Translating Najwan Darwish: ‘Are There Any More to Come?’ or ‘Oh Give Me More!’

On July 11, Marfa Public Radio aired an interview with Lannan Writer/Translator-in-Residence Kareem James Abu-Zeid, who has recently been working on translations of work by Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber, and Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail. He spoke particularly about the challenges and excitement of translating Darwish’s collected poems:

kareemabu-zeidInterviewer Rachel Monroe brought up that Abu-Zeid translates from multiple languages, but he assured her that he translates from French or German, in the main, just to pay the bills.

“I would say that my favorite is Arabic,” Abu-Zeid said, noting that “there’s a lot of great Arabic literature that hasn’t been translated, and it’s a real challenge to translate Arabic, because the structures are so very different from English, and the way the language works is so very different, which is not in my view really the case with French, or even with German, or at least not to the same extent.”

Abu-Zeid also shared his “rule” for translating:

I have a rule, I guess — and partly it’s because I’ve seen a lot of quite poor translations come out of Arabic literature — and the rule is that if it sounds translated, I’ve done it wrong. So I need to keep working on the text and working on the text until it sounds like something that an American poet, or an American novelist, could have or would have written. And some texts don’t lend to that, and sometimes it fails at that, and I usually won’t publish those.

“There’s some [creative works] that read great in Arabic,” Abu-Zeid said, “but as much as I work on them, I can’t get them to work in English. And then, every now and again, you have texts that work better in English than they did in the original.”

Abu-Zeid went on to talk, in particular, about Najwan Darwish’s work, as Abu-Zeid recently collected a number of Darwish’s poems together in Nothing More to Lose, published by New York Review Books.

Generally, Abu-Zeid said, there’s a part of any book that he doesn’t fully enjoy. But this collection was different: “This one, I got to pick what went into it, and that was really exciting.”

Monroe asked Abu-Zeid about his collaborative relationship with Darwish, and Abu-Zeid noted that, thus far, he’d translated all living authors. Did they ever contest his decisions, she asked.

“I do get pushback all the time, because my tendency is to translate a little bit free.”

As to who gets the final say, Abu-Zeid said, “It’s usually a compromise.”

Abu-Zeid then read the poem “Sleeping in Gaza,” which ends — in his translation — “Are there any more to come?” He noted that the last line gave him some trouble. This particular poem, he said, has been translated a few times, by different translators, and the last line (هل من مزيد) has come out very differently. One translator, Abu-Zeid said, brought it into English as  “Oh give me more.”

That translation ends:

But who today will lift a cross from an exhausted back in Jerusalem?

The earth is three nails

And mercy is a hammer

Strike, Lord

Strike with the aeroplanes

Oh give me more!”

Whereas Abu-Zeid’s ends:

But who today will lift a cross
from the back of a weary man in Jerusalem?

The earth is three nails
and mercy a hammer:
Strike, Lord
Strike with the planes

Are there any more to come?


Kareem James Abu-Zeid in conversation with Liz Kelly on translating N. Darwish

‘No Palestinian Has Ever Written Poetry Quite Like This Before’