Writing it Twice Is the New Original

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

By Dunya Mikhail

Writing a poem is exploring a new world, and the first feeling that usually accompanies it is doubt. Writing it the second time in another language helps me understand it more and feel more confident about it. Moreover, it gives me a wider space to diagnose its flaws. Sometimes I find a problem in the original and the second writing (or the second language) opens my eyes to such problems, so it’s closer to editing than to regular translation. I do faithful translation when I translate someone else, but with my own work I feel free to make changes as I see fit. I feel that the relationship between the two texts (the Arabic and the English, in this case) is something like true love. I mean that the two texts develop together without imposing too much on each other.

Photo: Nina Subin

I’ve spoken about the experience of translating my poetry collection, In Her Feminine Sign.

I wrote these poems from right to left and from left to right, in Arabic and in English. I didn’t translate them; I wrote them twice. Writing these poems in two languages maybe makes a new “original.” This process somehow liberated me from having to follow the Arabic text, especially since, at times, some of the lines initially come to me in English, given the cultural connotations. To capture the poem in two lives is to mirror my exile, with all of its possibilities and risks. But as home is flashed through exile, a poem is sometimes born on the tip of another tongue.

It was annoying to me in the beginning when my poem pulled me right and left, but just as people say to “follow your heart,” I always follow my poetry. Well, to justify my choice, I would claim that allowing such a dialogue between the two texts is democratic, and I’m even hopeful that East and West may meet in that crossing line between two languages. But this is not to say that I’ve achieved a linguistic utopia. To produce a text in two languages is to always hold a mirror to the first text while the mirror behaves as if that text is actually her mirror. The poet is at home in both texts, yet she remains a stranger.

The Stranger in Her Feminine Sign

Dunya Mikhail

Everything has gender
in Arabic:
History is male.
Fiction is female.
Dream is male.
Wish is female.

Feminine words are followed
by a circle with two dots over it.
They call this symbol the tied circle,
knotted with wishes
which come true only when forgotten
or replaced by the wishes of others.

In the town of tied wishes
people feel great anticipation
because a stranger will arrive
today in her feminine sign.
Someone says he saw her
two dots glittering,
refuting another’s vision
of a cat’s eyes hunting in darkness.
So scary, he says, how the moon
hides in her red circle.

Everyone is busy today
listing wishes on pieces
of paper they’ll give to the wind.
When the stranger finds them
on her way, she’ll collect them
and adorn them to her circle,
tossing off some old wishes
to make space for the new.
They say the dropped ones
will come true.

The stranger’s lateness
worries those who wait.
Someone says she’s searching
for a word to complete
a special sentence,
the gift she’ll bring to town.

Another wonders if she seeks
a verb or a noun,
and offers to find her.
A third warns that the stranger
may turn him, with one touch,
into a flower that blooms
for only an instant
before it withers and dies,
her circle throbbing with songs
that cause sadness and elation
and something so obscure
no one has a name for it.
Will she complete a verb
or a noun phrase—or go solo,
a word complete on its own?
They wonder.

When they finally hear footsteps,
They know the stranger must be near.
Make sure the gate is open,
they remind one another.
They hear clinking—
A bracelet? A chain?

الغريبة بتائها المربوطة

دنيا ميخائيل

لكل شيء جنس
في اللغة العربية.
التاريخ ذكر
الحِكاية أنثى
الحلم ذكر
الأمنية أنثى.

دائرة فوقها نقطتان
يقولون مضفورة بأمنيات
لا تتحقّق إلّا لحظة نسيانها
أو استبدالها بأمنيات الآخرين.

في مدينة الأمنيات المربوطة
الناس في ترقّب عظيم
لأن الغريبة ستأتي اليوم
بتائها المربوطة.
يقول أحدهم بأنه رأى النقطتين
تضيئان، نافياً القولَ الآخرَ
بأنهما عينا قطّة في الظلام.
شيء مرعب، كيف يختبيء القمرُ
 في دائرتها الحمراء، يتعجّبُ أحدهم.

الكل منشغلٌ اليوم
بكتابة الأمنيات في قصاصات
ورقية سينثرونها للريح
ولمّا تجدها الغريبةُ
بطريقها تلملمُها
وتصفّها بدائرتها.
سترمي بعضَ الأمنيات القديمة
لتفسح مجالاً لهذهِ الجديدة.
يقولون أن تلك المرميّة
هي التي تتحقّق.

تتأخّر الغريبة
وهم على قلق ينتظرون.
أحدهم يقول بأنها تبحث عن كلمة
لتكوّن جملة خاصة، تلك هديتها
ستجلبها معها إلى المدينة.

تراها تبحث عن اسم أم فعل؟
يتساءل آخر عارضاً الذهابَ
للعثور عليها.
شخص ثالث يحذّر
بأنَّ كلَّ مَن يلمس الغريبةَ
يصبحُ زهرة
فيُسعدُ لحظةً
ثمَّ يذبل بسرعة ويموت
بينما تنبضُ دائرتُها بأغنيات
تسبّبُ الحزنَ والنشوة
وشيئاً آخر غامضاً
لا أحد يملك له اسماً.
هل ستُكملُ عبارة اسمية أم فعلية؟
أم كلمة وحيدة؟
كلمة مكتفية بذاتها؟ يتساءلون.

أخيراً يسمعون وقعَ أقدام.
لابدّ أن الغريبة تقتربُ، يقولون.
تأكّدوا من أن البوّابة مفتوحة,
يذكّرُ أحدهم الآخر.
يسمعون رنّة –
سِوار أم أغلال؟

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Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi-American poet and writer. She has worked as a journalist for the Baghdad Observer, and is currently a special lecturer of Arabic at Oakland University in Michigan.

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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?

Mona Kareem: Self-Translation Never Lands

Leonie Rau