What’s Gained, and Lost, in a Bilingual Collection

I hadn’t realized that Hagar Before the Occupation/ Hagar After the Occupation was a bilingual collection.

When I requested a copy of the book, written by Iraqi poet Amal al-Jubouri and translated by poet Rebecca Gayle Howell & Husam Qaisi, all I knew was that Hagar was written by al-Jubouri post-2003, making it one of only a handful of such works in translation. Most works in English that address the Iraqi occupation were written by Anglo journalists, politicians, poets, and/or soldiers. Oh, and I also knew that Rebecca Gayle Howell is not fluent in Arabic, and that Qaisi did a more “literal” translation and Howell largely worked from there.

My first reaction to the collection’s bilinguality was: Fan-tastic!

Bilingual collections are fairly rare, outside of academic texts. The Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa 1 collection, ed. Peter Clark, was bilingual. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Rising of the Ashes, trans. Cullen Goldblatt, was in English and French. I think it takes a certain bravery to publish bilingually. Yes, go on, check my work!

Patty Paine, one of the editors of Gathering the Tide, said that she and the other editors of Gathering had considered making their collection bilingual. Ultimately, they decided it would be too long as such. As I read through Gathering and looked up a few of the originals (and in one case an alternate translation), I wished that it had been bilingual. I regretted its monolinguality.

Then, as I read through Hagar, I realized there are downsides to bilinguality.

A translation is a sort of an interpretation of the poem. The translator must decide — more or less — what the poem “means” (yes, yes, I oversimplify) before she can render it in another language. She must weigh different possible connotations of a word or phrase, the other words and phrases they touch, the sound and feel of them, and ultimately she must make decisions.

When I read through Hagar the first time, I couldn’t stick to the English. I’d go back and weigh this phrase against that phrase, this placement on the page vs. that. Unlike Stephanie Fauver, I don’t think of translations as placeholders, as inadequate representations of an original. I consider them works of art in their own right. Rebecca Gayle Howell is a poet; she has made aesthetic decisions (as against repetition, for one); these poems have her fingerprints, and Qaisi’s, as well as al-Jabouri’s.

But instead of taking in the translations whole cloth, as a singular experience, I was hopping here and there, wondering what I would’ve done, wondering — if the poet “approved” the translation — if that means this view is “right”. An interesting experience, but, next read, I’ll have to block off one language.

Perhaps a better bilingual experience would come by presenting the whole collection together in one language, and this facing the whole collection together in the other.