Translations needed for poetry project at Meldrum Parkfrom the Argus Leader
December 15, 2014
by Jon Walker
The poem has 16 words and takes five seconds to read.
But "The Red Wheelbarrow," a lyric by William Carlos Williams, represents a challenge for Sioux Falls. Ben Miller, 51, is trying to enlist enough people to translate the poem and then read it in every language spoken in the city. The occasion would be a great coming-together of cultures in May 2016 at the foot of the mural at Meldrum Park on East Sixth Street.
Miller has 13 translations on board so far, among Sioux Falls languages that number at least 144. That leaves him less than one-tenth of the way to the goal, but he also has 17 months to work with. "We're inching forward every week," he said. The object of his attention is a poem that Williams, a Pulitzer-winning writer from New Jersey, penned as a farmyard jingle. It reads: "So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens."
That poem has kicked around in Miller's head since he discovered it as a teenager in a bookstore in his hometown of Davenport, Iowa. When he saw Dave Loewenstein's mural at Meldrum Park late last year, he thought the Williams poem the fitting choice – short, crisp, enigmatic – for a reading to draw a diverse community together at the mural. That the poem is a brain teaser doesn't hurt. "That's the beauty of poems. You puzzle over them," Miller said.
Miller is orchestrating the poetry project from Cambridge, Mass., where he lives with his wife, Anne Wiese. They're both writers with Midwestern roots, and Miller this school year is writing essays at Harvard in a fellowship sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. The couple has visited Sioux Falls many times and will move here next June to a home west of downtown. He's now soliciting help for the poetry project by asking people to email him at email@example.com. The push now is for translators. By late next year the effort will shift to enlist volunteer readers.
The 13 languages covered so far are by a varieity of sources. A music professor at Harvard, Alex Rehding, provided the German. Two students at Harvard, Ashford King from Kentucky and Eliza Pan from Alberta, did the French. A biologist from Israel, Itai Yanai, provided the Hebrew. Also lined up so far are Irish, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Nyanja, Portuguese, Scottish, Finnish, Romanian and English. The Romanian came from a Sioux Falls couple, Adrian and Vica Anton, immigrants from East Europe. "First of all I love poetry, and we have an old history of poetry in our country. I love this kind of stuff," Vica Anton said. Her native tongue is not an international language, so its lesser known status makes it strategic to check off the list. Her husband did the honors Friday night, writing out "The Red Wheelbarrow" as "Roaba Rosie," and then the Romanian text, this time in 18 words: "Atat de mult depinde de o roabe cu roata rosie acoperita cu apa de ploaie langa gainile albe."
Cobbling together the full list of translations is a work in progress. For one thing, there are more than 140 languages spoken in the city. Another challenge will be finding readers to match up with every translation. Several agencies are assisting as co-sponsors -- the Sioux Falls and South Dakota arts councils, the school district, City Hall, Multicultural Center, Whittier Neighborhood Association , South Dakota Humanities Council and poet laureate David Alan Evans.
Nan Baker, director Sioux Falls Arts Council, said the project may be a case where the process is more important than the result. "This is building social capital in the Whittier neighborhood, and people will take ownership," she said. "Those things don't just happen. We feel the arts are an avenue by which those types of gatherings can be put together."
The event may involve a simple succession of volunteers stepping forward to read. It could have the English read periodically or include other other poems that participants suggest. Depending on who is or isn't available that day to appear in public, it could include video. "If somebody wants to read it at the kitchen table, we could film them," Miller said. "We don't really know yet how it's going to best work out."
The Red Wheelbarrow
By poet William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963.
"So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens."
May 2016 is target date for reading at Meldrum in each of 144 languages in Sioux Falls.
To help: Send a translation of the poem by email, along with a three-sentence biography including current residence, to Ben Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To participate: Someone wishing to help in the event, may also notify Miller.