Since reading Abdelfattah Kilito’s Arabs and the Art of Storytelling, I cannot help but think of how ancient poets like Abu Nuwas would regard translations of their work. Kilito certainly thinks these translations are something of a sacrilege: “It is only in the original language that the poem is identifiable as such to itself; it cannot be translated or, at least in principle, should not be.”
But many contemporary scholars, poets, and translators think differently. And even if “Al-Mutanabbi would undoubtedly have become furious if someone had suggested in his presence that his poems be translated into Latin, Hebrew, or Persian,” the man is long-dead and has left no rights-holders to plead his case.
So what of James Montgomery translating one of the best, or perhaps the best, of early Arab poets? That’s wine-swilling, boy-admiring Abu Nuwas (? – 813 or 814). We cannot really expect the poem to be itself in translation, “identifiable as such to itself,” but we do hope that it does not, in losing “its principal constituent, the nazm or metrical structure” — as Kilito writes — emerge “as a web of banalities.”
Kilito is right, these banalities do happen, more often than not. But these three definitely are live, breathing poems — why?
First and foremost, there is the specificity and physicality of the animals. The way we express love or longing or beauty may change, as does what we value about poems, but observation of the natural world can pass from his time to ours. Moreover, most of us twenty-first-century types have become indoor people, and we engage animals far too little. Seeing these creatures afresh through the eyes of another time feels like a revelation.
Also, although Kilito says that quality of the translator is “not the question,” surely it’s one of the questions. James Montgomery gives us some good, meaty language to chew on; I’d never heard “voltaic” but feel I must use it at least three times before Saturday. Also, the language is just plain vivid. We feel this cheetah:
Bactrian lungs in saffron ribcage Heavy paws, bull neck, sudden dart A lion but for the spotty coat Alert for shapes that shift.
It doesn’t follow the same precise structure as the original (not all lines end with a d, for instance), but it does have a rhythm that makes sense in its new English guise. These are poems that delight the senses and bear reading and re-reading:
He’s off, a slow stalk, A trap about to explode3 Puff adder4 slither Through ground high and low Face to face with his prey now— Havoc! He scatters them across the desert Full stretch, full pelt Greedy fury.
Oh, and Ted Hughes? In his comments on the horse poem, Montgomery writes:
Whilst I was working on this translation, I could not stop thinking about a poem by Ted Hughes: ‘New Foal,’ published in 1977 or 1978. In that poem Hughes weaves a web of mystery and cosmic power around the newborn foal, describing how ‘he wants only to be Horse’ till the energy of ‘unearthly Horse’ surges through him. I seem to hear Hughes’s poem everywhere in my version of Abū Nuwās.
The translation exists (of course) not in the web of Abu Nuwas’s time and linguistic referents, but our own. If the horse poem is to make sense in translation, it must throw a tentacle out to Ted Hughes or some other legible work. Moreover, it’s not just poems that are distant in time, but any that are distant in literary prism: Contemporary Iraqi folk poets would make little sense in translation. And really, that’s OK.
Would Abu Nuwas be incensed over these translations? I like to think Abu Nuwas was a bit more chill than Al-Mutanabbi, but I suppose there’s no way to know.
Read them now.