A Bird is not a Stone, ed. Henry Bell and Sarah Irving, is a collection of poems by contemporary Palestinian writers forthcoming from Glasgow’s Freight Books. The translations are done — through the bridge method — by 25 of Scotland’s top poets. Irving talks about the collection, which she suggests is perhaps “freer” for being a bridge translation:
Sarah Irving: There were several reasons this ended up as the title. Partly it was to do with the history of the sculpture itself, which was built by the Berlin Wall and which ‘keeked’ over, and there are obvious parallels with the situation of Palestinian poets having to ‘keek’ over real and metaphorical walls which have been constructed around them. And then in relation to Palestinian poetry in particular there is a kind of homage to Darwish’s line ‘where should the birds fly after the last sky’ from The Earth is Closing in on Us. It was also quite simply a name that people organising the project in both Palestine and Scotland liked, and it has the benefit of not coming from any one specific poem in the collection, and so not privileging any single poet over the others.
AL: The Al-Bireh House of Poetry chose the 25 Palestinian poets? How did they go about choosing them? Why these 25?
SI: The primary purpose of the collection is to give wider exposure to the work of some Palestinian poets who haven’t been or who have rarely been translated into English. That was, I think, the main thrust of the process at the House of Poetry, although you could of course ask Murad al-Sudani more about that. I don’t think we’re making any grand claims for this collection. But what was discussed at the first meeting at the House of Poetry was that there are many ways for English-language readerships to access work by Palestinian poets such as Mahmoud Darwish and to an extent Samih al-Qasim, Fadwa Tuqan, Taha Muhammad ‘Ali, Ibrahim Nasrallah and so on. There are also Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s monumental collections of Palestinian and Arabic poetry, but those are now quite old.
We’re not claiming that this a a representative collection of Palestinian poetry, we fully acknowledge that there are many other important Palestinian poets out there. The aim of this collection is to broaden the range of Palestinian poetry which is accessible in translation, perhaps to give a snapshot of a certain part of the Palestinian poetry scene at a certain point in time, not to claim that this is ‘the’ volume to end all volumes.
But this collection was intended to make the work of lesser-known poets accessible to people who don’t read Arabic, and to show them that whilst Mahmoud Darwish’s work is incredible, he’s not the only Palestinian who ever wrote poetry. When we approached the head of one major funding body which bankrolls a lot of Palestinian cultural projects he dismissed the collection on the grounds that it didn’t contain the likes of Darwish – but he was missing the point entirely. We’re not claiming that this a a representative collection of Palestinian poetry, we fully acknowledge that there are many other important Palestinian poets out there. The aim of this collection is to broaden the range of Palestinian poetry which is accessible in translation, perhaps to give a snapshot of a certain part of the Palestinian poetry scene at a certain point in time, not to claim that this is ‘the’ volume to end all volumes.
AL: Did the poets select their own poems for submission? It seems, from the website, that you are translating more than will ultimately be used in the print collection. Who is curating the ultimate collection? What range/themes are you looking for in the book?
Also, because trying to organise poets is a bit like herding cats we ended up with more duplicate English versions than we expected and could handle, so some of those will be published on the book’s website in PDF format.
SI: Some of the poets selected their poems directly, others were selections suggested by the House of Poetry. Like many things on this project, it has varied between poets – some of the Palestinian poets have been highly engaged, others less or not at all. The wider Palestinian section was curated by Murad al-Sudani and Sima Ali Keishe at the House of Poetry, and the final selection in the book has been curated by Liz Lochhead, Henry Bell, and myself – I guess the general principle has been that the House of Poetry and/or the Palestinian poets themselves have selected poems that they felt were worth publishing, and that much larger body has been whittled down based on considerations of space and to an extent how well the poem transferred into versions by the Scots poets. Also, because trying to organise poets is a bit like herding cats we ended up with more duplicate English versions than we expected and could handle, so some of those will be published on the book’s website in PDF format.
AL: How did you go about finding the Scottish bridge-poets?
SI: Henry Bell knows every poet in Scotland. And everyone who was asked said yes. He’s a delight to work with!
AL: How has the process been working? Did you (the intermediary-translators) sit in the same room with the bridge-poets? Did you offer them a text and walk away? Did you check back in with the Palestinian poets about their work?
SI: It varied. In some cases the Palestinian poets chose to have no involvement, in some cases they were very much engaged by email and phone with the bridge translators. The bridge translations were also worked through by a Palestinian editor, Abla Oudeh, to check for cultural references which might have been missed, or double-meanings of words which the ‘bridges’ hadn’t spotted. Some of the ‘bridges’ also worked quite closely with Scots poets, especially Jona Fras with the poets DM Black and Henry Bell.
We also held a workshop at the University of Glasgow where some of the Scots poets sat down with some of the bridge translators and also with some native speakers of Palestinian Arabic to work through some aspects very intensely, allowing them to discuss particular points in very fine detail.
AL: The different poems will be translated into different languages — English, Scots, Gaelic and Shetlandic? Or will they be translated multiply? Or both?
Christine de Luca, for instance, was originally going to do versions into English, but said that she felt that there was something very earthed and visceral about Maya Abu al-Hayyat’s work which she thought would work well in Shetlandic instead.
SI: It was a fairly fluid process – the Scots poets were all given the full manuscript of bridge translations and worked on those poems that seemed to speak to them in the literal form, ‘versioning’ them into whichever language they felt worked. Christine de Luca, for instance, was originally going to do versions into English, but said that she felt that there was something very earthed and visceral about Maya Abu al-Hayyat’s work which she thought would work well in Shetlandic instead.
AL: You will also (visas permitting) be bringing some of the poets to Scotland and the rest of Britain?
SI: Yes – to events in Glasgow and at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and, time allowing, elsewhere in Scotland. And possibly even south of the border. Not London though. (Joke. Sort of).
AL: How is this different from other collections of Palestinian poetry currently available in English (Scots, Gaelic, and Shetlandic)?
SI: Well, apart from the presence of Scots, Gaelic and Shetlandic… And for Arabic-speaking readerships – because the book is dual-language – we hope that seeing the Arabic originals alongside different translations in the same language (English) and also in related languages and dialects will be a way of demonstrating how the passion and beauty of Arabic poems can transfer over – in varying ways – to other tongues.
I think bridge translation does something a bit different – not better or worse, but different – in that the ‘versioners’ don’t understand the original language…. Perhaps that makes them freer to try and work with what they feel is the spirit of a poem?
Also, I’m not sure that there are many other collections of Arabic poetry out there which use the bridge translation method (although Freight Books is bringing out another this spring, of Iraqi poetry linked to Reel Festivals). Most volumes, as I understand it, are the work of a single translator who bears the dual responsibility for rendering the Arabic into English and also for making the translations into poetry which will resonate with an English-language readership. I think bridge translation does something a bit different – not better or worse, but different – in that the ‘versioners’ don’t understand the original language, they’re given very literal translations with sometimes almost thesaurus-like choices of words and notes as to possible references and resonances. Perhaps that makes them freer to try and work with what they feel is the spirit of a poem? I don’t know – but I think what comes out is something very interesting and beautiful.
[http://www.sarahirving.co.uk] is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and has been a journalist and reviewer for over a decade. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is dipping a tentative toe into the waters of Arabic-English translation.