Latvian Poetry Workshop

This workshop looks at ‘Vārdi par vārdiem’ by Latvian poet, Vizma Belševica. This workshop is free to join, and open to all poets and translators, regardless of their level of proficiency with the original language. This workshop will remain open for submissions until midnight on 19th September, and then archived.

To submit please see the form at the bottom of this page.

A literal translation is provided beneath, along with notes about the poem to help you create a version of the piece in English. We welcome all kinds of translation: from versions which cleave to the original and render it as ‘faithfully’ as possible, as well as ‘freer’ translations, versions, and responses in English.

All suitable submissions will be featured online, and one submission will be chosen for inclusion in a digital pamphlet focusing on Latvian poetry.

Workshop closed for entries

Original Poem


Original poem by Vizma Belševica


Vārdi atnāca sapnī.Vārdi stāvēja ap
mani kā puikas, kuru māti viņu vainas
dēļ sauc uz miliciju.Vismazākajam,
vismīļākajam vārdiņam apaļā mute kļuva stūraina un drebēja.
Likās, viņš tūlīt iebrēksies: es vairāk tā nedarīšu.
Bet velti – viņš nebija brēcamais vārds.
Un tad es teicu:

Vārdi, mani vārdi, kad mūs atkal tiesās,
Nenokariet galvas! Apsūdzēto sols
Tikai slieksnis nodeldēts, kuram jāpārkāpj, lai iesākas
Pasaule bez sienām. Zeme, kas nav istaba.
Reizi mūžā katram jāšķiļas no olas.
Putniem tas ir zināms. Visiem. Visiem. Vistai pat.
Tas ir zināms putnam, dzejniekam un vārdam.
Spriedums, pat visaugstākais spriedums – tā ir brīvība.
Ko vairs nevar atņemt. Āra elpas skartajam.
Atskatīties nevajag uz savām sienām – dzīvību.
Putni mirst un dzejnieki. Bet ne cirvja asmens
Nevar izcirst vārdu, kas pirms nāves pasacīts.
Vārdu, ja tas izlējies, neviens vairs nevar sasmelt.
Kā bezdelīgu debesīs – to nevienam nesadzīt.

Vārdi, mani vārdi, nežēlojiet mani!
Grauds nedrīkst žēlot tīrumu, no kura vārpai augt.
Bez asniem un bez lemešiem zeme ātri panīkst.
Dziļāk šķeliet, sāpīgāk, jaunu domu plaukumam.
Tā nav jūsu bēda: slavina vai soda.
Dzeju beidzot aizveras mūsu starpā vārti.
Tālāk ejiet paši. Dzīvību jums dodama,
atbildu par visu,
Vārdi mani vārdi…

Literal Translation


Literal translation by Inga Gaile


Words came to me in dream. Words were surrounding
me as lads, whose mother is called
because of them to the police office.The round mouth of the smallest
and most beloved word turned angular and trembled.
It seemed, that he will cry out: I will behave from now.
But in vain – he was not the screaming word.
And then I said:

Words, my words, when they’ll judge us harshly,
Do not hang your heads! The defendants’ bench
Is only wornup threshold, which should be trespassed, to give the start to
World without the walls. Earth, that is not room.
Once in lifetime everyone should hatch out from the egg.
Birds have always known it. All of them and everyone. Even a chicken knows it.
It is known to bird, poet and the word.
Judgment, even supreme judgement – that is our freedom.
That could not be reft/robbed/taken away. They who are touched by outer breath.
Do not need to look back/ hindsight to see the walls – life.
Die the birds and poets die. But not even an axe blade
Could cut out the word, said before the death.
Spilt out word, impossible to ladle.
As the swallow in the sky – no one’ll seize it down.

Words, my only words, don’t you pity me.
Crop could not pity field, from one the spike should grow.
Without the sprouts and ploughshares, the earth goes into decline.
Split deeper and split painfuller, for blossoming of new thoughts.
That is not your worry: they praise you or they punish.
Gateways/entries shut between us at the end of poetry.
Further it’s your own way.
By giving you the life,
I have answered everything
Words, you are my words…

Help on translating this poem

After publishing Inga Gaile’s poem ‘Fog’ in the Summer issue of MPT, we asked if she would like to lead our next Baltic online workshop. Given the wonderful response to our Estonian Marie Under workshop, we asked if she would choose a female Latvian poet who deserves to be more widely known in the English-speaking world. Inga has chosen Vizma Belševica (1931-2005), a Latvian poet, writer and translator who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Inga says: ‘Vizma Belševica was not allowed to publish her works for 10 years during the Soviet period. She earned her living by translating. She is, as well, the author who once said: ‘all poetry comes from deep shit.’

Many thanks to Janis Elsbergs for allowing us to workshop his mother’s poem. Please post your translations up by end of September 19th, and Inga Gaile will pick the best one to go in our Latvian digital pamphlet.

Notes from the translator

  • ‘Puikas’ I chose to translate as ‘lads’
  • ‘Milicija’ I chose to translate as ‘police’, as ‘militia’ generally is understood as a fighting organisation of non-professional soldiers (‘militia’ in Soviet times was state organised police.)
  • ‘āra elpas skartajam’ – one touched by outer breath. In this line there is the problem with the hero of the poem: is it a he or she? The author describes it as ‘he’ and I should obey the author, I guess. Although I believe she did not think that God is a man, for example. Although I don’t know. Okay, I will try to translate with ‘it’, before I will be obedient and turn it to ‘he’. Although, the poem itself somehow gives me permission to ‘break free’ and use the words I consider right, without fear of judgement.
    UPD: I read some articles about gender-free pronouns and chose ‘they’ as my option.
  • In my translation I chose to maintain the Capital letters at the beginning of each line, because I admire the author’s style.
  • The language of the author is rhythmical. There are rhymes interwoven in the poem. The alliteration is important.