Ruba Abughaida on Self-translating: ‘I Become Another Version of Myself’

Last month, Albion Beatnik Press published two poetry collections by Ruba Abughaida — the Arabic edition of her Paths and Passageways, and also Abughaida’s own English translation:

Abughaida, who was born in London, has collaborated on translation projects in English and Arabic with London-based Iraqi poet Adnan Al Sayegh and Oxford-based poet Jenny Lewis. This collection, her first, “explores the shifting landscape of cultural and social issues in Palestine and Lebanon, inspired by the ways of life of the people and places in them, while touching on themes of displacement and belonging.”

You were born in London and studied at Oxford and Cambridge, which one might imagine would make you the most Anglophone of Anglophones. Yet you have (chosen?) not just to translate from Arabic, but to write poetry in both English and Arabic. How did you come to writing poetry in Arabic? 

Ruba Abughaida: Yes, I was born in London but grew up in Kuwait until the Gulf war in 1990.  We then moved to Cyprus and eventually emigrated to Canada before I made my way back to the UK.  Up until the time we left Kuwait, the Arabic curriculum at the school I attended was very strong and my parents placed a lot of importance on the Arabic language and all the intricacies of its grammar.  I was always an avid reader in English and Arabic even as a child, but in a sense you could say that I became an Anglophone by circumstance.  Although Arabic is my first language and it is the language we speak at home, English took centre stage during the post Kuwait years in my educational and then working life.

But Arabic was always sitting on my shoulder whispering at first and then becoming progressively louder as I began to work with it again in a detailed way during the process of translating Jenny Lewis and Adnan Al Sayegh’s poetry. Even as I wrote in English, I felt that something was missing.   I was also acutely aware of the issues facing the Arabic language, issues within the publishing sector, readership numbers and most of all the effect that colonization has on systematically wiping out languages.  We begin to operate and think in the languages of the colonizer – in the case of the majority of the Arab world, it has for the most part been English and French.  I have a deep respect for the beauty and evolution of all languages however it has been critically important for me to get back to writing fiction and poetry in Arabic.

What poetry do you read in Arabic? In English? Do they feed you in different ways?

RA: In Arabic, I read, among many others, Adonis, Onsi Al Haj, Muthafar Al Nawab, Attar (translated), Ibrahim Nasrallah, Mahmoud Darwish, Adnan Al Sayegh, Nizar Qabbanni.  I’m re-reading the mu’allaqat and discovering the work of the female poets from the Jahaliyya.  It’s been very interesting and illuminating following that trail.  In English I read Seamus Heaney, Jenny Lewis, T.S. Elliot, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Sharon Olds, Shakespeare, Lemn Sissay, Simon Armitage.  I think that both languages feed and inspire my writing even if I only write in Arabic.

One thing that immediately strikes me is that the differences in line-break choices creates different secondary meanings. For instance:

We rise anticipating, like an almond flower 

Opening, to the rumble, car horns
Blaring between our sure-footed steps

ننھض كزھرة
 لوز تتفتح 
في خضم ضجیج 
ولعلعة مركبات
 بین خطانا الثابتة
How do you feel the poems (and their voices) differently in Arabic and English? 

RA: As I was both writer and translator for this collection, I felt that I could take certain creative liberties with stanzas or word structures that worked better in one language or the other while still maintaining the flow and meaning of the poem.  I certainly feel a difference in the voice of the poems when reading them in either language.  As these were written in Arabic, I suppose that Arabic will always seem like the original voice to me, the base or the melody with English taking on a sort of harmony.  I feel them differently in both languages.  I become another version of myself.  They have different effects on me.

In “بعد حین والأن / Then and Now” when you have the line “زعزعة لغات / destabilizing languages” I imagine languages as these tectonic plates, now unbalanced … How do you feel your language(s) destabilized, shaken?

RA: I really like your description of the “destabilizing languages” stanza!  I can now also imagine the tectonic plates.  I approached this stanza on multiple levels: it addressed the bigger social and historical issues around language and culture in our society and it also addressed the importance of returning to my own language that had been de-stabilized by those same social and historical issues.

There is an intense, dense visual-ness in many of the poems (as the shisha one, “Lemons / لیمون”) 

تحت أوراق لیمون

 تبغ مبلل مقطر

 حدیث ضبابي

 زفیر من دخان كث

 مزھریات مزخرفة تتفجر

 فقاعات عند أقدامنا

Even in دھر, where you’re talking about ancient poetry, I see their words “flow in shreds” more than I hear them. There is an importance of the seen world (the photos the old woman takes in “٣٦ شارع عباس”)… and other sometimes other sensations (like in “Exile” / “منفى”) are unpleasant…foreign. I’m not sure what my question is! But if you find a question in there, let me know.

RA: I think I know what you mean! I’ll answer our silent question by saying that 36 Abbas Street is about our family home in Palestine, but also about so many other Palestinian homes and families. Lemons was written in Tripoli at the start of the Syrian war.  I’m half Palestinian on my father’s side and half Lebanese on my mother’s side.  In these types of circumstances, emotions can be very heightened but it can be very difficult to untangle and make sense of them.  I found that the poems worked best if I either described the scene (36 Abbas Street) or felt, tasted, smelled my way along them (Lemons).

As you were writing and translating, did you create full poems in one language before approaching the other, or did you weave between? Did the versions at all inform each other?

RA: I wrote all the poems in Arabic and when they were finished, I then translated them into English. Other than changing a word here or there that worked better in each specific language, I didn’t weave between them too much or treat them as a simultaneous process of writing.

Why two separate collections instead of both bound together? 

RA: I thinking that binding them together might have presented them as a bilingual work of poetry and it was important for me that the original Arabic would stand on its own.

How was it to work with your parents on the poems? Are they writers? Poetry-lovers, I imagine.

RA: My father studied Arabic literature in Syria and although he went on to have a very different and successful career to that of a literary scholar, his passion and love for Arabic has made him something of an unofficial scholar.  It’s certainly had, and continues to have, a deep effect on me.  He reads more books than anyone I know, is asked by other writers for input on their work, and having him also edit this book has been crucial to the process.  My mother is an artist (in fact the cover painting is one of her works) and art, literature, music, history and politics have always been present at home.

Can you tell me about the Flood and Singing for Innna translation projects with Jenny Lewis and Adnan al-Sayegh? How did they (or didn’t they) shape your thoughts about translations and poetry?

RA: Jenny Lewis was my poetry tutor at Oxford University (where she still teaches) and she has been an integral part of my development as a poet.  She began working with Adnan Al Sayegh years ago and introduced me to him.  Working with Jenny and Adnan has been one of the most creatively fulfilling experiences for me as a writer.  They are both extraordinary poets and I feel fortunate to have been taken under their wings. From them,  I came to understand and appreciate the importance of translation as a literary art form and how deeply it permeates and improves one’s own poetry.  It was the first time that I had tackled translation but what a way to start!

Can you describe the translation process with Adnan & Jenny? Did you all three sit around and discuss the poems? Did you send drafts back and forth? How did it work (practically)?

RA: For the most part, we worked by exchanging drafts over email.  When we first began, we met up to discuss some of the early translation work but fairly quickly transitioned to exchanging drafts and questions about intent and meaning behind certain words or stanzas over emails.  As time went on and I became more familiar with their work, this was quite an efficient and quick way for us to communicate (particularly when we were in different time zones).

For more about events and book availability, follow Abughaida at @RubaAbughaida.

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