On the Translation of NTA-shortlisted ‘Exhausted on the Cross’

The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) announced yesterday that Najwan Darwish and Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s Exhausted on the Cross was one of the four-book shortlist for their poetry prize, alongside works by Mandelstam (tr. Peter France), Dante (tr. D. M. Black), and atalka Bilotserkivets (tr. Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky).

In celebration of this shortlisting, we re-run our earlier review of the collection, “Najwan Darwish and the Politics/Poetics of Translating Exhaustion”:

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By Khaled Rajeh 

The ones hanging

are tired.

No image better captures the essence of Najwan Darwish’s poetry than that from the titular poem of his 2018 collection, Exhausted on the Cross (translated by Kareem James Abu Zeid, NYRB Poets, 2021). The unnamed “ones” are hanging from a crucifix, suspended indefinitely, stuck somewhere in between life and a death which never comes. They plead, exclaim their tiredness, beg to be brought down, and receive no response.

Darwish possesses one of the most recognizable styles in Arabic poetry today. This last collection, his eighth in twenty years, offers an especially modern treatment of a less explored aspect of Palestinian life: exhaustion. The voices that comprise these poems range in time and place across millennia, from the Medina of prophet Muhammad to the Shatila Camp in modern-day Beirut, but they all share an all-encompassing exhaustion. These characters are exhausted by a never-ending occupation, by decades of colonial violence, by ceaseless displacement, and also, in a sense, by poetry itself. The dispossession, exile, loss, nostalgia, steadfastness, the brutality of Israeli occupation, all the recurrent themes of Darwish’s forebears in “resistance literature” – from Taha Muhammad Ali to Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim – have begun to sound rather worn out. Indeed, if the improved living conditions of Palestinians were any measure, it would seem that everything written around and since Ghassan Kanafani coined the term “resistance literature” (أدب المقاومة) in 1968 has, like the pleas of the ones hanging, fallen on deaf ears. 

“There’s no dignity here.” These are all the words the 65-year-old woman from the poem “In Shatila” can muster. “Rivers of regret, / years of agony that drown / in just four words.” The dispossession of Palestinians extends to their language. The sparse words that reach us through these poems seem robbed of agency and paralyzed by self-despair. “Ghosts try to forget / and when they meet in groups / they meet to forget / they drink tea / and recite poems to each other / to forget” (Embrace). For Darwish, the role of poetry has been relegated from one of protest and documentation to a kind of voluntary amnesia. Gone are the days of poets on the front lines of the resistance. They now exist as ghosts, hanging between life and death, powerless against the world.

Darwish crafts an identity that is a composite of civilizations and histories, belonging as much to “the struggle of Latin America’s peoples as to the struggle of the Arab world”[1]. He is well attuned to the plight of the oppressed in and outside Palestine. That, along with the concision of his verse, the concreteness of its images and its often-aphoristic quality, have made his work especially inviting to translators. As Abu Zeid points out, “Perhaps it is this versatility, coupled with a deep sensitivity to the human condition that transcends the situation of Palestine, that has led his poetry to garner a broad international readership, through translations into more than twenty languages” (Exhausted, p.125).

Yet the translation of a poet like Darwish, though inviting, involves a host of challenges and dilemmas for the translator. Darwish’s poetry is still highly political, not in spite of, but because of its apparent apolitical-ness. Its despair, hopelessness, exhaustion, and paralysis are psychological byproducts of the intergenerational crimes against the Palestinian people. Its Arabic is, to use Darwish’s phrase, that of the Arabs whose tongues have been cut. It is a record of injustice. Those who attempt to translate Darwish place themselves, willingly or otherwise, in the role of activists. Transferring this record into the language of those who hold power, namely that of American voters and senators, can only allow for more reflection on the moral consequences of their power. The degree to which they do so is determined by the degree of their engagement with the translation. The translator thus finds themselves balancing poetic and political considerations. The challenge lies not only in figuring out how to effectively translate the language of exhaustion, but in making sure it resonates with the widest possible target audience. Abu Zeid seems to have struck the right balance of politics and poetics in his latest translation.

