languages used in the project included French, Urdu, Bengali, Korean, Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Russian, Jamaican Patois, American Sign Language and multiple types of Spanish. The poem translations were printed in a book for Ryan as well as in pamphlets for the students.
“I knew it would be good, but it was amazing,” Gallagher said of the result.
Students read the translated versions of the poem to Ryan. Ryan asked the students questions about word choices, margin choices and what different phrases meant in the translated language.
“It’s so interesting to try to sort this out in all these different ways,” Ryan said.
Ryan said she would be sending the translations to the Poetry Foundation in Chicago.
“I know this is going to have an impact on other people,” she said.
Art students from LaGuardia also presented Ryan with visual art based on her poems. Ryan did a poetry reading at LaGuardia that day.
Ryan, a native of San Jose, Calif., was a teacher at a community college before she decided to become a writer when she was 30. She said it took her 10 years afterward before she became published, and now she has written six books of poetry. She was poet laureate from 2009- to 2010, replaced by W.S. Merwin this summer.
“If I had to die at 24 like [John] Keats, you would have never known my name,” Ryan said.
She encouraged students who want to be poets to read widely and not to do it because they believe it will make them famous or rich.
“Write it because you think you’re going to get free,” Ryan said.
Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4564.