In December 1988, in my last year in college, I travelled for a week to New York and took Lorca’s Poet in New York with me. I realize the narcissism implied in the sentence, but I’d been carrying the book with me for months at the time. And while on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn a day or so later, in an Arab grocery story, I found some books of Mahmoud Darwish. Back in the room where I was staying, I’d read a poem by Lorca and put it aside, read some Darwish and translate it into English, and then went back to Lorca, and so on. In between, I wrote some of my own lines. I didn’t know Spanish, but I could read Lorca out loud for cadence. And there was Darwish’s Arabic, and my own versions of his poetry in English. I had four floods of poetry coming at me, and what I put down was perhaps an expression of the whirlpool they created in me.
Being inspired to write while reading happens to all poets, and happens to composers as well. They start playing something by another composer and then their own “original” work comes through. Other than directly quoting Arab poets in my work, I’ve yet to understand how translation contributes to my process of composition, except to say that, like rhyme or meter or any rule we set up for our poems, translation adds a focus on precision, the focus that forces one to be creative.
This episode in Brooklyn happened nine years into my life in the U.S., where I came at the age of fourteen—fully aware of who I am in a cultural sense. I was a foreigner and knew that alterity would stay with me for some time. I felt that foreignness when I first read Walt Whitman. His America just did not speak to me then. I needed something in English, but that was also in my “language.” Translating Arab poets offered me a chance to experiment with sensibilities similar to mine (using familiar images, symbols, and motifs) in English. Contemporary poets wrote poems based on exercises, others wrote imitations as beginners. Earlier poets, Milton included, cut their chops on translations from Latin and Hebrew. I chose this more old fashioned apprenticeship, except that I did not do this for the exercise, but for the kinship.
Translating Darwish was also a sentimental education. As a political refugee, I was uncertain about where I’d end up or where I wanted to be, and I was aware that I’d been gone too long, that the link between my upbringing and my early adulthood had many gaps, which were the only place I could exist. Americans are now more aware of the difficulties faced by immigrants from my region, but back in 1980s Arab bashing was gratuitous. That went along with the Reagan administration’s policies of global racism (support of South Africa’s apartheid, numerous wars in Africa, persecution of Palestinians, and funding the murderous regimes of Central America). Who would stay in a country like that if he had a choice? In the old days, one would call this state alienation, political, social, and cultural. In an early, romantic view of poetry, such alienation can take the poet a long way.
Privileged with or disadvantaged by alienation as the case may be, what I found interesting about Lorca’s Poet in New York was his delirious anger against the modernity machine. An Andalusian, he was so enraptured and frightened by New York that he turned the city into a theater where an ancient nightmarish vision of Dante’s Inferno met surrealism, where folk mythology fused with a modern underworld creeping up the skyscrapers. In Poet in New York Lorca confronts what García-Márquez called “a reality that is in itself out of all proportion” (Mendoza 60). In that case, realism, or the lyric voice grounded in shared knowledge was not appropriate. Lorca needed an athletic imagination to protect himself from being dissolved and sent streaming down the many drains that populate the poems in that book.
A sense of political grievance, anger at feeling trapped (albeit in America), along with a desire to preserve something which was about to be lost, were what I had brought with me to write poetry. I was writing in English and my sensibility was rooted in a vision that needed to be translated. Not surprisingly I found great affinity in poets like Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Constantin Cavafy, and most of all Nazim Hikmet, who happened to be poets of exile. This sense of alterity helped me connect with certain American poets too. Philip Levine’s poetry had a generous justifiable anger that I could embrace. How was that clarity of purpose we find in Levine’s work derived from his reading of Spanish poets, the ones he translated and others he read in translation, I don’t quite know. Let’s just say, as far as I was concerned, every American poet I latched into, had about him or her the scent of translation. Translation was the sweat and frankincense of home, variable and the same.
Translation is something I encounter on a daily basis. As soon as I say my name I’ve put myself outside the border; I have to crawl back into the center. When a stranger asks me my name—and they ask maybe four or five times a day—every time they ask they’re telling me “I don’t know this name.” Then I have to find a way to translate or legitimate the existence of my name in this world, in their language. Translation, not alienation or estrangement, becomes a kind of existential state, a form of identity.
At home in Libya after years of living away, and in the enigmatic state of arrival, I spent my first day in the banal world of funeral wakes, where customary words such as ‘Azzana wahid are repeated among the attendees. ‘Azzana wahid. The phrase is repeated a thousand times, and its meaning buried in the automatic perception of ritualized utterance where heartfelt sentiment dies. ‘Azzana wahid means “our grief is one.” Our… grief… is… one… During the noisy nonchalant gatherings for my father’s funeral in Libya, only in translation, in my English, did the words “our grief is one” mean anything to me. I culled that meaning from mouths that did not mean to touch me so deeply, and it was translation that allowed me to leap like an endoscope lens into the mourners’ hearts to seek the solace I needed. Proof again that identities are made, or scooped, or dug, never quite passed on, or given. And that effort into reading the words beyond the words people said, the quiet probing of what my countrymen were trying to really tell me and my need to translate them, was how I began to seek my return, my place at home.
