Q & A: Translating from a Language You Don’t Know

I have recently been reading Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation, by Amal al-Jubouri, trans. Rebecca Gayle Howell (with Husam Qaisi). Howell explains in the book’s preface how she — not a strong Arabic reader — worked with Qaisi to translate the poems. But I wanted to dig into this topic.

ArabLit: What made you decide that it would be possible to translate this book? I read the preface, where you say that you decided to translate al-Jubouri based on her poem “The Veil of the Religions.” But what factors made it seem…possible?

Rebecca Gayle Howell: Well, I think there are two answers to that question. First, when in my early twenties I started reading poetry with some seriousness, I was reading versions by Stephen Mitchell, Chana Bloch, and Coleman Barks alongside original works by Louise Glück, Carolyn Forché, and CK Williams. My ear heard all of it as absolutely contemporary―even though some of what I was reading was absolutely ancient. So, maybe it’s enough to say that it has never not seemed possible to me.

I’m not interested in a Tower of Babel. I don’t believe in the existence of ‘literal translations.’ I do find solace in Willis Barnstone’s idea that the act of translation makes it possible for poetry to be a ‘living text,’ a text that continually moves forward into new communities, new places, new times. That we have been ‘confounded’ is a blessing, I think. Ellen Doré Watson, my mentor, taught me that translation was more about work than theory, she taught me to work the language like a bread dough. I like the idea that we are all doing our best. That we make mistakes, that our mistakes meet our successes. That others will try again.

So I like that there is a struggle, that in order to share meaning and experience, we must work and work together. In Sarah Maguire’s sharp essay ‘Singing About the Dark Times: Poetry and Conflict’ she writes that “translating poetry is the opposite of war.” In that I hear something about the work of empathy, understanding, collaboration, compromise―the work of human relationships―that’s involved when one sits down to translate a poem. I know that translating Amal’s book changed me and for the better. Just as there is no such thing as a literal translation, I suppose that there is no such thing as a literal understanding. But as a human I have to believe that it’s worth the trying.

AL: Many translators work with a “native informant,” but Husam Qaisi seems to be rather more than that. How did you decide to work with Qaisi? Why him vs. another poet, for instance?

Also: You call him the “literal translator,” much as the Poetry Translation Centre refers to literal translators. But I’ve always felt dubious about the possibility of “literal” translation. In what ways do you think Qaisi did (or didn’t) color the process?

RGH: I chose to work with Husam because he is a family friend, and I knew the level of integrity he would bring to the project. Calling him the ‘literal translator’ was our compromise of semantics; you are right that in literary translation circles his role is more accurately called ‘informant.’However, an informant is often a contractor who offers a literal version of the poem and advisable notes on synonyms. Although Husam’s job was to provide my access to the Arabic, he went well above his call of duty in that capacity. As I explained in the translator’s introduction to the collection, he and I moved the traditional process one step back and worked instead with lexicon tables. I have a background in linguistics, and I wanted to have access to what the language was doing―not just what it was saying. Husam took the time to teach me about Arabic and also about all of the relevant cultural and religious histories referenced in Amal’s poems. We worked over Skype after his children were asleep, and he would review my drafts, correct my misunderstandings, read the Arabic to me so that I could have access to Amal’s music…he gave many hours to this project. I suspect I will never be so lucky again. I wanted to properly thank him; sharing translator credit was the best way I knew how.

This collection was a collaboration―between he and I, between the two of us and Amal, between languages and histories. We all colored the process. Amal reviewed the manuscript before it was sent to press, and she and I worked together to make this change or that…mostly issues of dialect. That she approved of the manuscript doesn’t tell me that it’s right, or that there is such a thing as ‘right,’ but it means a lot to me to know she is pleased and proud. Translation is probably a colored process by definition. Happily so.

AL: You mention in the preface that he’s a Palestinian-American and a devout Muslim…did these things matter in choosing him for the project? Or are they just incidentally mentioned?

RGH: Incidentally mentioned. His nationality and religion are at the center of his life; aside from mentioning his life as a devoted father and husband, I couldn’t think of a better way to help the reader get to know him a bit.

AL: Would you do this again? What do you think the pitfalls are in working with a partner-translator who knows the source language much more thoroughly? Are there benefits, do you think, to this manner of working?

RGH: By ‘pitfalls’ do you mean something like the overwhelming and years-long anxiety that I might be making unknown and egregious errors? Sure. But as I mentioned earlier, I am drawn to translation because the process of it asks me to be a better person. Collaborating with Husam taught me much about trust. And also about compromise and generosity.

I think it also has made me a better poet. As a person who only has full access to her native language, I essentially had to deconstruct my relationship to English and my pre-conceived notions of how poetry behaves, in order to go as deep into the Arabic and into the Arabic poems as I could. When I emerged to construct these version of Amal’s poems, I emerged, not just a different translator, but a different poet. My own poems have significantly changed. So welcoming what is foreign has challenged me, changed me, and blessed me. And yes―I would do this again, and I hope to.

AL: Why did you decide to make it bilingual? Or will all the books in the Alice James translation series be bilingual?

RGH: To publish the book as a parallel text was Alice James’ decision to make, and I remain grateful to them for it. I mean, can you imagine? It must double the cost of producing the book. Still, AJB is a press that understands literary translation as a necessary art, one that we are poised, now more than ever, to practice and benefit from. They are wonderful.

As I think I’ve said, I have a lot of faith in the word ‘version’ to describe a literary translation. Meaning, this is my version of Amal’s book. My intention was to produce an English elegy that would sing with a power equal to Amal’s Arabic elegy. One that would create the opportunity for sharing the grieving process. This was particularly important to me because of our subject matter―war, this war. We have quite a lot to sort out now, all of us. But English has different needs than Arabic. So, you know. I made my decisions. For whatever they’re worth, I stand by them. Some of these poems already exist in other versions, and I’m sure there will be still more versions and other translators of her other books. I hope so. She’s a special poet writing during an auspicious time for her community. Incidentally, I also hope that we are now at the beginning of a great opening between Arabic poetry and English poetry, much in the way we’ve seen between English and Russian and English and Spanish in years past.

By publishing this version as a parallel text, it welcomes readers who have access to both languages into an ever unfolding experience. I know for me, in translating it, I was often amazed at how the collection opened out into new and further meanings as it traveled between Arabic and English. That AJB published a parallel text provides the original poems their opportunity to stand that test of travel, and hopefully, to invite others to make their own versions. For this particular collection, I love how the Arabic and English poems seem to stand side-by-side, as if in solidarity. ‘The opposite of war.’ Exactly.

Rebecca Gayle Howell’s poems and translations appear in such publications as Ninth Letter, 32 Poems, Ecotone, Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Poetry Daily. She is the recipient of a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center and the Jules Chametzky Prize in Literary Translation from the Massachusetts Review. Her translation of Amal al-Jubouri’s ‘Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation‘ was chosen to inaugurate the Alice James Books Translation Series in 2011.