Unreckoned: Experimental Translations of Ibn Arabi

On October 19, translators Robin Moger and Yasmine Seale led a workshop titled “Unreckoned Things: Collaboration, Experiment and Voice in Translation” at Birckbeck College London:

By Annie Webster

Photo: Nashwa Gowanlock.

This was the fifth session in the Chase Arabic Poetry and Story Translation workshop series, organized by Marina Warner and Wen-chin Ouyang. The series has sought to include both Arabic and non-Arabic speakers in collaborative processes of literary translation. Introducing this session, both Warner and Ouyang talked about the importance of expanding current understandings and methods of translation, to consider the creativity generated through the process of translation itself, and of thinking about language encounters as embodied experiences that have the potential to generate transnational tolerance and solidarity.

The workshop was centred around the collaborative translations by Moger and Seale of Ibn Arabi’s cycle of odes, The Interpreter of Desires. Working together they have so far produced experimental translations of ten poems from the collection (which consists of 61 poems in total) through a process of “correspondence-in-translations.”

In this process, Moger and Seale each independently translate a poem before exchanging their translations and writing a response to the others’ translation, which might then generate further responses. Through this process, they produce multiple translations of the same poem, sometimes creating as many as six versions. This can take them on a circular journey leading to a final version that closely resembles the original poem and other times on a surprising route as the translation becomes a ‘different thing’ detached from the original text. In these journeys, translation does not offer resolution: both emphasise the importance of working through translation without trying to resolve meaning, which can in fact destroy some qualities of the text.

The polyphonous results of this process are captivating. A comparison of the original translations are technically fascinating. Yet it is in the conversations that take place through this process of exchange, through the gradual deconstruction of the poetry and the mutual reappraisal of its content, that a plurality of voices, meanings and an entanglement of intimate perspectives are revealed.

Outlining the premise of the project, Seale stressed the importance of the internet as a new means of connection between translators and their readers. This literary network was reflected in the diverse audience of the workshop, which was made up of students, researchers and writers, including Jonathan Catherall, whose online literary magazine Tentacular recently published some of Moger and Seale’s translations.

Moger described the distinctive approach they took to translating Ibn Arabi, attempting to treat each poem as an individual text without embedding it in a scholarly apparatus. A key challenge in this process is handling the literary, philosophical, and historical context of these poems, navigating their legacy and the inevitable weight of referentiality that each text carries. Particularly in the work of someone known so widely for his philosophy, the temptation to translate Ibn Arabi’s text into ornate English that, as Moger suggests, might resemble the metaphysical poets also has to be negotiated.

After a wonderful performance of one of Ibn Arabi’s poems by Badia Obaid, Moger and Seale guided the workshop members through the translations and responses generated by this particular poem. Providing the workshop with an insight into their own private exchanges, they recited the different renditions of the poem in English and signalled the range of translating possibilities.

There was a particularly rich discussion of the huge semantic range embodied by the concept of aja’ib. Although often translated as “wonder,” Moger and Seale explained that they had avoided this rendering in an attempt to explore alternative connotations and avoid any immediate sense that the text had been translated from Arabic.

Another debate arose around who the speaker of the poem was addressing: did the grammar of the text suggest he was speaking to himself or someone else? This was indicative of the larger questions raised by Moger and Seale’s project. Does a translator seek to reproduce the voice of the original text? Or does a translator seek to open up a text to different voices? Should the translator, or in this case translators, strive to create a single, coherent voice or can they languish in the plurality of voices created by the process of translation? Through these questions, Moger and Seale emphasised literary translation as a kaleidoscopic process as much about refraction as reflection.

An excerpt from Tentacular.

The workshop was followed by a public reading in which the translators recited more of their correspondence around Ibn Arabi’s poems as well as other translations produced individually. Moger presented his translation of an Urjouza by Dhul Rumma titled ‘No Malice in Their Violence’ and Seale discussed her translation of ‘Rainsong’ by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab.

This was an opportunity for the audience to see the poems performed in the original Arabic, echoed by their English translations. It was also a performance of the technical complications and imaginative conversations that take place between translators, as well as in their own heads, when working through a text.

Seale highlighted the tension between collapse and control created through the structure of one of Ibn Arabi’s poems. This tension reflected their discussion of their own processes and the role of the translator more broadly over the course of the day. The creative process of translation is a constant negotiation between collapse and control, variously asserting control over language while at other moments conceding any sense of order in the second language.

It was dizzying but delightful to see Moger and Seale at work, revealing literary translation as an unreckoned thing.

Annie Webster (@annie_webster13) is a PhD candidate at SOAS, where here research focuses on depictions of traumatized bodies in post-2003 Iraqi literature.