Translation’s Agitated Mirror

This is an online extra from our MIRROR issue of ArabLit Quarterly, which came out yesterday and is available on GumRoad, Amazon,

By M Lynx Qualey

A translation is sometimes called a mirror of its original, although critics will often salt on a disclaimer, such as fun-house or magic, strange or distorted. Some dislike the mirror metaphor for its passivity, saying it fails to acknowledge the agency of the translator. A mirror, after all, is a flat unthinking thing: hung on a wall, or sitting quietly at the bottom of a purse.

And yet the mirror metaphor persists, and not only among those outside translation. In an interview with Dima Ayoub, maia tabet said of translation, “you’re transforming something which was in one state into something that is sort of parallel or a mirror image,” while author Rabai al-Madhoun told me, “When I read the final manuscript (of The Lady of Tel Aviv) in English, I felt as though I were watching a new look of mine in the neighbor’s mirror.” In 2019, Hend Saeed asked the poet Dunya Mikhail why she didn’t publish her Arabic and English poems in a single collection. The poet said that “having only one side of the mirror is poetical, like those half heart necklaces in search of the other half.” And the late Humphrey Davies said, in a video interview with AUC Press, “I like the idea of mirrors and reflecting. But you see, a mirror [image] is not identical. It’s subtly changed.”

For me, it is not mirroring’s lack of agency that nettles. But there is something about the singularity of a mirror image that doesn’t fit. It is as though, when standing a text in front of the glass, there is one possible output, one ideal reflection.

In their new collection of Ibn Arabi translations, Agitated Air, Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger give us, instead, multiple reflected/refracted iterations of Ibn Arabi. They borrow fifteen of the sixty-one works from Ibn Arabi’s The Interpreter of Desires, a much-beloved work of nasib poetry by the philosopher-poet who was born in Murcia in 1165 and died in Damascus in 1240. The poems, they write in their introduction, are works of “distance and approach, of communion and the impossibility of union, of completion and the impossibility of completion”—a bit like the act of translation itself.

In this collection, they each began with a translation of one of Ibn Arabi’s works, then emailed this translation to the other. In the light and shadow of this new partner-translation, each made a new iteration, and then sent it back to the other, and again, and again, until either the poem or the poet-translators were exhausted. 

In an October 2018 preview of poems from the collection in London, event hosts Marina Warner and Wen-chin Ouyang talked about the “creativity generated through the process of translation itself.” And in some ways, this collection feels like the byproduct of a heated discussion over how to translate Ibn Arabi that takes place in verse. As when watching a musical, where ordinary people cannot help but break into song, here we watch two poet-translators who cannot help but have their discussion about Ibn Arabi’s verse as poems. 

Re: iteration

The Agitated Air collection is not unlike Michael Cooperson’s experimental Impostures, in which Cooperson translates the maqamat of al-Hariri into different styles and registers. In that collection, published by the Library of Arabic Literature, Cooperson translates the 50 rogues’ tales in 50 ways—one into a Chaucerian register, the next in imitation of Woolf, and others in corporate speak and Cockney slang.

But while that collection does evoke the effusive performative aspects of reading al-Hariri, it offers us only one version at a time. What’s different about Agitated Air is that we have one original and multiple reflections of/on the same short work, by two poet-translators in conversation or debate. If translation is always interpretation, then this is interpretive dance.

Moger and Seale are not the first to translate Ibn Arabi in multiple iterations. Michael Sells published his first collection of selected poems from Ibn Arabi’s The Interpreter of Desires in 2000. In 2018, he revisited Ibn Arabi in Bewildered: Love Poems from Translations of Desires. In a review of both collections, Kevin Blankinship writes that sometimes the changes are slight: small changes in a title or shifting line breaks. Other changes are larger. The most satisfying one, Blankinship writes, is “a simple yet concise way to show Arabic vowel quality” with accents and circumflexes in the English. 