When compared to Atef Alshaer and Paul Batchelor’s translation of Darwish’s 2020 collection, Embrace, Abu Zeid’s is noticeably more liberal. Whereas the former follows the lines of the original closely, preserving their length and frequently breaking them on the equivalent word or expression as the Arabic, Abu Zeid tends to play with their length, line-breaks, and order. In some places he creates new enjambments, alters the order in which we process content, and even adds lines of his own. He seems, rightly so, more concerned with recreating the voice and sense of the poetry than an immediate linguistic correspondence. This comes at the expense of some elements of Darwish’s distinct style, especially where Abu Zeid bends the poems to conform more closely to the norms of contemporary American poetry. Let us return to the titular poem: 

The first notable departure from the original is in line number and length. The first line in the Arabic, the longest of this stanza, contains only two words. The ones hanging are exhausted, and so are their words. Their laconic speech reinforces the sense that they have neither the breath for their words nor any hope that they will be answered. Of course, this effect may be easier to achieve with the nonconcatenative morphology of Arabic, where, for example, the triconsonantal root (ع-ل-ق), ‘allaqa, “he hung”, can be transfixed into the one-word plural noun for the recipients of the action, i.e. “the ones hanging”, almu’allaquun. The original line, in a literal sense, reads “they have tired, the ones hanging.” One might still translate this line (in slightly more normal subject-verb order) as “the ones hanging are tired,” which preserves both the exact syllable count and the urgency with which the ones hanging exclaim their exhaustion, an urgency reflected in the poet’s decision to start the poem with that very word: “tired.” Abu Zeid’s decision to break the line between the subject (the ones hanging) and verb (are tired), creating the momentary pause in which our eyes move down to the next line to discover what is up with the ones hanging, detracts from some of that urgency. Nonetheless, the enjambment leaves “are tired” on a line of its own, which replaces some of the emphasis it lost by no longer being the opening word. Although we may not be able to preserve the one-word lines of the original, we can still, by eliminating the translator-supplied conjunctions “so” and “and,” preserve the syllable count of each of the next two lines (“anzelna / linastareeH), which would then read “bring us down / so we may rest.” This is closer in sense to the original, which contains no imperative in the last line. The translator’s decision to use “give us some rest” adds an extra audacity to the speaker, and perhaps the unrealistic expectation that “rest” is something they could be given by their executioner.

This next stanza is also visibly wordier than the original, in which the two-word first line is just “we drag histories.” The act of dragging already implies the pulling of weight behind; to preserve its terseness, the line could be translated without the addition of “behind us.” The next line is more enigmatic, and reads as “no land and no sky” or “neither land nor sky.” With no verb in the line, the question of what contains no land or sky is slightly ambiguous. Taking both lines of the stanza as one grammatical unit, “land” and “sky” go with “histories” as the objects of dragging. The Palestinian people have been dispossessed of everything, land and sky included, and left with only their histories. The notion of an appropriated sky recurs in a few of Darwish’s other poems, as in “The Thieves”: “but who would believe me when I say that my country / with its mountains and sea / with its blue sky / and its villages that God has visited one by one, / who believes me / when I say they have been stolen.” And in “Even The Sky”: even the sky – / the only one all people share – / is no longer my sky” (Embrace).  Abu Zeid’s translation, with its addition of “here / where there’s…,” attributes the absence of land and sky not to the speaker but to the place. This not only alters Darwish’s characteristic metaphor, but attributes more uncharacteristic verbiage to the supposedly exhausted speaker. However, Abu Zeid still manages to make these lines more reader-friendly by spelling out a grammatical relationship between them. The enjambment binds the translated stanza together such that it eliminates the momentary incoherence we encounter between the two lines of the original stanza.

