In a lecture at the American University in Cairo last March, Iraqi poet and translator Sinan Antoon wove together poetics and politics, linking an understanding of translation as “extended mourning” with observations from his experience as a translator of Arabic poetry into English. Anny Gaul reflects on the lecture and on the politics of Arabic-to-English translation:
By Anny Gaul
The notion of translation as mourning echoes numerous articulations of the relationship between translation and death. Drawing from Walter Benjamin’s notion of translation as a text’s afterlife and Iraqi critic Kathim Jihad’s assertion that “every text remains in mourning until it is translated,” Antoon posited that translation itself is a form of mourning. This, perhaps, is where politics enters the conversation: an understanding of translation as mourning implies that a translation’s very existence is somehow predicated upon death or violence.
The relationship between translation and death is easy enough to grasp in the case of individual loss (translating the work of a poet who has died, for example). But what does translation as mourning mean in light of collective forms of loss? What does this mean for the role of a translator like Antoon, an Iraqi in exile translating texts from Arabic to English in early 21st century America? In the context of what Antoon describes as “wars of terror that are labeled as wars on terror,” when the relationship between the societies of translation’s source and target languages is one of occupation and war, how is that relationship brought to bear upon the languages themselves?
The conventional answer might be that translation can serve as a kind of antidote to violence: that amidst Islamophobia at home and atrocities abroad, texts in translation offer an alternative way of engaging with the “other,” a means to understanding or tolerance.
Antoon offers an alternate reading of the increased attention given to Arabic literature and translation in post-9/11 American society (although he is not the first, or the only person to do so), describing translation “as a form of cultural interrogation…”
But as Antoon pointed out, “the relationship of the living to the dead is a political one,” and the relationship between societies can never be fully set aside. The politics of language renders even the most recondite of literary texts political. Antoon offers an alternate reading of the increased attention given to Arabic literature and translation in post-9/11 American society (although he is not the first, or the only person to do so), describing translation “as a form of cultural interrogation,” an ethnographic examination of a culture blamed for Americans’ own experiences of trauma and loss.
How, then, might a writer or translator address the relations of power that inevitably frame their work? Antoon locates possibilities in the poetry of Sargon Boulous, an Iraqi-Assyrian poet (whom Antoon has translated), whose work mourns the losses Iraqis have experienced without resorting to narratives that themselves constitute practices or representations of violence –– such as those of ethnic and sectarian conflicts, in which the memory of death so often becomes a rallying cry for the perpetration of more violence.
Although Boulous uses classical Mesopotamian tropes in his poetry, Antoon explained, he does not abandon a critical stance towards those motifs and the ends to which they have been deployed throughout Iraqi history. Perhaps the most poignant metaphor is that of the walls of Uruk, constructed by the epic hero Gilgamesh as his legacy –– a substitute for eternity, not terribly unlike the notion of translation as mourning.
Meditations on walls that come down also invite meditations on what bloodshed and sacrifice was required to construct the walls (literal and figurative) in the first place.
The implicit parallels between translation and walls also speak to a questioning of the notion that translation is a straightforward means to cross-cultural understanding: both walls and translations can be understood as marking and facilitating division. Meditations on walls that come down also invite meditations on what bloodshed and sacrifice was required to construct the walls (literal and figurative) in the first place. Similar questions might be asked of the violence that has prompted increased interest in translations from Arabic today.
One response to the tensions raised by these questions lies in Antoon’s discussion of the ghosts, a recurring motif in Boulus’ poetry. These ghosts, victims of sanctions and invasions, seek no revenge or retribution. They want to be spoken to, not for, in a way that gives rise to a particular “ethics of mourning.”
Of course, to speak to and with, rather than for, is also the foundation for an ethics of translation itself.