Students share their translations with Burmese poet

by Angela Gartner, Staff Writer

Since the spring of 2008, Saint Vincent College has frequently welcomed a writer-in-residence to the campus to meet students in class and later give a presentation of their work including a Q&A session. Last fall, José Kozer, a Cuban professor and poet, visited Saint Vincent; this year, the writer was Khet Mar. On October 21, the Saint Vincent Reading Series presented a public, bilingual reading at the Fred Rogers Center featuring Khet Mar, a human rights activist and native of Burma. Attendees enjoyed readings delivered by members of the Literary Translation class taught by Michelle Gil-Montero, assistant professor of English and director of the creative writing program. Khet also shared a story entitled “Night Flow.”

In 1969, Khet Mar was born in a small fishing village approximately thirty miles from the capital of Burma. Today she is a journalist, essayist, and writer of many short stories and poems.  She is also the author of one novel, Wild Snowy Night. Khet’s work has been translated into English and Japanese, and has also been broadcast on the radio and made into film.

Khet’s visit was also an opportunity for students and faculty to become more familiar with the harrowing situation in Burma. Strict government and military regimes restrict the publication of many Burmese texts that cover the government’s crimes against humanity. At the age of 19, Khet distributed poems protesting the government and was subsequently arrested and sent to Insein, Burma’s most notorious prison. There, Khet spent ten days in the interrogation center and a year in prison.

Khet was granted amnesty in 1992. After her release, she spent the next several years dodging the Burmese government and attempting to make a living by selling rice and dried fish. She also became noted for her short stories. Returning to the United States, Khet was a visiting fellow at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2007 and a featured writer at the PEN Word Voices festival in New York City in 2009.

“Khet is a woman of remarkable courage and perseverance. She demonstrates, more than anyone else I can think of, just how powerful the necessity to write is for a writer. In her case, she has written against all odds, despite grave persecution. In fact, her writing serves as testimony to everything she has suffered; by extension, it speaks for other people who have undergone similar struggles. It speaks for her people,” said Gil-Montero, who met Khet two years ago.

Courtesy of Than Htay Maung

This fall, Gil-Montero is teaching Literary Translation, a creative writing workshop-oriented class. Gil-Montero has wanted to teach this course since she arrived at Saint Vincent in 2007.  Students enrolled in the class must demonstrate moderate proficiency in their chosen foreign language.  Students currently enrolled have endeavored to translate Spanish, French, German, Italian and Chinese poetry. By the end of the semester, students will not only have created a polished portfolio of their own translations, but will also have become familiar with the translation process as well as developed an individual approach to translation theory.  As students work directly with the syntax and rhetoric of a foreign language, they inadvertently hone their own writing skills in English.

Gil-Montero first introduced the class to some of Khet’s work several weeks ago. The students then had the opportunity to work with previously translated pieces which included one prose piece “One of These Springs,” and one poem, “Faint Star.” In the class, students collaborated into two separate groups, one focusing on the prose piece and the other group, the poem. The project was no easy task, as the only pieces translated from Burmese into English were very raw material.

One translation student, senior English major Megan Matich commented, “I think that the most difficult thing about working with the poem was the fact that the poet wasn’t present with me while I was rewriting her poem. It was not until I actually had the opportunity to ask Khet Mar questions that I was able to really understand what the poem was about and what form the poem should take in English.”

Translation student sophomore Briana Pocratsky commented that the most rewarding part of Khet’s visit was hearing Khet herself tell the class the real meaning and feeling behind her pieces, and knowing that “Khet’s message, through translation, was being spread in some way.”

The Reading Series has afforded the Saint Vincent community an opportunity to become familiar with a variety of writers and poets from all over the world. Gil Montero noted, “We have fallen into a nice rhythm—a visit by a poet in the spring, and an extended visit by an international writer in the fall.”

Khet Mar currently resides with her husband and two children at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, a facility which provides protection to exiled writers and journalists facing the threat of death, imprisonment and persecution from their native countries.  For more information about Khet Mar and her situation, visit http://www.sampsoniaway.org/

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