Mahmoud Darwish in English: A Conversation with Translator Ziad Suidan

By Sofia Samatar

Ziad Suidan, PhD Candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is translating eighteen poems by Mahmoud Darwish as part of his dissertation. Sofia Samatar, a doctoral student in UW’s Department of African Languages and Literature, talked to him about the project.

Sofia Samatar: Could you talk about Mahmoud Darwish’s status as a poet right now, both within the Arabic literary tradition and in “world literature?”

Ziad Suidan: I think Mahmoud Darwish is certainly much more a household name in the Arab world, specifically Palestine, and in Europe, than he is in the United States. But even where he is known well, his identity is both a blessing and a curse. Many people know his name and his poetry, but they always refer to him as a Palestinian resistance poet, so he’s always fallen under a national umbrella that fails to recognize how Palestinian life itself has been displaced. One thing that’s been noticed in European academic circles is how his poetry picks up themes of exile and dislocation, something theorists have been thinking about for twenty years—that is, exile as a general condition of life.

SS: The title of your dissertation is Mapping Occupation: Translating a Multiply Lived and Occupied Palestine. Could you elaborate on what you mean by “multiply lived?”

ZS: We have an image of Israel/Palestine today that presents it as either democratic in the American sense of the term, or else as occupied and divided and strangling Palestinian life. What I’m trying to suggest by “multiply lived” is that yes, these are concrete possibilities, but that the people living on the ground, whether Israeli or Palestinian, also comprise multiple identity positions and histories.

SS: Can you give us an example of this from Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry?

ZS: There’s a poem called “They Don’t Look Behind Them” which includes the phrase “address unknown.” For Palestinians, this is deeply concrete: it shows that their memories are not living up to the actual realities of living in Israel/ Palestine. It also speaks to Jews that have Israeli citizenship: many of their names have been changed if they shared a close relationship with Arab history. At the same time, the words “address unknown” recall a German film from 1944, set in Nazi Germany, in which a Jewish banker ignores a letter from a friend who is trying to find his daughter and retain some semblance of family life. So Mahmoud Darwish’s use of this phrase contains multiple resonances, which can also be heard through the English language.

SS: Considering that all of Mahmoud Darwish’s work is already available in English, what do you see as unique about your translation? What sort of audience are you looking for, and what contribution do you hope to make in terms of how this poetry is received?

ZS: First, I’m trying to focus on the intimacies of his language, its aesthetic qualities. At the same time, I want to place these aesthetic elements within the political present of what Mahmoud Darwish is trying to speak about. So my translation is literary and aesthetic, and also contemporary and political.

As for the audience—I would like my translation to reach a large audience, one that is not contained by the university setting. I’d like to offer a bilingual edition that would attract Arab readers and people who are familiar with Arabic, and also allow people that want to read the English to see how English can receive Darwish’s work. I would like my translation to be not overly burdensome or academic, but well researched enough that a person can pick up the poetry and understand it in their own context, while also seeing other elements that I’ve seen, and hopefully broaden their view of Mahmoud Darwish.

You can read a summary of a recent presentation by Ziad Suidan on the World Literature /s Mellon Workshop site.’

More (from the editor):

Suidan has two heavily annotated translations of Darwish poems available online. His comments and considerations are interesting both for emerging translators and for lay readers who are interested in seeing the thought process (and work) behind choices in translation.

The annotated translation of Darwish’s “She Said to Him

His annotated translation of “They Don’t Look Behind Them