Sells’ versions can perhaps be called refinements or improvements. But with Moger and Seale, there is no such hierarchy. And although part of the focus is on Ibn Arabi, much of it is on the interpretive energy itself. These are not positioned as strict academic translations, but they aren’t free adaptations, either. Instead, they’re underpinned by a reverence for and attention to Ibn Arabi. They are beholden to the lean desire of the original, the overlapping of spiritual and erotic, while riffing off it in a variety of ways: one original refracted in a half-dozen or more mirrors.

Each time, they begin with the Arabic, then move into their interpretations and re-interpretations. In publications and talks over the last five years, these are sometimes called “a chain of poems” and sometimes “a correspondence in poems” that took place largely between Cape Town and Istanbul. The poems overlap but change, and the reader has the pleasure of thinking their way toward the ideas within through repetition and re-angling. Generally, there are stricter versions toward the beginning and looser ones toward the end, but there is no crib; if a reader wants to know the Arabic, they must read it themselves.

Mirror, mirror

In the case of this short verse, about the nature of a mirror (or about the nature of projection, as we might now call it), one of Moger’s versions comes first. Perhaps we begin here because this first sally has a slightly more formal feel, like a proper nineteenth-century dance moving in slow, careful steps. The first stanza:

She said, I was taken

Seeing a lover sway 

His qualities through beds 

Of roses in a garden.

And then comes the rejoinder: “I said, Be not taken / By what you see. You saw / Yourself. In a man’s / A mirror.”

In the poem and in this first translation, there is a clear “she said” (novice) and “I said” (teacher). The woman speaker is seized by the charms of a man, much as we might be seized by the charms of a poem, or by a love of God. But the poem’s narrator turns the mirror back around, telling the woman that while she thought she was weak-kneed over a beloved (either man or God), it is only herself “In a man’s / A mirror.”

On the following page, the poem is refreshed with a new translation of the same short text by Yasmine Seale. Here, she uses a broader, more conversational tone: “It struck me, she said, to see a man parade / his charms between a garden’s flowers.” In Yasmine’s version, the interlocutor is more edifying than chastising. “Do not be struck, I said, for what you saw / was you in the mirror of a man.”

Each iteration has the initials of the poet-translator below it, either RM or YS. In some hands, successive translations of the same poem might grow a little tedious, or we might feel we were either at a lecture or that the poet-translators were simply showing off (like the man walking around in the garden). But instead, as we have the interplay of two translators in poetic conversation, and the marked tonal shifts sometimes have the tension of rejoinder or rebuttal.

At the very end of this short section, Seale snaps the two stanzas apart, so that one is perched at the top of the page and one at the bottom. The two stanzas thus become mirrored. Or perhaps they are a mirror and its handle.

Throughout the collection, the contemporary iterations play with page placement, formatting, text size, spacing, and other elements Ibn Arabi would not have used. And yet all these tools exist on our side of the mirror. We cannot step through, in Carollian style, to Ibn Arabi’s time. He has left us; that part is fixed. But the translations are alive and shifting, allowing us to imagine different ways of seeing that fixed point.

Perhaps each iteration of the poem is a supplicant, yearning for a connection with Ibn Arabi’s original. Or perhaps each one is a lover, longing to see itself in another. Perhaps they are both.

Shattering the mirror

Arabic-to-English literary translation has historically had less experimentation, play, and delight than some other language pairings. In his introduction to Impostures, Cooperson writes of the experimental translations of al-Hariri into Persian and Hebrew, writing, “It was only when al-Hariri arrived in Europe that he became untranslatable.” That is, al-Hariri was “untranslatable” because of the (limited) possibilities envisioned for translation of his maqamat. 

Cooperson borrows his “un/translatability” principle from Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Benadbelali, who has said that the untranslatable “is not something that cannot be translated, but rather something that can be translated infinitely many ways.”

Perhaps Moger and Seale don’t aspire to infinitude, are neither are they calling their work a translation. The subtitle of the collection is “poems after Ibn Arabi.” The poems are physically so—each of the English poem-responses comes after the Ibn Arabi—but it is also a way of not fixing them in place as either translation or adaptation. Still, whatever they are, they bring an echo of a classic poet to a new audience, by using one of the infinitely many methods Benadbelali suggests.