‘Every Text Remains in Mourning Until It Is Translated’

At the end of last month, Iraqi poet, scholar, and novelist Sinan Antoon gave a lecture on literary translation titled “Translation as Mourning” at Boston University. Neila Columbo was there:

By Neila Columbo

Photo credit: Neila Columbo.

In 1989, Sinan Antoon is an undergraduate student in Iraq, a flower in anthesis, with the earliest, hopeful contemplation of becoming a writer. He is reading a review essay by Iraqi scholar Kathim Jihad about a work by Jacques Derrida and his eyes come across the sentence: “Every text remains in mourning until it is translated.”

Like a widening aperture on a photographic lens, he recounts to us that he had taken only one translation course, without serious thought to translating another’s work. It was, for him, un coup de foudre — the words, in my impression, as transformative to him as any work of art. It is his earliest memory of a philosophical statement on literary translation, an indelible point in the metaphorical sketching he draws for us.

Yet, at a very young age, he was already very sensitive to the ease with which human beings, voices, and experiences can be completely eliminated. He was “haunted by this without reading anything intellectual, it seemed intuitive that someone would need to bring these voices back.” And he does, as he is transcendent while reading Derrida: “I imagine the text wearing black and waiting in silence and sorrow, waiting for a translator to put an end to their mourning.” These words and images remain present throughout his lecture, staying with us like an owl sitting silently above, staring, into the room.

Antoon, who is a professor at New York University and translator of renowned poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Sargon Boulus, and Saadi Youssef, is a magnanimous lecturer. He seems acutely sensitive to the fragile relationship that exists in translation, noting:

“The political context is inescapable and the politics of language, of Arabic, in particular and of translation, are always operative…whether we like to or not, and whether we are conscious or not. Translation is of course a signifier in…the general context, but mourning is the stranger, the intruder encroaching on an otherwise familiar terrain.”

His works thematically explore the complex, painful history he shares with Arabic writers, perhaps most salient the U.S. military engagement in Iraq — the “Iraq War” — as he reflects on the magnitude of loss and destruction. He recounts harrowing human figures from the war, which are, he notes, conservative estimates reported by the UNHCR: a quarter of a million deaths; and 4.5 million refugees, 4 million orphans, and 1.5 million widows remain in a country with a population of just 28 million. The war is over, but yet it is not, as “the effects of wars stay on for generations,” which has “added new layers to an already complex and crowded history of violence with multiple villains and multitudes of victims.”

 Thus, he says, there is no official collective memory of which society can archive; “it is like someone who is brain dead in a way,” with no living recollection, a state dismantled yet nothing built in its place. 

Antoon deconstructs themes of internal and external conflict, of the despair and disillusionment, of the immeasurable loss he, and the poets he translates, have experienced, questioning “how one can occupy the difficult space from which one mourns one’s homeland,” a land that has become unrecognizable to him through the ruins of war.   Yet, he seeks to refute the “snares of tradition and nostalgia” in his contemplation of Iraq; he is conscious and hesitant of false allure, the vulgar kiss of nationalism.

Photo credit: Neila Columbo.
Photo credit: Neila Columbo.

He is against constructed memories, yet is cautious of the simplistic narrative thread by the media in the U.S. that has contributed to breeding this strain of nationalism in Iraq, which has pulled the nation back to its earliest history. Thus, he says, there is no official collective memory of which society can archive; “it is like someone who is brain-dead in a way,” with no living recollection, a state dismantled yet nothing built in its place. He says, with a flush of sorrow, “The Iraqi Ministry of Culture is a sham…the educational system is a sham.”

As Antoon begins to speak about his most recent translated work of Boulus’s poems, we follow from a selection he has shared with us, I-VII. While he reciting passages of the poems, one is immersed in the literary interpretations of the historical and current political realities he has borne witness. Antoon notes, “In many of the poems there is an intertwining of death and life, as if humans are already born dead and their elegies being weaved as soon as their umbilical cord is severed.”

In Boulus’s “The Child of War,” dedicated an Iraqi child who was both born during the war and died in it, he reads:

The child came
The one missing in the war
She stands at the end of the hallway
a candle in her hand
I see her whenever I wake up from sleep
at the first hour of dawn
she waits for my collision
with the wall of reality

Her eyes, vast because of the horror of wisdom,
are patient in the hills’ thorns
where my thoughts look around at night
my hand, which could break her chains
my voice which might pose questions
to the murderer or to god
whose answers she knows…

how long has this war gone on
how many nights at the bottom of which well?
what eternity of pain coming from all directions?
what would the four-star general have done
had they deprived his child of her milk for one day?

The child says:
they took my family in a ship
to the other world. I always knew that they would leave me here, alone, on the shore.
I knew…

He points to the epic, indescribable experiences of war, yet also the catastrophic effects of sanctions in the 1990s and early 2000s, which, while intended to weaken Saddam Hussein’s regime at the time, resulted in the deaths of one million Iraqis — often forgotten, erased, in the reporting by media, and in our collective understanding of the immeasurable loss experienced.

Most of the figures, he says, in Boulus’s last collection are either archetypes of dead or displaced Iraqis. Antoon ponders how does one address the dead and their absence. Thus, the act of translating them is a conscious act of mourning — the poetry of mourning itself, and the relationship of the living to the dead. He notes Boulus’s last line of the poem I came to you from there as a crucial metaphor for Iraq “He walked away and disappeared everywhere” the figure does not return to Iraq or to the grave, but “continues to roam and haunt, to keep delivering messages such as these about the living dead and the dead living.”

One can read these poems, he suggests, as a model for both mourning and remembering, which he interprets as the overarching desire threaded through Boulus’s work. On a hopeful note, he references Walter Benjamin’s 1923 essay “The Task of a Translator,” to reflect upon the great responsibility of the translator to preserve these narratives as their “translation marks the stage of continued life.” Thus, poetry, and literary translation, can function to convey a historical memory for those who have died to be recognized, listened to—not spoken for, yet spoken to, so that their lives are not lost forever. As, he reminds us, history is written by the victors; it is to us, as a curator may painstakingly care for a forgotten painting, to ensure restoration of the voices of those who died, no longer, of course, here to write their experience in the subjective annals of history.

His lecture was followed by an excellent question and answer session moderated by Margaret Litvin, Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Boston University. He received and answered questions generously, discussing the challenges of publishing Arabic translated work in the U.S., where he notes, startlingly, only three percent of the total published literature is in translation. Thus, he has established a website, Jadaliyya, to inspire greater opportunities for translation.

Antoon concludes his lecture with a memorable statement on how to interpret Boulus’s work:

“An encounter with the ghosts of the past, whose only demand is to be recognized and listened to…they do not demand to be spoken for, but spoken to…not speaking for the ghosts but preserving their narratives and monumentalizing them but without constructing an edifice seems to be the desire running through these poems.”