Finding a Voice in English for ‘My Heart Became a Bomb’

Next year, a collection of Syrian-Palestinian author Ramy al-Asheq’s poems will be published in English for the first time: 

By Tugrul Mende

This publication is the product of a long collaboration between Levi Thompson, the translator and editor of the collection, and Ramy al-Asheq, who is currently living in Germany. My Heart Became a Bomb (January 2021) is a new reading of al-Asheq’s work that situates him in a broader literary landscape. Ahead of this publication, Levi Thompson answered a few questions about the project and process. 

Tugrul Mende: In 2019, Ramy Al-Asheq’s poems were published in Gedächtnishunde, translated into German by Lilian Pithan. How did you get introduced to his work, and when did the idea of working on the collection My Heart Became a Bomb emerge? 

Levi Thompson: Ramy and I started working together in 2017, after I got in touch with him following a call for translators he had put out on the internet. We were initially working together on a journalism project he was heading up in Germany, but we soon moved to poetry. As I went back through my e-mail archives, I realized that roughly a year of our exchanges are lost because I was using an institutional account that obsolesced after I changed jobs. It was when I was at that temporary position and applying for jobs on the academic job market that we began talking about putting the poems that myself and two other collaborators, Dina Aboul Hosn and Nida Awine (نداء عوينة), had been translating together into a full collection. To tell you the truth, Ramy and I have also translated the poems published in the German Gedächtnishunde from Arabic into English, and that collection is currently being reviewed at a small press. (Of course, that’s no guarantee it will get published, but we’re working on it.) 

I worked with Word documents of the Arabic, and Ramy and I worked together to put the poems into an order we liked. So, what I’m saying is, there’s not a one-to-one correlation of the poems in My Heart Became A Bomb and a single other collection. It is, to use a phrase we’ve employed in describing the collection of poetic prose pieces set to be released this month, more that Ramy “gathered these texts like someone collecting body parts. Here are the pieces of my body, haphazardly brought together in a paper bag.” This prose collection is published by Seagull Books, and it was translated by Isis Nusair of Denison University here in the US. I edited the collection and provided an afterword.

TM: How much did you make use of the German publication while working on My Heart Became A Bomb? and how much was it a dialogue between the author and the translator?

LT: While I was aware of the German translation of “Fatma Carries Two Wounds in One Hand” (“Fatma trägt zwei Wunden in einer Hand”) I worked first from the Arabic. I read German fairly well, and I can speak it a little bit, but I preferred to work mainly from the Arabic, which I am much more comfortable with, despite the closer relationship of English and German. For the other poems, I only worked from the Arabic. The problem with Arabic, however, is that you can’t always be sure who the subject of your verb is, especially in more experimental poetry like Ramy’s, so for things like that, and other strange images that I wasn’t sure about, Ramy and I exchanged drafts over e-mail. Ramy’s English is excellent, and it was a real boon to have him going over these drafts and letting me know where I’d strayed too far from the images he was attempting to create. This is, however, a double-edged sword, because as a translator you sometimes want more leeway to work with the sounds and rhythms of a poem in English, which is not as forgiving with rhyme and meter as Arabic—English falls into sing-songy sounds if you work too hard at it. So, I might have, in some cases, tried to give a poetic quality to a line in English that brought the content too far away from the original, and Ramy would be there to rein things in some. I think this is, in the end, productive, and it’s a different sort of challenge than I usually face, because most of the poets I engage with in my academic work are dead—my main area of expertise is the early period of the modernist movement in Arabic and Persian, so the 1940s to 1960s in Arabic and 1922-1967 in Persian.

TM: Is it important to have a single approach to translation for a collection that you’re editing? Or do you let the others use their own voice, their own approach, while translating the poems? 

LT: In this case, the process was maybe a little bit different. Ramy already had Dina’s and Nida’s translations of the poems they contributed (Dina did “no one noticed when you died,” Nida did “three attempts to say I love you,” “at war,” “the war is lucky,” and “pictures from exile”) before I started working on the project, so Ramy sent me those, which I took a look at to get a feel for what the poems were like, what they were about. Then, I started translating other poems as Ramy wrote them and sent them to me. At some point in 2017 or 2018, I was working with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies Press at UT Austin on another project—I did a review for them—and I figured why not see if they might be interested in Ramy’s poems. At that point, Ramy and I put the poems together in a collection, and I put all the Arabic poems into a PDF to send along with the translations. Things stopped for a while at that point, and I waited. Once I heard that CMES would be interested, I went back to the poems to try and bring the overall style closer across the whole collection. 

