M. Lynx Qualey considers the many hands at work behind two collections of Arabic poetry in translation in this review that originally appeared in The Poetry Review, reprinted here with permission:
Al-Saddiq al-Raddi, Monkey at the Window, trans. Sarah Maguire and Mark Ford
Adnan al-Sayegh, Pages from the Biography of an Exile, trans. Stephen Watts and Marga Burgui-Artajo
These two new collections of translated Arabic poetry represent the work of eight different translators: five ‘bridge’ workers and three English poets. Both are bilingual, with English as the dominant language.
Bridge translations are used primarily with poetry in non-European languages. They put the poem in the hand of a fluent speaker, who renders it into English before it’s handed off to a target-language poet for editing. Facing-page editions are also a growing trend in translated Arabic poetry, encouraging readers to see the English in the immediate context of its ‘original’. The bilingual reader jumps from one side to the other: comparing, considering what might be done differently. Even the non-Arabic reader, for whom the language stands as object, can at least check formatting and punctuation. For better and worse, this structure shapes a reader’s and a translator’s choices.
In the case of Pages from the Biography of an Exile, collaboratively translated by poet Stephen Watts and Arabist Marga Burgui-Artajo, the constraint might work to the collection’s benefit. In his introduction, Watts writes about why he’s attempted to bring Arabic into the English, using close translation to ‘break’ the English. He refers to a tight collaboration between the author and two translators, and how they test-drove the translations in live readings, gauging the reaction of the audience, listening “to the weight of our words in the air”.
Moreover, Pages from the Biography of an Exile is so relentlessly forward- moving that the reader has little time to pause and look at the Arabic. The poems begin in the 1980s, when the narrator was a conscript in the eight- year Iran-Iraq border war. They follow him as he speaks against power, considers exile, and finally leaves Iraq for cold and distant Sweden, and later for England. The collection leaps from place to place, and sometimes circles back in time. Yet there is a powerful narrative arc, a character who comes into being.
From the start, Pages grabs the reader by the back of the neck and takes them into the smells and confusions of war. These poems are raw, panting, sometimes awkward, and throw the reader from the battlefield to home and back. The first poem, ‘The Sky in a Helmet’, is filled with gaps and ellipses:
‘Daddy, when are you coming back?’
I turned round…
The sergeant yelled, ‘This is your homeland now…’ my heart shuddered, white with weakness
I choked with tears of humiliation:
O sky of Iraq
is there air to breathe? I looked everywhere.
Humiliation is a leitmotif, although it’s leavened by the book’s humour, which first appears fittingly in a short poem written in Cairo, one of the capitals of Arab comedy. ‘Absence’ takes the narrator off to an exile in his dreams, where he’s woken by customs men at the border:
It was then that he realized the bartender
Was shaking him roughly:
Where are you off to in your dreams
You with your bill not yet even paid.
The collection also gives us an idea of the delicate position of the Iraqi poet in the second half of the twentieth century. In ‘Me and Hulaku’, a poem that addresses the thirteenth-century Mongol ruler, al-Sayegh layers the difficulties of the medieval and the contemporary Iraqi poet. The narrator-poet is confronted by Hulaku, who wants to know why the poet hasn’t sung any of his glories. The poet protests that he writes free verse. Hulaku tells the executioner:
‘Teach him how to write columnar poetry by bisecting his head into its first and second hemistich
and take care not to break his caesura
and beware of prosodic and metric infidelities.’
The poem layers the threatened thirteenth-century poet with the threatened twentieth, dictator over dictator. Poetry is, a er all, still used by Iraqi rulers to bolster their claims to authority. Iraqi poet Fadhil al-Azzawi likes to recall how, as a boy, he informed his mother of his desire to be a poet. According to him, she scoffed, “And what is the real job of the Arab poets? Nothing but selling their praise poems, full of lies, to this sheikh or that governor, to this vizier or that king.”
Al-Sayegh’s personal poetry is part of the movement away from praising viziers and kings, as well as away from grand narratives and social causes. As the collection takes us to a permanent exile in Europe, the narrative voice changes, growing both more frenetic and lonely. “Who will protect me from cold and fatigue and prying eyes? / Lonely I gulp down boredom and the dregs le on bar tables” (‘Pages from the Biography of an Exile’). Many of the poems reflect the narrator’s relationship to the cities in which they were written. In Beirut, in section 12 of ‘Pages from the Biography of an Exile’ (the poem that gives the collection its title), the narrator rubs himself “against the buttocks of plump girls at bus stops” – a raw sexual aggression that appears only in the culturally liberal Beirut.
Finally, in London, the poet-narrator arrives at a new self. Here, we find poems that foreground an interest in religion. On their own, these short poems are the least meaningful part of the collection. But as part of the journey, they are a stark shi , an interesting resolution.
Ultimately, the ‘bridge’ metaphor doesn’t do this translation justice. A bridge can indicate a positive link between otherwise disparate locations, but it also harks back to Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour (1981). Indeed, there is hierarchy implicit in the idea of the bridge translation. Both Watts and the poet Sarah Maguire, in her introduction to al-Raddi’s Monkey at the Window, refer to the first step in their translations as a ‘literal’. It’s hard to know what the concept of literalness means in this context. We might imagine what the Arabist-translator does as a first draft; as such, it is definitive in the territory it stakes out in English. The Arabist’s interpretive choices are passed on to the ‘poet’, who might challenge or re-vision them, but these interpretive choices are the primary lens through which the poem is seen.
In Monkey at the Window, there is less unity to the project, both because of the nature of the poems selected, and also because there are four first-draft translators in addition to the two poet-translators listed on the cover, Maguire and Mark Ford. Five poems come from al-Raddi’s Ted Hughes Award-shortlisted collection He Tells Tales of Meroe: Poems for the Petrie Museum, written during his residency there. The others are undated.
Many are quiet, careful poems, with none of the raw scream of al-Sayegh. They are part of the movement away from grand narratives, and some have an echo of the Syrian poet Adonis, but with imagery from Sudan. Here, instead of being swept along by a loud passion, the reader must wait for the moments of transcendent charm, as in the titular childhood poem:
He wets himself
Running through Eternity –
Through this alleyway This pack of dogs
The conspiracies of fate!
(‘A Monkey at the Window’)
Like Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, al-Raddi finds joy in small observations from nature, as when “A bird enters spring / like a lance” or when “Suddenly – a small fox, playful, / floods your wounded heart with joy”. There are several strong poems in the collection, particularly longer ones such as “Poem of the Nile”, which manages a panorama of Khartoum through and beyond time where “all they can say to our children is: patience. / They fade into the trees, commit suicide”. But there is also a hopscotch-effect that works against the collection’s gaining momentum, impeding the poems’ conversation with one another.
Bridge translations like these are unquestionably a boon for the English-language poet who works closely with a language they don’t know. Collaborative translations, done right, are also a boon for the reader, allowing each participant in the translation to question the next, to bring the writing into sharper relief. Still, we must certainly get rid of the idea of a bridge, and of the hierarchy between a ‘literal’ and a ‘poem’.