Ghareeb Iskander on Iraqi Poetries and the ‘Third Language’ of Translation

Ghareeb Iskander is an Iraqi poet living in London. He has published collections of his own work (Sawad Basiq, Mahafat Alwahm, Af’a Gilgamesh), criticism on Arabic poetry, and translations of poets both from Arabic to English (Badr Shakir al-Sayyab) and English to Arabic (Derek Walcott). 

Iskander has also been involved in the Reel Iraq project, along with Ryan van Winkle and Lauren Pyott, who were part of last week’s Iraqi poetry feature. He answered questions about his own poetry and the festival:

images (2)ArabLit: You participated in Reel Iraq. What did you most enjoy about this experience? What did it bring, as a literary festival — to its authors and its audiences — that was different from other literary festivals?

Ghareeb Iskander: Back in January 2013 I was invited by Ryan van Winkle, the literary manager of the Reel Festival, and Dan Gorman co-founder of the Reel Festival, to join a poetry translation workshop called Found in Translation with four poets based in Scotland (John Glandy, Jen Hadfield, Krystelle Bamford and William Letford) and four Iraqi poets (Sabreen Kadhim, Zahir Mousa, the Kurdish poet from Kirkuk Awazan Nury and me).

The translations have been done literally through Lauran Pyott (Arabic / English) Hoshang Waziri (Kurdish / English), and Dina Mousawi helped in interpreting between the poets. In Shaqlawa in Erbil we did quite few translations. And as poets we had to work poetically on these translations. It was like an intensive course, but it was really useful and enjoyable. This is indeed what was special, enjoyable, and therefore different about this festival.

At that time we were invited to read our original and translated poems in the Erbil Literature Festival, held by the British Council, to promote the exchange of British and Iraqi writing and give opportunities for the Iraqi audiences to experience the presentations of contemporary literature. It also offered the British writers and poets a chance to further their knowledge and experience of the Iraqi modern literature. Therefore, the advantage I suppose was for both sides: the writers and the audiences.

I am hoping to repeat the same experience when I go for a poetry reading at Edinburgh International Book Festival.

AL: Are there particular characteristics, or challenges, do you think, when translating Iraqi (Arabic) poetry into English? That are different from translating other Arabic poetries? 

GI: I think so. Even though Iraqi Arabic poetry is almost at the same standard linguistic level in all the Arab world, there are cultural, social and political and even poetic differences.

As a translator, you have to know these characteristics and differences to convey them to different linguistic, social and cultural systems. These differences also exist in poetry from the same country. A translator has to understand the nature of the poetry he / she is going to translate; for example, translating Adonis, whose poetry is stylistically based on using abstract images and semantically on using philosophical, deep, and sometimes even ambiguous ideas, differs from translating Muhammad al-Maghut, whose poetry is based stylistically on the narrative images and semantically on using common and everyday issues.

I think as every poem has its own circumstances during its writing; its translation has the same conditions. In translation, we don’t only convey the linguistic system of the source text to a different linguistic level of the target text. Especially in poetry, we convey all levels (linguistic and non-linguistic) which are melted to build a poem. In that sense, what applies to the Syrian poets applies to the Iraqi and Egyptian poets, etc.

1006314_707891175894067_1133903574_nAL: You recently wrote about translating Sayyab into English. Why hasn’t Sayyab received more attention in English? Have you translated any of his poems into English?

GI: When I decided to study the translations of Sayyab’s poetry, I was shocked when I found that there’s just one book in English about the pioneer of modern Arabic poetry!

The only book is Placing the Poet by Terri DeYoung, an academic study about his life and poetry. Yes, there are a few anthologies and journals specialized in Arabic literature in English which published some of his poems, especially his famous poem “Unshodt al-Matar” [Rain Song]. I studied its translations into English and translated the poem myself, and I have recently published a book about it supported by the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London (ICCL). The ICCL also commissioned John Glandy and I to translate poems by Hasab al-Sheikh Ja’far, an Iraqi leading poet living in Baghdad.

The dearth of translations of Sayyab into English is part of the lack of translation institutions and publishers specialized in translating Arabic literature. I think without these institutions and publishing houses we cannot make any significant progress in this domain.

AL: What about issues in translating your own poetry? Do you feel there are things that come across differently, or have different weight, as you listen to the poems in English and in Arabic?

GI: I think any literary translation should be different from/to both the source and the target languages. A translation is, as it is said, the third language. It’s the result of the dialogue between the source and target languages. A translator who masters this dialogue which is based on his /her knowledge of original and translated texts linguistically and culturally and it also depends on the condition of the process and the psychological state of the translator.

AL: Is there a national “Iraqi” poetry? Or many Iraqi poetries?

GI: As you know Iraq is a multicultural country: Arab, Kurd, Turkmen, Assyrians, Sabeans, Shabaki, Yazidis. We cannot imagine any culture, no matter how marginal it is, that occurs without poetry. But there are two ‘main’ poetries in Iraq: Arabic poetry which is part of Arabic poetry in general, and Kurdish poetry which is presented in Iraq through the works of some important Iraqi -Kurdish poets such as Abduallah Quran and Shirko Bekas.

AL: Where do you find your readership? Are they still in Baghdad? Or in London, Cairo, Beirut, elsewhere?

GI: I am an Iraqi poet writing in Arabic, and most of my books were published in Beirut and Baghdad. Some people have read me through the English translations of my poems (e.g. Chariot of Illusion 2009 in London as a part of Exiled Writers Ink project).  I worked with John Clarke, a London-based poet, and we translated each other’s poems, which we presented at the Poetry Café in 2010 as a part of the Oriental Forum’s events. And as previously mentioned, other poems were translated into English as part of Reel Iraq by John Glendy and Jen Hadfield. I am working now with the English poet Chrys Salt to translate a selection of poems which we will present in the Wigtown Festival in October.

AL: Whose work, of contemporary poets, do you admire and find sustenance in? How do you hear about new poets?

GI: Most my readings now are about English poetry, not just British.  I have just translated into Arabic the last poetry book of Derek Walcott. It is now in print. I often re-read Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Auden, and Philip Larkin etc.  And the classic Arabic poets such as Abu Nuwas and parts of Abu Tamam and al-Mutanabbi. But from time to time I reread my favorite Arabic contemporary poets such as Sayyab, Adonis, etc. In terms of current poetry scene, I attend events held by the Poetry Café, Poet in the City, Arabic cultural centers, etc, and read reviews about new poetry books in magazines and newspapers in English and Arabic.

AL: How do you stay in touch with the poetry communities in Iraq? Was that part of the appeal of the Reel Festivals? Do you feel part of the poetry communities in London?

GI: I often travel to Iraq and I have remained in touch with the poetry communities. The Reel Festival introduced me to new poets, but more importantly I established a good link with British poets.

Ghareeb Iskander also shared a poem he translated by Sabreen Kadhim:

“A Damaged Soul”

Previous Thursdays:

August 1: Basim al-Ansar: ‘Poetry Is the Source of All the Arts’ 

August 8: Khaled al-Maaly: Poetry Worldwide Has No Boundaries

August 15: Between Iraqi and Scottish Poetries: The Closest Thing to Magic One Could Hope to See 

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