Q & A with Worod al-Musawi: On Group Translation of Poetry

Iraqi poet and Poetry Translation Centre (PTC) workshop leader Worod al-Musawi has called translation “the most exhausting form of creativity one can do.” She recently spoke to The Conversation Papers about translation and Iraqi poetry. Here at ArabLit, she answers questions about her work with the PTC. This is part II of a series that began with PTC founder Sarah Maguire.

ArabLit: It looks like you’ve been involved in four poetry translation workshops thus far. First, you come up with a “literal” translation. This seems like a very fraught designation to me. What is your process for deciding the “literal” translation? How long do you spend on it?

Worod Musawi: Before answering this question I need to address what translation means for me. I believe that translation is not only based on language—it’s not just the transformation of one language into another. You can’t call yourself a translator simply because you speak two languages. Translation is a transformation from one culture to another, through the medium of language. Each language has its own rhetoric, metaphors; its own deep and surface levels of meaning.

Also, we have to admit that the Arabic language has a huge and massive level of rhetoric and metaphor. In the Arabic language every single small thing can be turned into a metaphor. One sentence in Arabic can turn into a hundred pages, or a hundred pages be represented in the meaning of just one sentence. In comparison English is a limited language, an accurate language. So it’s difficult to be a translator if you don’t understand both cultures.

So the question I need to answer is: How I can transfer the real meaning from one culture to another? And how can I link both cultures in one piece of work? Because of this, before I start a translation I need to read the poem first and decide if this poem works in the other culture, or if I can translate it in a way that the other culture can accept. Then I start the literal translation.

A literal translation takes me one or two hours if it’s a ten-line poem. But it could take me up to one week for the poetic translation, for the meaning to come out. My goal as a poet and a critic is to translate the poem without taking from it—I want to enrich the original poem and give to it.

AL: These new poetry sessions are specifically for Arabic speakers? The July 12 event says you’ll be working on “literal” translations of Omani poetry. What does “literal” translation mean here? Is it possible to separate a literal meaning from form and sound?

WM: The Poetry Translation Centre uses a two-step translation process. First, native language speakers create a literal translation, then a team of regular workshop members work together to create a final translation. In these new workshops we are focusing on creating the literal translation as a way to introduce people to this process of translation. We are asking people who are native Arabic speakers to come along and help us do a line by line literal translation of important Arabic poets. Later that literal translation will be taking on to one of the core PTC workshops where the poet Sarah Maguire will lead her regular team of translators in turning the poems into good new poems in English.

In the first session on May 17th we translated a poem by the Iraqi poet Hazim al-Temimi—that literal translation will be workshopped on June 13th.

On July 12th, we will be working on creating literal translations of the work of Saida Khater from Oman. Anyone based in London who speaks Arabic is very welcome to join us! http://omanworkshop12july.eventbrite.com/

AL: Do the PTC workshops enhance your relationship to words or poetry? What do you feel you take from the workshops?

WM: For me words and poetry are one, I can’t separate words from poetry. Before I started attending and then leading these PTC workshops I refused to translate my work or anyone else’s because of this fear that translation could only take away from a poem’s meaning, never give to it. But when I first started coming to the workshops I was surprised by how much the translation process can add. When you have a group of 5-10 people sitting together judging a literal translation, figuring out the precise word to use, quizzing the literal translator about his or her intentions… I’d never seen that before. I think when you have one sole translator working on a poem it leads to poor quality translations, and we’ve seen a lot of that with Arabic to English translation. But the group process goes so much deeper… it’s a kind of judgment. It thrilled me. That’s why I’m involved with the Poetry Translation Centre, because I believe that Arabic poetry until hasn’t had enough good quality translations.

AL: Are there poetry translations you’re working on for publication? Is poetry translation (Arabic-English or English-Arabic, or other) something you want to focus on? Why?

WM: Other than this work I’m not doing any other translations for publication, because the PTC has kidnapped me from poetry and that’s enough for now! Aside from the work I do for them, I need to focus on my own poetry and my photography.

AL: Your bio lists your forthcoming volume with only an English title, What the Bullet Whispered to the Head. (Lovely title, by the way.) Is it forthcoming in English translation?

WM: It’s coming out in Arabic ( ما قالته الرّصاصةُ للرأس), and it will be published in Jordan by Dar Fadaat. Hopefully in September!