Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fady Joudah on Translating Ghassan Zaqtan

I have a dislike of discourse on translation that addresses the "cultural" or "philological" aspects of language as pretext or text that explains the inevitable: that which is "lost in translation" and the "limitation," the “difference,” of (or is it "in") "the other." When it comes to Arabic in particular there is much darkness that sheds a shady light on the space between spoken vs. written Arabic: the colloquial vs. the formal--which of course requires a lengthy discussion that cannot be summarized easily into a sentence, a paragraph, or even an essay, no matter what or who is doing the summary (often someone who speaks neither form of Arabic, or one and not the other). The discussions often break into analysis of “modernity” and other slippery slopes of representing the other.

For me, the tantalizing tale is elsewhere: at the simple level of word order in a sentence: subject, verb, object in English vs. verb, subject, object in Arabic, for example. Also, Arabic's naturally contortionist syntax, its diacritical marks, their effect on tone, prosody, and punctuation (or lack thereof) all guide the new poem in translation. Moreover, Arabic does not capitalize words. Thus the choice of when to add a period or a comma depends largely on the translator’s lyricism in English. Neither fidelity nor infidelity is the question per se; rather it is the “new” poem: the thing itself.

Ghassan Zaqtan is a lyricist with strong narrative impulse (he has also written a novel and a play). In his poems he sketches or carves psychological portraits that surpass the finalities and categories of consumed or consumerist analysis. The two translated poems here clearly exhibit Zaqtan's brilliant pithy narrative. “The Picture of the House at Beit Jala” is more grounded in a locale whereas “As If He Were She” is about a mysterious grief. But clarity in the latter is obviously secondary to the beauty of the telling: the patient build-up that begins the poem, the long lyrical lines filled with detail, like a crammed attic, the illusion of clues and cues. What remains is an ambiguity that demands the poem be reread. Maintaining the syntactical flow in those long lines, without excessive bend toward "straightening" the text into prosaic English, allows for the lyrical "spirit" to be transported, to echo Walter Benjamin here. The poem in Arabic is not necessarily easier to "figure out" than in English. Its detail (of Palestinian humanity, yes, but also of a universal one) is what captivates the mind in either language.


  1. Fady,
    Rereading "A Picture of the House at Beit Jala," I'm struck once again by the resonance of the pronoun "them." The whole poem seems to revolve around the place where "they" used to be, those "things," those multiple, nameable and unnameable losses receding from Beit Jala into infinity. Yet another translation of the poem that appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review substitutes the pronoun "her," which to my mind reduces the loss to the simple equation house = lover.
    Would you comment on how the original Zaqtan poem comes to yield such variant translations.

  2. Hi Lee

    Great point! Well, you see in the Arabic, there is no "it"; it is a gender-specific language, so the other translator's choice of "her" is also possible. However, the pronoun here refers to a feminine thing or things; a possible duality or mix in Arabic construct between the single and the plural: which means it could mean the actual photo or picture that Zaqtan refers to, meaning that the old man in the poem has lost even the photo, and that when he returns to check on things and shut the window, etc, he returns in and through the photo, the last thing he holds of a physical place, since the "house" itself has long been demolished, bulldozed, and now lays in ruins if it lies anywhere. Thus "them" can be also "it".

    However, I chose to translate it in the plural, to focus on the things themselves, whether in the photo, or in the abandoned house. But the title of the poem really serves to enhance the tension between the singular and the plural, doesn't it: "A picture" and in the text "the things"...although Zaqtan does not mention "the things" at all in the poem, but simply leaves the accumulation, the catalog of "things" in the house or picture to suggest it- or themselves.

    For me, this duality also beams a light onto the past and present of loss; the continuing Palestinian tragedy, the repetition of an unacknowledged past-present in a world now coming to terms with it, sort of.

    Most likely Zaqtan is speaking of his father here, who is now dead. But as is the case with the private, the personal, in many Palestinian narratives, in many human narratives for that matter, the collective is born.

    Fady Joudah

  3. I'm very interested, Fady, in the "spirit" you mention, particularly as I experience it in your beautiful translations. Because I am unable to read the Arabic, it remains purely visual to me, extraordinary quiet movements to which the English connects, carrying what for me is a silence into sound. For "spirit," Mandelshtam would say "impulse [poryv']" without which, he says, the sheets have not been rumpled, and poetry has not spent the night. This "impulse" or "spirit" he says is silent but moves wave-like through the words. I like to think that it is the impulse from the Russian that can shape an English translation and that the English words, sounds, rhymes, rhythms, images are (as Pasternak says) the effects (Pasternak says that many of these effects have yet to be named). The experience of the impulse is palpable and the effects as they occur seems to be gifts. I wonder if your experience of the movements between Arabic and English are similar, or if what I am describing is specific to a movement from Russian to English.

