For the moment, I need to hold my tongue about the value of Adonis: Selected Poems. I’m reviewing it for a publication that, I’m sure, wouldn’t like me to pre-review it here.

But, as I’m thinking through various aspects—and, to be sure, Mattawa does a brilliant job, and why don’t you and I own his Tocqueville?—I find myself particularly interested in how one translates…letters.

I admit this isn’t a major issue in translation: Not like the quicksand of “foreignization vs. domesticization” or the even-quicker-sand of religious formulae such as insha’allah.

One does see the letter أ appear in literature (straight as an alef, tall as an alef, etc.), and Betool Khedairi descends into letters at the end of Absent. Oh, and letters were certainly an issue in the translation of Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam. But generally, I suppose, it’s not an burning issue for Arabic-English translators.

Adonis, however, does have a particular relationship with letters.

In his note on the translation, Mattawa says he resisted any particular translation strategy, “as I believe it is impossible to determine a method of translating a work, particularly one of poetry.” (Somehow, I both disbelieve and cheer this, like when a writer says “I don’t know how it happened; the characters just told me what to do.”)

Indeed, Mattawa changes up his methods from section to section, treating letters (and other things) differently in different poems.

There is a basilisk “standing tall and upright like an Alif.” (From the collection Desire Moving Through Maps of Matter). No footnote here, and Alif is capitalized, transliterated. I suppose the act of capitalization makes it seem more tall and upright.

Earlier in the same poem (please forgive my inability to do the spacing properly in WordPress; I have badly mucked it up):

Shelter me, Dhawd, guard me, Dhawd(1)—
my language, my home—
I hang you like a charm around the throat of this era
and explode my passions in your name
not because you are a temple
not because you are my father or mother
but because I dream of laughter, and I weep through you
so that I translate my insides
and cling to you as I tremble as my sides shudder like windows
shaken by a wind let loose from God’s fingers

At first, I thought Dhawd must be an unfamiliar person/place name; I flipped to the endnotes to find it was the letter ض. (Sure, sure, in retrospect it seems obvious.) Several things are important here: the letter’s sound, the particularity of the letter—as Mattawa notes, the ض “distinguishes Arabic from other languages”—and its shape.

You have to flip to the endnotes to get all that. Mattawa eschews footnotes; I assume he doesn’t want to clutter the presentation, and I like that. He does place some rich (and some unnecessary) information in the endnotes.

So sometimes (as in the section of Celebrating Vague-Clear Things) the letters are rendered like “Dhawd,” transliterated into multiple Latin characters. Page 271 (again, spacing incorrect):

Between your steps and space,
letters written by a stranger.
The letter “Mim”
you called “Ha”
and the letter “Alif”
you called “Ya.”
Why, and how, do you maintain
this invisible history?

Other times, when letters are used primarily as counters, they are changed to: A, B, C, D…

Later, as in Prophesy, O Blind One, Mattawa uses the Arabic character, or the Arabic character alongside a capitalized English-language transliteration: Kaf ك.

So: sometimes transliterated; sometimes transliterated and end-noted; sometimes “translated”; sometimes left as-is; sometimes transliterated and coupled with the Arabic character.

I suppose I don’t feel fully satisfied with any of it (except the “straight as an Alif,” with Alif transliterated, which I’ve seen enough to be used to it).This is certainly one of those “foreignizing” moments in the reading, when one must come face-to-face with the fact that this was not written in English and cannot be fully understood without its own characters.

However, I should underline that most of Adonis: Selected Poems does not feel foreign/foreignized, and that these difficult moments, one feels, are allowed to come naturally.

And, lest we forget, translating Chinese poetry is much more difficult.