The Paradox of Scottish Poetry Born in Palestine

Elliot Bannister attended the “A Bird Is not a Stone” launch events at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival and experienced the poems both as Scottish and as Palestinian: 

In love
wan’ll akse
deep questions o life
eens wi nae answer
while da tidder waits
as da cloods pass

Photo credit: Elliot Bannister.

What is it that the ‘tidder’ waits for as he watches the clouds roll by? Is he waiting in patience as his lover confronts a crisis she must face alone? Or, perhaps, he is listening silently and adoringly to her wandering thoughts as they drift to sleep together. Or has he, over the course of a love affair that has long since lost its spark, simply learnt to tolerate the worrisome questions he hears being ‘aksed’?

These are the last few lines of a recent work by Christine de Luca who, she tells me, produces about half of her work in her native language, Shetlandic. She is one of twenty-nine celebrated Scottish poets featured in an anthology that will hit the shelves again next week, after the first print run sold out in less than three months. The contents of the anthology, however, as the poets will readily admit, is not entirely of their own creation.

Every poem in the anthology began its life some two and half thousand miles away in Palestine, home to another set of twenty-five contemporary poets. Few of these men and women had ever been translated into English, let alone Scots, Shetlandic or Gaelic. Each Arabic poem that they submitted to the collection was carefully analysed by a professional translator, then presented to a Scottish poet to be recrafted into a version that Scottish and English-speaking audiences could appreciate.

Many of the 350 who packed out a reading of the finished product at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in late August had never come into contact with Arabic poetry before. They were perhaps more familiar with the earlier works of Liz Lochhead, the Scots Makar (read: poet laureate), who had contributed to the anthology and was headlining the event, or of Alisdair Gray, who also graced the stage.

Love, sex, parenthood, dancing: the poems selected for the reading dealt with matters that any poetry written by humans would. But if poetry is a means of personal expression, then woven into the texts are the social, political and emotional landscapes of the original Palestinian poets. The reality of life in Yarmouk Camp, where ‘bairns’ voices whet’, of Qalandia checkpoint, where hearts are ‘devoured by fear’, are made to resonate with a modern Scottish audience. Alisdair Gray touchingly relayed Bisan Abu Khaled’s plea for nationhood:

Will one day none see on a new faked map
the name of she who is mine

Which words give the best insight into Palestine? What elements of the original poetry must be translated into the Scottish version, and what can be sacrificed? Should the original imagery be preserved or should a local equivalent be sought? Lochhead gave the telling example of the horse, which is unlikely to echo for a Scottish reader as loudly as a ḥiṣān would to an Arab.

Those who can read both Arabic and English, or Arabic and Gaelic, have the pleasure of accessing what lies either side of the translation bridge, as the original and the translated versions are printed side-by-side.

Those who can’t read Arabic may still get a sense for the varying levels of freedom with which individual poets reworked the translations, in the instances where separate English and Scots versions have been rendered from the same original text. Did the ‘two wee hands that nip me underneath the table’ belong to the same person whose ‘twa haands trivvel me anunder da table’? Lochhead only ever imagined them a fidgety bairn’s until hearing onstage De Luca’s more promiscuous interpretation.

Both poets begged forgiveness from Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, the author of that original text, for any compromises they had to make in producing their translations. But the resulting variation in wording and interpretation is not something to be regretted; a purely linguistic translation would have made for turgid reading. It was a middle-aged Aristotle who suggested words were less important than the ‘affections of the soul’ that they represented. It is these affections, or as the book’s co-editor Sarah Irving phrased it, the ‘spirit’ of the original poems that the Scottish versioners have tapped into.

The result is a beautiful paradox wherein the Scottish versions exist as poems in their own right – but they must also be described as Palestinian poetry. The editors of the book hope to distribute the anthology soon to universities, schools and libraries in Palestine, meaning that the original poets will gain exposure in their own language as well as in translation. Irving envisions the book becoming a ‘useful learning resource’ for Palestinian students, not only as a fresh corpus of poetry, but for the insights into Scottish language and culture that it might afford.

This spirit of dialogue seems to have driven the translation process, the result of which attests to the universality of human experience. James Robertson, a Scottish novelist who worked on translations of two Arabic poems, described the book to me as a collection of ‘transactions of language’.

What if, I asked Lochhead, she could choose a Scottish poem to be translated for a Palestinian audience? It didn’t take her long to suggest The First Men on Mercury by the Glaswegian writer Edwin Morgan. It reads as an attempted conversation between space explorers and the local Mercurians they encounter. As the poem progresses, the two parties begin to adopt each other’s language.

‘It’s all about communication,’ she explains, ‘and I think that’s really important.’

Elliot Bannister is based between London and Cairo. He is a graduate of Arabic and Persian from SOAS (University of London), where he also studied Armenian. Research interests include literary use of the Arabic dialects and historical linguistics.