Self-Translation Never Lands

This is part of a special section on self-translation.

By Mona Kareem

When I first started writing poems in Arabic at the age of ten, I called them “foreign poems.” I did not know at the time what a “prose poem” is, but I was able to tell that my prose poems were foreign, since they did not rhyme. I can say I had an unusual literary education, at least for an Arabic-language poet. I did not read poetry chronologically, and I did not discriminate between Arabic poetry and “foreign” poetry, or as we like to say in Arabic “world poetry,” simply because, until college, I was a monolingual Arabic speaker. I read Saniyya Salih next to Emily Dickinson, just as I read Sa’adi Youssef alongside Yiannis Ritsos. I liked it that way; I still do like it that way. The surrealists once dreamed it was the true mission of literature, to be a vehicle of internationalism, a rather proletariat vision I would say. I continue to carry their vision—I dream it. 

Coming to the United States at the age of 23, having already published two books of poetry in Arabic, I had no plans to ever write in English. When I did, it happened spontaneously, caught me off-guard. It did not leave me with a good feeling, comparable to when you first crack a joke in your second language and it lands. It was actually a troubling feeling, one of guilt: to have to depart twice from my Arab world, physically and now culturally. I never stopped writing in Arabic, and I never will: how crazy it would be if one willingly surrenders themselves to the cruel hands of the English language—its vast world like a factory, where we are all disposable and replaceable. Every time I wrote a poem in English, I was disappointed in myself—first, because I was not sure of its beauty. I was not used to this lack of confidence, to this alienation from my words, to not having a natural sense of the text. I would finish the poem and hide it in a deep folder on my computer so it may never breathe again.

I then thought, since I alternate between writing poems in Arabic and English, that I should perhaps make an experiment out of it. Write the poem, then translate it into the other language, and see what comes out. With every attempt, I came to the same realization, that a text cannot exist in the same way twice. With every rewriting, I was before the task of recreation—recreating humor, imagery, detail, culture, poetics, conversation. I am constantly reminded of how collective the nature of poetry is, no matter how much the Americans want to fool the rest of the world into thinking that poetry is private (a colonial project indeed embraced by Arabic prose poets), poetry is far from the private—far from being a property. 

I can say today that this experiment has turned out to be a lifetime project, though I no longer attempt to recreate the same text twice. Now, I realize, the act of self-translation has become embedded in me. It’s my eternal condition as a displaced person: a migrant who happens to be an artist, an artist who happens to be a migrant. I realize that self-translation, besides being an aesthetic and a mode of thinking, is also a defense mechanism, a survival tactic, for the objects of empire hoping to become subjects. It’s inherently complicit, spontaneous but not natural, and never really fulfilling. 

I had done my homework. I spent years of my exile reading up on the self-translators who came before me, at least the ones who had come to the United States, having already been published elsewhere in another language. I read all about Jibran and the Mahjar writers. It is beyond me how these émigré poets managed to become part of the Arabic canon so much that we had to memorize their poems in school. I read all about and by Etel Adnan. I was fascinated with how she fooled the Americans with her self-translations: most of her work was written in French then self-translated, but no one can tell, unless she told them so. I suspect the Americans’ fascination with French must have come in her favor. There are texts of Etel where we don’t even know whether they were first written in French or English. I giggle at her art of deception. No one is entitled to this knowledge, other than the poet herself. 

Then there was Sargon Boulus who, unlike Etel and I, refused to write in English. I had a feeling that his refusal did not come from nowhere; I was almost certain that he had made some attempts that brought him to his refusal. Sargon limited his English writing to translations of Arabic poetry, which he sometimes did for the money. It must have been troubling for Sargon, how the Americans invited his peers over to read their poetry, while asking him to translate them, when he too is considered a modernizer of Arabic poetry. It seems one is assumed to be smaller than what they really are when they are in exile. 

In his final days, Sargon, being the wonderous poet-translator that he is, decided to self-translate his poems into English. He was spending his final days suffering from cancer, with a faint of energy, but he still could not entrust his poems to others. Not because he’s an essentialist—on the contrary, because he knows a translation is the translator’s, never the author’s. He left us an exceptional collection entitled The Knife Sharpener, which sadly has not received much publicity. Like a knife sharpener, Sargon spent his life filing and polishing, between two languages and domains, and when it was time to leave, he left us a display room of sharp tools and tens of books, some his and some of the many poets he single-handedly introduced to Arabic readers. 

This January, my suspicion about a possible English attempt by Sargon was confirmed. I received a copy of a forgotten publication he had published in 1971 entitled Tigris, which includes three English poems of his alongside his translations of other poets such as Fouad Rifkah, Yusuf al-Khal, Etel Adnan, Mouayad al-Rawi, and Riad Fakhouri. In his introduction for the republishing of Tigris, Professor Salih J. Altoma writes that the Americans assumed his publication was actually a magazine, and it still appears as such in the catalogues. For Sargon, he was presenting a conception of the poet and the translator as one, as cohesive, unprivate, in oneness with others. His conception was evidently too big for the continent of the United States, just as it is for the disturbing nature of literature in exile. 

I cannot offer you any conclusions about self-translation except the mass of feelings that I carry with me day to day, text to text, encounter to encounter. The anxiety, guilt, alienation, displacement, but also the fluidity, worldliness, and awkward freshness. I can see that this mode, this condition, is slowly becoming second nature to me. I sometimes remind myself to stop questioning it, or to at least accept that the answers will continue to change, or even be shuffled around. I can also see how, in a world where mass displacement is the new norm, self-translation will reach a point of no-question. It’s no fault of yours if your life songs are bigger than a continent, if literature has been oppressively labelled and organized into a Walmart. All you can do for now is to pass your hand over the shelves, aisle to aisle—and, whenever possible, fuck up their inventory. 

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Mona Kareem is the author of three poetry collections, and is the translator of Ashraf Fayadh, Octavia Butler, and Ra’ad Abdulqadir, among others.

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Also:

Khalid Lyamlahy: On Self-Translating ‘A Foreign Novel’

Deena Mohamed: On Drawing Self-Translation

Ali Shakir: What Is the Self in Self-Translation?

Dunya Mikhail: Writing it Twice Is the New Original

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