Here we see Abu Zeid’s boldest intervention in the poem. Neither the line nor the image of a knife are present in the original, which reads “O God / relieve your sacrifice.” However, the insertion of this image may help bring out a secondary sense of the Arabic word for “sacrifice,” which comes from the root “ذبح,” to slaughter or to behead. This word is normally used for the killing of animals or criminals, underscoring the subhuman treatment of the speaker. “Sacrifice” alone does not necessarily carry the sense of beheading in the English, and so Abu Zeid’s poetic intervention, though at the expense of some more verbiage, was perhaps necessary. Another intervention was changing the non-specific “God” to “Lord,” narrowing the reading to a Christian one, but also making it more familiar to a mostly-Christian American audience, allowing for a more personal engagement.

In this stanza, Abu Zeid decides to create a break after “hanging” so as to keep that word suspended alone between two lines. By forcing a pause there and leaving only white space before and after the participle, the translator can further elicit the sense of emptiness that may not have been possible to translate directly into English in other parts of the poem. For the ones hanging, there is not much else to feel or do but hang. The futile confinement of the act recalls the endless waiting of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, or the paradox of his anonymous narrator in The Unnamable, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Darwish’s speakers, however, have been stripped of the will to go on. The enjambment after “hanging” also helps recreate both the affective valence of the word in the Arabic and the emotional impact of the image itself. “You never saw your brothers” reads like a fairly innocuous, even factual statement, considering the person addressed “had no mother or father” (perhaps alluding to a difference in traditional family values, or an accusation of a lack of upbringing). The line that then hangs on “hanging” explodes our earlier reading by implying that the speaker had in fact seen their own brothers hanged in the morning. It packs something of the shock that the sight of the event must have had on the speaker. 

The speaker shifts, in this boldly confrontational last stanza, to the first person singular, having used only the plural hitherto. He seems to recognize himself as possessing individual thoughts and desires, and is undaunted by the risks of putting them forward. The assertion of this newfound individuality is heightened in the Arabic by the repetition of the initial أ, which inflects verbs to the first person singular. A direct translation of the opening lines would read “I am not King David / to sit at the gate of regret,” which lacks the emphasis on selfhood that Abu Zeid replenishes with his addition of the first-person pronoun, “I won’t.” Abu Zeid also achieves this emphasis in his intervention in the closing lines, changing “I want to rest” to “let me have my rest,” with its additional personal pronoun and imperative verb. The repeated m-sound in “me,” “me,” and “my” also serves to preserve some of the consonance produced by the repetition of the أ four times in the last two lines of the original. All this encouraging character development proves futile, of course, when the poem ends with no reply. We are left hanging. 

Exhausted on the Cross offers us a glimpse of Abu Zeid’s own poetic acumen. Darwish broached the subject in an interview with his translator in February, “When I talk about the books in English, I never say ‘my’ book but always ‘our’ book. Because it’s also yours as a poet-translator.” As we have seen in his earlier translations of Darwish and Adonis, Abu Zeid has never shied away from domestication, his rule of thumb being that if it sounds translated, he has done it wrong. “I need to keep working on the text and working on the text until it sounds like something that an American poet, or an American novelist, could have or would have written.”[2] This might sound problematic to some readers. If the author wished to communicate his content through a particular form on the page, shouldn’t the translator preserve this form, with its line-breaks, stanzas, and precise motion of thought? Even at the expense of it sounding foreign, awkward, or just more demanding on the Anglophone reader? Is it not doubly problematic to force Palestinian poetry to conform to the poetic norms of a country that is one of the Palestine’s biggest aggressors?