TM: What difficulties did you have in first translating poems for the collection, and later as an editor for the collection?

LT: I cannot put myself in the place of his poetic persona in the way I might be able to in some other cases, so that’s an initial difficultly. There’s little formal basis within them to grasp ahold of, a problem I’ll explain more later on. To elaborate on my role as editor, though, when we eventually got reviewer comments, one reviewer thought that there was still too much of a distinction between the poems by different translators. At that point, I took more liberties with the edits I introduced to the other translations in order to give the entire thing a similar voice. There’s of course a science to this, but I think in the end it is more of an art, something you have to follow your gut to do. So, in the end, the collection is mine as much as it is Ramy’s or Dina’s or Nida’s, but it reflects my aesthetic vision for the English probably more than anyone else’s. I think it was better to avoid a continual back-and-forth between translators, because in my experience, it’s better for one person to take charge in order to bring a somewhat standard tone to something written. I don’t think this is a bad thing, because you want a certain connection across all of the poetry. While what I did in the end was act as an editor, I think the real reason we’ve decided to list that as something I’ve done with the collection is because of the involvement of Dina and Nida, naturally, even though I would also consider myself a “translator” of the entire thing, because I worked just as much to “translate” all the poems into something that works as a whole.

TM: Is My Heart Became A Bomb a new style of poetry, or does it situate itself in an existing framework in which you find other Syrian and Palestinian authors? To whose work would you liken it?

LT: Ramy’s experiences in Syria, Jordan, and Germany aren’t ones that I can say I’m familiar with in any way, myself, but they align with a longer history of exilic literature, exilic poetry like that of Mahmoud Darwish. They are intense experiences, difficult, scary even. So, we might think of Ramy’s poetry alongside Darwish, or maybe Sargon Boulus or Saadi Yousef, who also wrote exilic poetry. My colleagues who specialize in Syrian poetry could likely give you many other names from within that particular national tradition, but I admit that I’m not as familiar as I could be with Syrian poets—my main areas of focus are Iraq, Egypt, and the poetry that came out of the Shiʿr group in Beirut. One poet I think I can say Ramy is not very much like would be Nizar Qabbani, who is likely the one poet most people would recognize from Syria, if we leave out Adonis. It would be interesting to ask Ramy how much he is influenced by ideas about prose poetry from the middle of last century. I haven’t asked, but you see Ramy doing things with poetry that, for instance, Unsī al-Ḥājj talks about in the introduction to Lan from 1960. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Ramy is taking his cues more from other poetic traditions, as I know he reads widely in German and English.

Secondly, as far as new versus old poetry, the poems in My Heart Became a Bomb are not the type I’m used to working with, which, as I mentioned earlier, would be the earlier modernist poetry from the Arabic tradition. With those poems, there’s a much bigger role for the ʿarūḍ, or Arabic prosodic tradition—still, some of Ramy’s poems feature rhyme patterns that we find in this kind of poetry, where, for instance, end rhymes might appear, or internal rhymes. So, formally, I frequently didn’t have anything to build on, and this is usually the first thing I attend to when I’m starting to translate a poem in my academic work. (I do that as a corrective to most of the academic analysis of modern Arabic poetry, which frequently outright ignores the form.)

Here, it was an entirely different process for me, and as always happens in a situation that’s new, I didn’t have a script to follow because I hadn’t done something like this before. So, I found myself attending more to the content, which, in the end, is what makes Ramy’s poetry a good candidate for translation into English, because I think what Ramy’s poetic persona has to tell Western readers is important, and it’s probably more impactful than whatever small things I want my academic audience to learn about the development of form in Arabic poetry over the past sixty or seventy years. This isn’t to say, either, that Ramy’s not engaging with this tradition. If I might give an excellent example of this, consider a poem that comes late in the collection, “what dark wants,” where Ramy’s persona makes a complaint that only makes sense once we’ve situated it within the Arabic (let’s say perhaps the Arab-Islamic, because we find it in Persian too) tradition: “Everyone writes that he’s like a moth / around the flame of its beloved.” (الكلُّ يكتب أنه مثل الفراشة حول نار حبيبه!) . So, this is a reference to mystical poetry, Sufi poetry, in which the lover (the moth, the poet) circles the flame of the beloved (the candle, the Divine). And what Ramy’s persona does is he reacts to this tradition, he rejects it. “I’ll have to eliminate the word / ‘moth’ from the dictionary.” “I’ll burn the old poetry along with the new / and go into seclusion.” 

