The poetry of the interpreters by Nia Davis

30th December 2014

In April 2014 Highlight Arts were in Iraqi Kurdistan to work on a poetry translation project.

Nia Davis was one of 8 poets including Ali Wajeeh, Kei Miller, Viki Feaver, Zhawen Shally, Steven J Folwer, Mariam Al Attar, and Ahmad Abdel Hussein. The translations were presented at the Niniti Literature Festival in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan that took place from 22 – 24 April, in collaboration with Art Role and the British Council.

The poetry of the interpreters

Curlessness, the sandal of the lady,

I coat my shoulder

Sleeve is taken away!

I prefer physical exercise in the garden of loneliness

Doctor narrated as a story

the mountains of criss cross.

Don’t ask me if this is my poetry.

Are you the rower who is going to rob my life from me?

You are more lethal than cane.

Who do this sprouting?

I climbed death,

I more than a wound you can wind me.

My loneliness glasses have been shattered!

I wanted to be made available.

I am not like other autumn scissors.

 Something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently is: should poetry be considered communication?

Above is a poem made by the interpreters of the Niniti International Literature Festival in Erbil this April. I’m not sure you could call it communication exactly. It is accidental. In a way that is less than ideal the simultaneous interpreters translated poems performed at the festival into English, Arabic and Kurdish, piping it live into our ears. This is just a hint of what they came up with in English as (mis)heard and recorded by me.

When we translate poetry we try to negotiate some kind of connection between original and new – something between conveying the original – in idea, style, image, humour, or whatever is possible. It’s a form of writing new poetry that may not necessarily be a communication. And as I discovered on the  2014 Reel Iraq poetry translation workshop each poem actually demands its own approach. There is no one way of doing this.

With Mariam Al-Attar’s work it was about digging around in the background of the poem to feel the intention. I picked a poem out of her pile of bridge translations literally entitled ‘masturbation’, I was probably drawn to its shock value! There was then a series of misunderstandings on my part we had to talk through. At first I thought it was a poem celebrating self-pleasure, then I thought was a condemnation of masturbation as a form of violence. (How was I going to translate that into my language culture?) Finally after more conversation through our wonderful interpreter Dina Mousawi I gathered from Mariam that this was a poem which didn’t really explain its own title, it was focused much more on the nature of the violence of a suicide bomber – a violence of wanting – sexual and otherwise. It is a poem that tries to demonstrate the unreligious nature of the ignorant, obsessive martyr-to-be, of self-concerned sexuality, greedy lechery and obsession with wanting and harming. After much discussion I translated the title as ‘Fucking obsessed’. Later in the week we translated a poem basically asking her mother not to meet her father and give birth to her ‘in a village on the border.’ With Mariam’s poetry it was about finding the emotional core of each of her visceral vivid and often ferocious images and messages.

With Ahmad Abdul Hussein a different set of challenges arose. Ahmad uses complex allusion and metaphors. Outspoken against religion and working as an investigative journalist he has twice had to leave the country following death threats. I explored the maze-like structures of his poem, ‘dialogue after death’, a conversation between two slain soldiers on the battle field after the Iran Iraq war which Ahmad himself fought in. The poem explores the malaise he says he felt at the time: a disillusionment in humanity and a questioning of ethics.

The complexity of the images he used could not be laid down in English in a straight forward way. Within a few lines Ahmad was alluding to Arabic astrology, Sufi notions of unity, the natural sympathy between humans, the particular kinds of magical substances and techniques used for fortunetelling and also the use of mercy killing as political propaganda. And throughout all of this he includes a shifting sense of doubt in the certainties of all of these things and of life itself. Roberto Bolaño talks about writers who have both eyes open in the dark and I think Ahmad Abdul Hussein is one of these few.

Each of the poets presented me with a different challenge. Likewise having my own work translated into Arabic and Kurdish brought up new perspectives on my own work and hence myself – there is something a bit psychoanalytic about translation which is after all a form of deep reading.

When we presented the poetry at the Erbil Festival there was one notable member of the audience who was very interested in how ‘accurate’ the translations were. He wanted to pick apart each line and point our our ‘mistakes’. When I spoke to him afterwards, and realized he wasn’t bilingual and that he wasn’t really listening to the poetry in the English, my first through was: he doesn’t understand what poetry is. Why is he here telling me I’m wrong? Uncomfortable with this thought – I usually try not to dismiss anyone’s subjective responses to poetry –  I talked to him a bit more and discovered he had a lot enthusiasm for poetry and had loved the event, albeit in a rather pedantic way!

But what I wanted to tell him was this: you can’t translate poetry ‘accurately’, and it is certainly not a good idea to ever present literal translations as poetry. What he saw as mistakes might actually be the poetry itself in the translation. We were making poems, transliterations, and usually these poems required leaps away from the original.

I think I can partly understand the motivation to be pedantic. Languages, especially those marginalised by globalisation, need defenders. Arabic poetry in particular has suffered from some pretty bad translations into English. Prior to arriving in Iraq I read a very interesting review by Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon of translations of Adunis’s poetry. This review is, in the true sense of the saying, a proper catalogue of errors.

Why is Antoon any different from our Erbil pedant? Because to my mind he is pointing out chronic misunderstanding rather than technical differences in use of language. The errors show a lack of basic comprehension of the original that wouldn’t have been a problem if the translations had grown out of advanced bilingualism or proper conversation. (We were going for both by the way; conversation through bilingual interpreters.) Even though the translation of Adunis Antoon reviews sounds quite interesting in English, if it stems from neither an understanding of Arabic nor the poetry, what is it exactly? It might be a form of poetry but it is probably nothing to do with Adunis and should not really be presented as such. Let alone win translation prizes which it has done, (you’d expect prize judges to read a work properly before lauding it wouldn’t you?).

I think that translation should be a process of making a new poem but if it is to bear the original’s name (as opposed to a simple ‘after’ or a ‘for’) it should communicate as much as it can and not be an erasure of the distinctiveness of the original. Otherwise we’re at risk of cultural appropriation, even literary imperialism in some cases.

We translate culture as well as language. Metaphors used in one language culture can be cliche in another. A swan in my poem sounded wonderful in Arabic, incongruous in Kurdish. Hope melting in the heart in Kurdish in or rain falling because of love had to become something else in English to avoid the saccharine. Each poem demanded something in itself to be carried over whatever that communication may be.

The simultaneous translators in their box weren’t really communicating but by accident they were making poetry out of misunderstandings. In the meantime we were trying to make poetry out of understanding. But in some cases also out of not-understanding. Because not everything is translatable and sometimes what is most ‘untranslatable’, such as allusions specific to particular cultures or experiments in language, can become the best kind of poetry in translation because the poet translating has made new daring steps. I think personally though that this should be a conscious leap – a decision that comes out of human to human conversation.

So the answer, as it so often is to these ridiculous rhetorical questions, is that poetry is and is not communication.

BUT freedom is also important here. Election campaigning was taking place the week we were in Iraq and we were walking every night under thick canopies of party bunting. Elections are a big deal. Freedom to decide is a big deal in Iraq. And as I was told: these days the government is fearful of the writers rather than the other way round even if life is incredibly difficult and dangerous. Freedom to do whatever you want is so important in making good artwork. And freedom was at the heart of this translation process too – as translators we poets were free to make whatever decisions we liked as shaped by the relationships we were forming with the poets we were translating. The experience of this workshop and visit confirmed for me again the importance of freedom and understanding between people.

Originally published on Reel Festivals website on May 27th, 2014.