Translation of Poetry an ‘Arduous’ Task?

New York University’s Abu Dhabi branch has a new project (and a new way to save Arabic in the Emirates?): translating pre-modern Arabic poetry.

The “Library of Arabic Literature” project promises to translate a number of pre-modern texts both into modern Arabic and into English. The translations will feature side-by-side scripts of modern Arabic and English on facing pages.

According to (the optimistic) NYUNews:

Each text will be edited by experts in pre-modern Arabic in Abu Dhabi and New York. To ensure that nothing is lost in translation, multiple meetings will be held to ensure the texts in both languages are accurate and little is lost.

They’re the ones who said “to ensure that nothing is lost in translation,” not me.

I’m not opposed to accuracy. But is that all that we ask from poetry? This touches on why I’m not always enthusiastic about the relationship between translation and academia. Indeed, some of my least-favorite translators are academics. And the comments of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies associate professor Mona Mikhail  make me worry even more:

“Translation, especially of poetry, is an arduous task,” Mikhail said. “It involves not only a thorough knowledge of the original language and the target language, but also being very well-versed in the culture and history of the target language, in this case Arabic. A lot will depend, hence, on the quality of the translations and translators.”

Agreed about the quality of the translators: of course! About the knowledge of languages, culture, and history: sure! But to me, Mikhail makes it sound like lifting (intellectual) stones from one place to another. What of an artistic sense, a love of the poems, a delight in verse? This, I say, most of all.

I found this quote from Edith Grossman, lifted from an interview she gave with The Boston Globe, over at By The Firelight. I couldn’t agree more:

GROSSMAN: When I’m working I prefer to read contemporary American and English fiction. It gives me an idea of what’s possible. Aside from the fact that I’m addicted to novels, reading great fiction broadens my own repertoire of responses to a text. Gregory Rabassa said that when he was working on “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” some ninny asked him if he knew enough Spanish to translate it, and his answer was that the real question was whether or not he knew enough English. He hit it right on the head.