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.