Qantara this week has an interview with an exceptionally humble-sounding Fuad Rifka, the Syrian/Lebanese poet and German-Arabic translator who recently won the Goethe Medal for his translations.
The Qantara interviewer, Rainer Traube, asserts that many “experts” say poetic translation between the two languages is impossible, as German has a “completely different logic” from Arabic.
Rifka agrees that poetic translation is a difficult art, and involves imperfections. But the hardest thing of all? Understanding what the darn poet is talking about:
Many a time, I have called up poets I’ve been translating and asked, “Excuse me, what does this verse means?” The answer I get is “Mr Rifka, you have to decide for yourself what I meant. I can’t say anything more. The experience has past and I can never again relive it. You must decide for yourself.”
This means that a translation is the interpretation of an interpretation. It is thereby two steps away from the original. We have to recognise this problem. But what can you do? Should we simply say, “Let’s stop translating?”
Of course not, Rifka says.
To echo this sentiment, Rifka’s poetry turned into English by Paula and Adnan Haydar.
In his poem
a trembling spark.
It brushes his eyelashes,
stretches them to a horizon that recedes.
In a fog it disappearss
behind the dots, the commas, and the letters.