Fady Joudah on ‘Othering’ Himself to Translate Ghassan Zaqtan

Kristin Wagner was among those who attended the evening of poetry and discussion with Ghassan Zaqtan and Fady Joudah:

By Kristin Wagner

Boston University had the pleasure of hosting Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan and his translator, Palestinian-American poet and physician Fady Joudah, in a joint presentation this week.  The event, moderated by BU’s Margaret Litvin, focused on Zaqtan’s tenth and most recently published collection of poetry, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me.

The poets discussed their respective styles and the development of their translational relationship.

“One cannot keep oneself without losing oneself,” Joudah said in response to a question about his translations. In translating, Joudah said, one must “other” himself in order to preserve the true intention of the poem at hand. Joudah noted that the nature of the relationship between Zaqtan and himself was “free flowing… and natural,” and that there were rarely difficulties in the technical process of translating ideas.

He said the true difficulty, while essentially non-existent between Zaqtan and himself, instead lay in the process of communicating with different cultural audiences. For example, in, “Remembering the Lonely,” Zaqtan used the Arabic word safeer (صفير), commonly translated as “whistle.” Joudah felt that the word “whistle” did not do the poem justice in its English translation, and instead chose to use the word “trill,” so as to better convey the image to the English-speaking audience:

The lonely
walk in the shadow
a flock of cypress trees beyond the line of hills
like a flute sigh
or a trill

The duo also mentioned the difficulties in the translation of historical references in Zaqtan’s poetry, particularly Arabic or Palestinian expressions, culture, politics, and/or important figures. In a separate poem, “Wood Carving,” Zaqtan made a reference to the presence of cacti (صبار), which are implicitly understood by Palestinians as being representative of the after-growth of a village’s destruction; it is cacti which grow in place of absent villages, and they grow in great abundance. “Wood Carving” opens:


In the house of cactus
I finish what I started


a novel for death and the dead
and a chapter on bird matters

In this case and other similar instances, Joudah said, he does not rely heavily on notes, but rather leaves it up to scholars and critics to unearth various meanings. After all, he said later, the poem itself might open up onto other readings in English, and pinning it down to a single meaning is needlessly limiting.

In describing his style, Zaqtan said that he attempts to give “renovation to memory.”  The title of this collection, Like a Straw Bird That Follows Me, embodies his intentions. The straw bird is the husk or skeleton of a stalk of grain, implying fragility; the bird made of straw seems whole and clear, and it lures one into getting closer to it by its apparent vivacity. But on closer examination, it is but a renovated memory of its true form.

The presentation lasted for nearly two hours. One of the final questions posed to Zaqtan was about whether he preferred any one of his poems over others. After a short pause, Zaqtan responded that each poem is “bint zamanha” – a product of its time, like the memories he has devoted himself to renovating.

Kristin Wagner  is a special projects coordinator at Egypt Cancer Network 57357.

Also, if you’re in California (Claremont or Santa Barbara or LA), Texas (Austin or Houston), Connecticut, New York (Albany or NYC), or DC, your talk is still coming up.

1 Comment

  1. A wonderful write-up. I feel as if I had been there, and that it was an inspiring evening.

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