Friday Finds: Anton Shammas on ‘Translating Palestinian Pain’

Anton Shammas’ short and luminous essay, published on Critical Inquiry, touches on the possibilities (or impossibilites) of pain, and our ability to hear the pain of another. It opens:

Portrait of Ali, right, by Nina Subin.

What I would like to do in the following diptych is to look at two different, seemingly unrelated Arabic texts, and at the ways in which these texts were translated, if at all. So, in essence, I’ll be discussing translation—its possibilities and impossibilities (mainly the latter), its violence that is not always identified or acknowledged, and the ruptures it creates within and in-between languages. In particular, I’ll be looking at one form of translation, moving between Arabic and Hebrew, the core of my own disastrous bilingualism, and the two mutually exclusive languages of the Middle East, vis-à-vis English, a language which could be described, gently, as one of the languages of the ex-colonizers of the Middle East, though the “ex” in this case is a very dubious prefix. Roman Jakobson has defined the form of translation I’m interested in  as “intersemiotic translation”—or transmutation, “an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems.”[1] Or, vice versa—the interpretation of nonverbal signs by means of verbal signs.

Bearing that in mind, I’ll be looking at the testimony, one out of hundreds of other testimonies, of a Palestinian prisoner, written during the first Intifada (which lasted between late 1987 and 1991), and its translation into Hebrew and English by the Israeli Human Rights organization B’Tselem in one of their outstanding publications from 1991.[2] And then I’ll move on, reluctantly if I may add, to my own translations from Arabic into Hebrew of the selected poetry of the very refined Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali,[3] who was born in Saffuriyya near Nazareth in 1931, became a refugee in his own country in 1948, published his first poem at age forty, and passed away at age eighty in 2011. You may be familiar with his poetry through the excellent translation into English by Peter Cole and others, in So What, which was published in 2006.[4] And I’ll be quoting from this book, from the English version of Muhammad Ali’s poetry, while discussing my own translation of his poems into Hebrew that also came out in 2006.[5]

Is it possible to hear the pain of torture translated from Arabic into Hebrew? Should Shammas have translated the pain of the poet Taha Muhammad Ali? He says he doesn’t know.

But I do know, deep inside, that the act of translating Taha Muhammad Ali into Hebrew was, for me, a kind of prayer, for me who never prays, because prayer is a one-way message, and those who pray don’t expect to hear answers to their supplications, but they go on.

Read the whole short essay.

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