    Tony Brinkley

  4. Hi Tony
    No I think it is the same from Arabic into English; in the manner of "breath" perhaps, and "tone". In other words how does the Arabic stanza, line, or sentence carry its "spirit" in Arabic and dictate what English is to be written in equivalent. Of course one can "poeticize" the process all one wants, in your words or mine, Benjamin's or Mandelstam's, but in the end, perhaps it is as simple as addressing the question of the translator's relation to the guest and host languages. For example, would someone who works through a "literal" translator before actually composing the poem (or is it editing at this point) into English (say from Vietnamese or Czech or any language one does not speak well), would he/she envision this "spirit" the same way as one who is quite fluent in the sensibility, the "impulse" of the guest language? My guess is no. But this is not to say "better" or "worse".

  5. Leonore HildebrandtApril 13, 2009 at 10:11 AM

    Dear Fady,

    Your translations and comments brought up two questions for me. The first concerns the translation of the poetic line. You speak about the challenge of “maintaining syntactical flow in those long lines.” While the English text beautifully mirrors the irregular line length in the Arabic, you chose to sometimes create additional, shorter lines. Are your decisions here particular to the poems or to the respective languages? In other words, do Ghassan Zaqtan’s narratives of diminution suggest to you a shorter line, or do you think that, more generally, contemporary English wants a different utterance, a shorter breath?

    My second question touches on the role of memory in these poems. In “A Picture of the House at Beit Jala” the speaker says, “it seems a hole somewhere within him/has opened up.” And in “As If He Were She” the narratives of the dead seem to take over the speaker’s life. And yet these losses engender poetry... In your comments you refer to “the repetition of an unacknowledged past-present” in the context of the “continuing Palestinian tragedy.” When you translate, do you feel the urge of telling what happened/is happening? How might memories be transformed in the writing process?

    Thank you for your poems and for taking time to comment.
    Leonore Hildebrandt

  6. Hi Lenore
    let me answer your second question first: No! I do not focus much (if at all) on making the "political" aspect of the Palestinian tragedy a concern outside the original text of the poem. I can footnote "Beit Jala" for example and explain something about it (that would be my only urge), but I would not pursue the text in that manner. So this leads me to your first question: the text speaks for itself; my focus in translation is largely based on the lyrical and the structural. That is my concern, and not the elucidation of meaning per se.

    And yes, you are right: on occasion the length of the English line does not (to me) lend itself to a similar breath in Arabic (and vice versa) and so infrequently I break a line from the Arabic into two in English in order to maintain the same breath, a closer tonality to that of the original. Arabic links its suffix and prefix, pronoun and objective pronoun, to the verb/noun, and when this is "fleshed out" in English the line becomes longer and might betray a dramatic moment not present in the original; yet the excessive reorganization of the lines (thus making th epoem in English much longer) is also problematic...but obviously that option is a possible choice.

    I hpe this answers your questions; please let me know, if I need to respond differently.


  7. Hi Fady,

    In light of what you said, I have been thinking about the movement from Russian to English when, as in my case, I know little Russian and need for each poem to discover most words anew (with the help of dictionaries and more literate friends). The result I think is one of continual surprise at what the English can turn out to be and what the Russian turns out to say. I tend only to work through a "literal translator" later to assure accuracy. I wonder if there is a comparable excitement when you know both languages (of the original and of the translation) very well?


  8. Hi Tony
    Yes, I don't know the experience of assisted translation, but I wonder about the richness of what is lost and gained in that process, differently than what is lost and gained when one knows the two languages "equally" well. The experience for me, on a spiritual level, is one that unites a hope or a faith in the human mind, in language beyond boundaries. As I said before, I get disappointed when translation becomes directly or indorectly a pretext for "cultural" study of the "other," which is rarely a "fraternal" bond. Then again, Able and Cane were brothers. Anyway, I digress.

  9. Hi Fady,

    I do think it is a faith in language beyond boundaries that is affirmed--that translation despite all the impossibilities is possible. Your beautiful translations certain attest to that.