Tea Boys or Interns? Translators Tackle the Language of Najwan Darwish

At this year’s PEN translation slam, work by Najwan Darwish was translated into English by Ahmad Diab and Ryah Aqel:

By Jennifer Sears

Najwan Darwish, écrivain, Bruxelles, mars 208The PEN Translation Slam, part of the annual PEN World Voices event in New York City, is a curious event: a poet reads a work in its original language and translators duel by reading their versions of the same work.  The two poets featured on Friday, May 3 at the Public Theater on Lafayette St were Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, whose work was translated into English by Ahmad Diab and Ryah Aqel, followed by translations into Italian of poet Stacyann Chin.

After an awkward opening from moderator Michael Moore, Najwan Darwish read in Arabic and the translators read their translations of the poem — titled “Classifieds” by Diab and “Advertisement” by Aqel. With prompting by Moore, Darwish agreed that he liked interacting with translators.  He believes it is that it is to the translators’ advantage that he is alive and eager to collaborate — though sometimes a living poet might complain more openly about a translation.

Ahmad Diab agreed, stating that, for a Palestinian poet, an interactive translation is important because of the politics and misunderstandings that can interfere with the work. Moore interrupted, saying that Palestinians don’t have a monopoly on the anxieties of misrepresentation.  Translation is representation, Moore suggested.  All translated works face the same threat.

Darwish interjected, stating the craft and language were his main concerns in the process of translation.  In poetry, “loyalty” does not always mean loyalty to the original text.  Darwish asks of the translated work: Is the line effective? Does it work as a poem?  He feels that sometimes a line or idea that simply cannot be translated might be cut or changed.  He believed a poem may, on occasion, be improved in the process of translation.

Turning again to the text at hand, the concept of murder was discussed.  In Aqel’s translation, a lover engages her servant to kill a lover with “bathroom clogs.”  In Diab’s translation there weapon is unidentified. Darwish good-naturedly tried to explain and alluded to a cultural reference in which a mistress or woman would be able to, with the help of servants, kill her lover with the clogs.  But as neither translator could find words for the clogs in English that would carry the same connotations, Darwish, laughing, said the bathroom clogs may not work in English.  He agreed with the choice Diab made, leaving this reference out of his translation.

There was also the problem of a “messenger,” which has religious tones in Arabic, and a “tea boy” who brings tea.  Darwish, engaging the audience, asked out loud what he might use for “tea boy.” The vague term “porter” was called out. Translator Aqel suggested, wittily, the closest American equivalent to a “tea boy” was “intern.”

Then the lens turned to adjectives: a hardworking secretary in Diab’s translation appeared as a lively secretary in Aqel’s version.   Darwish digressed into an explanation of how the overall poem is a poetic depiction of his working life, in which he has to be the busy secretary answering emails, the polite tea boy, and the mistress/lover/creator in order to manage his life as writer. The roles ultimately show the life of one person. Diab said he senses this in the original and said the concept of a “split life” led him to translate the poem into the passive tense.  On this same note, an audience member noted the difference in tone the passive tense connoted in “my bankruptcy”  (Aqel’s) and “someone’s bankruptcy”  (Diab’s). In Diab’s translation, the narrator’s “split life” creates fear of bankruptcy whereas in Aqel’s translation, a partitioned life leads the narrator to declare his own bankruptcy.

Discussion of Darwish’s second poem, “Phobia,” was cut short. Audience and writers examined the word translated by Aqel as “chase me out” and by Diab as “evict.”  Darwish stated that, with a less capitalist-driven society, eviction is not part of the language.  This evocative suggestion ended the conversation, and the event segued into readings and discussion by Stacyann Chin and three Italian poets.

Jennifer Sears teaches English for the New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and also teaches dance in the NYC area.  She can be found at: http://www.holisticbellydanceproject.com or http://www.orientalish.blogspot.com.

Editor’s note: The Italian poetry translation was liveblogged at the PEN Tumblr.