Not so much, when we consider what Abu Zeid achieves with his domestication. As we saw above, his additions serve to flesh out secondary connotations of certain words from the original, ensuring no signifier is dispossessed of its signified. His interventions allow for smoother reading in the English. The enjambments he introduces certainly make Darwish read like a contemporary American poet, but they operate on an emotional rather than a merely typographical level, and always seem to achieve a corresponding emotional response that native Arabic readers would have had to the original. In other words, Abu Zeid does not assimilate the poems so fully into the host culture such that cultural, historical, or even affective differences are erased.

There is no question that it is important to translate not just the words in their own right, but also their combinations with other levels of text: the line, the stanza, and the shape of the poem as a whole. However, when poetry contains a political function, a change in the translation’s standards of equivalence may be necessary, if only to allow the poem to fulfill this function. The resistance literature of the last seven decades, along with most other forms of resistance to the Israeli occupation, has failed to effect any substantial change on the ground. This is due in large part to the failure of the Palestinian people and their allies to make the guilt-ridden West understand and objectively consider their predicament as victims of a violent settler colonialist state. It is a failure of Palestinian activists, journalists, academics, artists, writers, and their translators to attune a wider audience to their pain and shift public opinion in favor of their basic human rights ﹘ especially in the United States, which continues to be Israel’s biggest benefactor, still fulfilling their pledge to send $38bn of military aid to Israel in the decade 2017-2028, still turning a blind eye to the unprecedentedly wide documentation of the atrocities this year in Gaza, and of the forced displacement of Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, a microcosm of the Israeli state’s constitutional campaign of ethnic cleansing against the larger Palestinian population. 

As Anton Shammas puts it, reaching an American audience is complicated further by the way any Palestinian act of resistance “will always be intersemiotically translated and at times labeled, at least in the US, as a ‘terroristic act.’ So, in order to translate the Palestinian pain, the act of translation has to cope not only with the inbuilt inability of language to articulate pain, as Scarry argues, but moreover with the inbuilt failure of translation to make us listen to the suffering of others…”[3] Translators of Palestinian poetry, in addition to untangling the poetics of pain (or in our case, exhaustion), carry the additional burden of making people listen. For a translator-activist, one who uses translation to give voice to causes that are not their own, political considerations may intrude on the aesthetic ones. They have an ethical obligation to do justice to the aesthetics of the original text, and another duty to the oppressed voices for whom they are advocating justice. So much real-world consequence rides on their ability to create translations that can travel, circulate in the target language, and amass the largest possible readership. In order to do that, the translator needs not only a bilingual sensitivity to poetry, but a familiarity with the norms of contemporary poetry in the target language, with the market and with the kind of poetry that circulates, online and in print. The negotiation that every translator has to undertake, between the literary values of the source and the target culture, is thus swayed toward the latter for the translator-activist. There is a greater incentive to domesticate, especially when we consider that the intended reader of the translator-activist is seldom the linguist, the historian, or the academic relying on their translation to study the culture, language, or poetic traditions of the source language. Rather, it is the average reader, consumer of poetry, and voter who is on the translator-activist’s mind. Domestication makes the text more consumable, more likely to engage the widest audience. It makes the poet’s exhaustion more familiar. It brings Palestine closer. Domestication can be an act of diplomacy.

Over the past year, by the examples of the likes of Muna and Mohammed el-Kurd, we have seen cellphones achieve what decades of public demonstrations, resistance literature, and boycotts of Israel have failed to do: bypass Western mass media outlets. Through social media, the American public was able to receive unfiltered footage and hear previously censored voices directly from Palestine. For once, we had Palestinian news sources as readily available as the Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN. We can see Abu Zeid’s translations serving the same end ﹘carrying the Palestinian experience to public consciousness. The ones hanging need their translators.

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Khaled Rajeh is a writer and literary translator from Baakleen, Lebanon. He is currently enrolled in the MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa.


[1] From an interview with Kareem James Abu Zeid, February 2021.

[2] From an interview with Marfa Public Radio, July 2014. 

[3] Torture into Affidavit, Dispossession into Poetry: On Translating Palestinian Pain

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