Ask the Poem

M. Lynx Qualey
January 14, 2013
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At this year’s MLA convention, several panels discussed how to teach and frame translations from Arabic into English. One passing comment at “Challenging Israeli and Palestinian Relations: The Protest of Poetry in a Region of Conflict,” addressed whether Arabic-English translations focus too much on “readability” and don’t give enough space to political and military realities.

As I was already in conversation with Sinan Antoon and Peter Money about their recent translation of Saadi Youssef’s Nostalgia, My EnemyI nudged this question over to Money.

I think my response would be that we can not “add” themes to a poem, we can only bring out the themes.  Are there tensions that go missing in translation? This is one reason why Sinan and I worked well as a co-translator team, I think.  Together we are aware of nuances we might not necessarily identify without the other.  We are each other’s “Other.”  And tension is a very integral part of “the small machine” (to quote William Carlos Williams) that is a poem.  If the direct reference, the “particular” in Ginsberg’s terms, is there — then it is not to be re-written. When we read Saadi’s line (in “The Wretched of the Heavens”), “Are Americans Christians?” we state the line but the implications are multi-fold and require consideration of what the relationship suggests.  All Americans?  Christian “soldiers”? What is it to be “American” in the ironic middle of North America? What is is about “these States” that are said to be separated from church and state and yet contain “a Bible Belt”?  On and on and on.

Perhaps, Money indicates, it is not always the translator not working hard enough, but sometimes the reader.

Does the poem leave out some realities?  Ask the poem.  Ask yourself. I asked myself about the political and military realities of Iraq and the United States in 2002 — and I was led to the[se] poems.

As to why a reader should ask these particular poems, Saadi Youssef is, according to Antoon, “the most important Iraqi poet and intellectual alive today and one of the greatest modern poets of the Arab world,” a poet who can “turn any object, instant, or situation, no matter how seemingly banal, into a luminous poem.”

The collection is also a gorgeous, world-spanning work on its own account.

You can read three poems from the collection at Jadaliyya and another at Poetry Daily.

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