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Theophilus Kwek, one of the 2016 prizewinners, writes on displacement and translation in 'A Place Between Places'

Theophilus Kwek has published four volumes of poetry: most recently The First Five Storms, which won the New Poets' Prize in 2016. He served as President of the Oxford University Poetry Society, and is currently Editor of Oxford Poetry and Chief Executive Assistant at Asymptote, an international journal of translation. He is pursuing a Master's in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University.

A Place Between Places

On moving and translating between home and here

I can't decide if my eyes are playing tricks on me. Though I've lived here for four years, and Oxford is no stranger to snow, I keep looking out over the Cherwell to see if the flakes are indeed still falling, gathering in little drifts on the leaves and hollows. Back home we're halfway through a monsoon, and my gaze remains attuned to a different kind of February: trees torn up by rain, ugly wide drains pulsing like rivers, the whole city hot and torrential around me as a thunderstorm.

Years ago, interviewing for a place at the University over Skype, I'd embarrassed myself by asking if the white landscape through the open window was covered with snow. My professors (who still remember this) laughed, realizing that though I could tell them plenty about this country's history, which I'd spent weeks reading up on, I knew next to nothing about what it meant to move and live here. Three winters on, I'm still wrapped in more layers than I admit, and wake every morning to the disappointment that the seasons haven't changed. Alan Buckley, a poet and psychotherapist who works with refugees in Oxford, tells me about those who – despite living here for decades – catch a cold every autumn, 'their bodies reminding them that they're not at home'.

I'm fortunate not to have endured the harsh journey that many refugees have made, and continue to make, to reach safety in this country: a journey undertaken in worsening conditions, and against increasingly unjust odds. But I've learnt a little, since coming here, about being between homes. By the time I began work on Wong Yoon Wah's 'Moving House' last year, I knew I had put down some roots. My friends were getting married and making plans, while I was putting in applications and preparing to publish a small volume of poetry. Yet even as spring came and went at an alarming speed, and I prepared to fly home, I didn't know if I would be able to return after the summer.

All this made translating a poem about location and dislocation seem natural, almost easy. Or perhaps it was because I'd never translated poetry, and leapt into this without the caution of experience. No matter: when I found the poem on the National Library's rich database, and read what I could about its author, I knew I had to translate it. Displaced from his family home during the 'Malayan Emergency', Wong grew up in a barbed-wire compound, caught between British colonial forces and Communist guerrillas. After completing a doctorate in the U.S., Wong came to teach at Nanyang University in Singapore in the 1970s – just as the government was preparing to merge it, against strong opposition, with the University of Singapore – and weathered turbulent years there. He later moved between Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore, and became a celebrated member of their literary circles.

'Moving House', I quickly realized, was not about any one of these relocations, but about a life in transit – in translation. Writing it must have allowed Wong to 'go back and dust / the hollow rooms'; less an act of clearing out, than careful excavation and rediscovery. There's something about this process that speaks to all writing: we look hard at what others see as empty space and ask what's there, not leaving till the lines between finding and making something are blurred. And for anyone intimately acquainted with the act of moving, it's really not so different. You study each hollowed room you leave behind, praying you haven't forgotten something while dreaming what else could have been.

So translation, at the time, became a way for me to grapple with my small uncertainties. As I lifted Wong's text slowly from one language into another, settling on an unconventional layout in the English to represent the ideas I found there, I learned something about moving between the two worlds myself, found out what I could take with me, and what I had to leave behind. I also found that there was a place between places – not unlike what others have called 'translationese' – that resembled a kind of half-language, a rest-stop of the ear and mind; a place where I could find ways of living in both my homes, a place I'm still exploring as I spend another season on this side of the world.

Here there are more windows and rivers, and more houses to inhabit; here there is always room. Here it snows and pours in equal measure.

Theophilus Kwek, 2017