TM: The book will be published as part of the “Emerging Voices from the Middle East” Series. How did that come about? 

LT: I was working with CMES on another little project, a review I was doing of a text submitted for publication. I had worked with their publications editor Dena Afrasiabi, who is a writer in her own right, so I had her contact, and once I had enough poetry for a collection, it was Ramy who wanted to see what we could do to get something book-length published. We had a few poems published elsewhere already, like in Transference, a small university translation journal, a poem on ArabLit and then in the ArabLit Quarterly, another in a German art journal, and we’d done an installation at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, which was pretty cool, with the Arabic originals and English and German translations of poems about getting old put up on the walls of the museum. But Ramy pushed me to explore our options, and I went to the first person I thought of, Dena at CMES. I know some of the other young scholars who have translated things in the Emerging Voices series, and I am thrilled to now be counted among them, but really all the credit goes to Ramy and Dena for pushing the project along.

TM: In what way do you think a book of translated poems is still in the voice of the author, and in what way the translator’s? 

LT: In this case, I think what we’ve produced, Ramy and me together, is a reflection of Ramy’s original put into my voice. I like to think that I have a particular ear for English, because I come from a part of the country where a highly-non-standard version of English is spoken, the Appalachian mountains in southwest Virginia. Because of this, I think I’m more attuned than a lot of American English speakers to different ways of speaking English, different idioms and the like. When I translate, I want the English to sound right (as long as the original sounds right—sometimes, the original is weird, and I want to bring that over too). Too frequently, I think, translators give in to the idea that a foreign text needs to retain a lot of that foreignness—this is Venuti’s foreignizing versus domesticating debate. With Arabic, the original context is often already so foreign, that I don’t think it makes sense to lean into the foreignizing, but rather that we gain a lot of trust from the reader when we give them a language they’re familiar with for the most part, and then leave those foreignizing elements where they work for us. So, in my translation, you are going to find the English idiom, phrases like “fed up,” “joke with,” “living off of,” and so forth. Now, there’s still the problem of these poems being written in Modern Standard Arabic, and not colloquial, but I think that’s another conversation. Even within them, Ramy juxtaposes highly formal language with a more regular standard Arabic, like in “the miserable land of Acre,” where I elevate the register of the words in a line of revelation, “Strike grief with thy staff.” Overall, it’s a balancing act, and in the end, I just think that it should make sense, no matter the other considerations a translator has to make.

TM: In your dissertation, you wrote about “transnational movements” and modernist poetry between Iran and Iraq. How might you situate Ramy Al-Asheq vis a vis transnational poetic movements? 

LT: Ramy is a transnational subject through and through, but not in the same way as the poets I was dealing with in my dissertation. Ramy actually fits the original meaning better than they do, the meaning put forward in the mid-twentieth century by scholars in International Relations about groups of people from one nation that end up in another but retain these transnational connections. For Ramy, this is an interesting position to be in, because he’s crossing the Arab world and Germany, crossing the Mediterranean, at a time when these crossings are getting a lot more attention from scholars, from the media, and from everyday people. This is why I think My Heart Became A Bomb is so timely, to say nothing of its criticism of Assad’s regime in Syria, which is also quite important to note.

TM: What are the themes common to My Heart Became A Bomb? What are some of the collection’s core obsessions?

LT: There are several, and it might be better to leave this decision up to the readers. To me, the most prominent themes have to do with youth, or lost youth, and how war and violence shapes a person’s (a young person’s) life. Much of what we find in the collection is reacting to this theme, as the persona tries to find their way in a foreign country but carries the burden of these difficult memories with them. At the conceptual level, the most prominent theme, in my opinion, is a rejection of authority, of tyranny and dictatorship. This is clear in the collection’s depiction of the situation in Syria, and also in its complicated relationship with, and rejection of, the Divine. Consider the last lines of one poem: “Hey, Allah! / If you were a man… I’d kill you!” To my mind, the collection takes on the Arabic poetic tradition in the same way, both in terms of form and content. The form of the original poems is unruly, and the poetic persona frequently questions the “rules” and common tropes of Arabic poetry, like in the poem I mentioned earlier and the challenge it launches at usual themes in mystical Islamic poetry.


Also read: From the Summer 2019 issue of ArabLit Quarterly, al-Asheq’s “In the Sea’s Playground,” tr. Thompson.