‘Palestinian Poetry and Literature is Important on the World Stage’

Cover detail from an installation by Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour. More on the cover below.

Poet-translator Fady Joudah did a Q&A with publisher Yale University Press on his translation of Ghassan Zaqtan’s work, collected in Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems (2012). The mini-interview was published on the YUP blog at the end of April, but I just stumbled across it this morning.

First, YUP asked Joudah what sort of impact he hoped the book would have on the English-speaking audience.

Joudah, in part:

…More specifically, I do believe Palestinian poetry and literature is important on the world-stage. I believe it has much to offer us, in the way we have embraced post-Holocaust literature, Polish literature, Irish or Chilean literature. There are of course those who’d raise their eyebrows at this statement, understandably so, since we are also confined to absorbing literature as it relates to stages and theatres of power dynamics. Palestinian literature, in Deleuze’s sense, is minor literature par excellence, and has a centrality around the peripheralized existence in an age largely defined by construction and illusion of the nation-state.

YUP: Can a translator ever succeed in “translating” the customs, connotations, cultural implications of one nation into those of another?

Joudah, in part:

Translation as I said celebrates difference, and in that it demands a larger sense of oneness, of togetherness. It’s up to the reader, or the reading culture to truly embrace that difference, seek it, without so much of the “aesthetic merit” masquerade.

I wish he had gone into greater depth on what he means by that masquerade, and whether he means a quite narrow sort of “aesthetic merit.”

In closing, YUP asks, “So then, is fidelity to the original possible?”

And Joudah says, sure, but let’s not talk about it:

“I find that I don’t like to talk about translation much, in part because the obsession with technicalities for me is such a symptom of our previously mentioned super-specialized world.”

As you remember, Zaqtan did not get the visa to come to the US and read from his new collection. But you can see a video they ran at one of the scheduled appearances. A number of Zaqtan’s poems are online and here and here (various translators, the last one Joudah). Joudah previously wrote about translating Zaqtan back in 2009 for the Beloit Poetry Journal, where he says:

Neither fidelity nor infidelity is the question per se; rather it is the “new” poem: the thing itself.


The poem in Arabic is not necessarily easier to “figure out” than in English. Its detail (of Palestinian humanity, yes, but also of a universal one) is what captivates the mind in either language.

On the Modern Poetry in Translation website:

Alone and the river before me, trans. Fady Joudah

I have a suspicious heart, brother,
and a blind statue,
and the news that amateur refugees brought from Baghdad stunned me
there’s a lot they haven’t seen yet
they were crossing the bridge by chance

intentions are in the ports
befuddled as their owners left them,
incomplete as the murdered left them
and where our friend, the one you know, pointed, we went
without a moan or groan

our country is far
and intentions good

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NOTE ON THE COVER: Art historian Maymanah Farhat adds, about the cover image above, “That detail is of an installation by Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour. The work was created out of mud, something that Mansour spearheaded in his boycotting of Israeli art supplies during the first Intifada. He and several others formed an influential artist collective that sought to use materials from the natural environment of Palestine as a poignant form of protest and resistance against the occupation. There is a whole period of contemporary Palestinian art that was dominated by ceramics, installation, sculpture and bas-relief using everything from earthworks to cactus fibers.”