Back in 1986, a few months after Reagan’s bombing of Libya, my parents and I, in Greece at the time, went to the American embassy to apply for a visa for them to come and visit my brother and me. I had arranged for the appointment a few weeks earlier, and we showed up an hour early. When the interview time came I walked up with my father to the bureaucrat behind the bulletproof glass. Recognizing somehow that my father spoke no English, she asked if we have a translator. I said, “I’ll translate for him.” Then after shuffling through the application forms for some time, she asked my father, “Why do you want to come to America?” My father said “Siyaha,” (the word meaning tourism). I, translating him said, “He wants to visit my brother and me, and spend some time with us, see the country a little bit…” The consular official interrupted me and said “OK, stop! He said one word, and you’re going on and on. That’s why we don’t like family members translating for applicants. This interview is over.” She collected the papers and went back inside.
Let me clarify that we were not destitute, but members of a comfortable middle class, and indeed if my parents were to come and visit, it really was to see my brother and me. In those days, any Libyan living in the U.S. and not registered with Qaddafi’s People’s Bureau, was suspect. Several returnees from the U.S. that we knew were arrested upon arrival and spent years in prison, and as usual, without charges. Not refugees, and not starving, my brother and I were still not protected from the capriciousness of Qaddafi’s regime.
My reaction to the consular official’s quick dismissal of us was to stand dumbfounded, if not ashamed. Having been a kind of exile of some years, I thought I was adept at “translating” myself and my background. My encounter at the American embassy was the first attempt to translate the U.S., if you will, to my background, to my family. And when my father asked me what would come out of our brief interview, I lied, and for the life of me, I can’t remember the lie I told him.
There’s subservience in this kind of translation, and maybe in all translation, in the attempt to smooth out kinks of difference, and in cases like what I’d been reporting, attempts to make the powerful less powerful, and the powerless less powerless. That’s how I interpret my effusiveness in translating my father’s one word answer. I thought he needed help, and that the American consular official needed help understanding us. I had forgotten then that my father’s cryptic answer was how he had operated for decades before authorities of all kinds. I am certain that when he faced the Libyan Internal Security officer at the Benghazi airport, his answer was also the passive-aggressive phrase of “tourism,” and in a tone that was neither defiant nor solicitous, lugubriously nonchalant, with no admission of need, and confident that that moment will pass. People in authority distrust being loved and may love being feared, but are generally impotent before apathy. They can’t stand people who refuse to be translated.
Somewhere in my work as a translator this thought still offers considerable guidance. Translation does occur between parties of equal power—between Norwegians and Italians, for example. But much of what I do as translation does not take place in a cultural détente. This is the legacy of centuries of European dominance in the world, the legacy of the last six decades of American imperialism, Orientalism, the Crusades, and fear of non-whites. As a translator, a person who often faces unbridgeable distances and is forced into finding out how they can be crossed—I, in the American consulate in Athens, wanted to become a kind of ferry, more than willing to bring an other to my shore. What I’ve learned since then is that when we commit acts of generosity out of weakness we set ourselves up for rejection, and that solicitude is not a viable way to cross distances. What would have happened, had I simply said “tourism” while representing my father? I am certain there would have been a follow-up question, more than one.
A literary case in point to explore this idea further: Here’s how Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet, approached translating his own poems. By the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, Tagore had helped modernize Bengali, and indeed, all the arts in the Indian subcontinent. His poetry is dense in imagery, conceptual thought, and allusion steeped in the cultural heritage of India. As he rendered his poems to English, he felt, English readers have very little patience for scenes and sentiments which are foreign to them; they feel a sort of grievance for what they do not understand—and they care not to understand whatever is different from their familiar world (Sengupta 165).
And so Tagore chose poems that English readers would find palatable. In his native Bengali he had written mostly about secular matters. In English, however, he presented only his devotional poems because English audiences were familiar with the stereotypical Indian guru persona. He made his poems much more simplistic, by “circumvent[ing] areas that offer resistance” (169). Tagore’s attitude cannot be reduced to a personal inferiority complex. There was a power imbalance that, acting with a strong sense of agency, he thought could be realigned by appealing to a sense of shared humanity. But as far as his culture was concerned, the British intelligentsia, even before Macaulay’s famous minute, had already “read” Tagore. This perceptual stacked deck is what Mahasweta Sangupta calls the “‘symbolic order’ of the English language where meaning and signification are already fixed according to the differential network of relations” (164). This system “patterns and regulates all thought and action within a given discursive field” (164) leading them to a set of foregone conclusion. A colonized subject like Tagore “seems to have no option but to deploy the symbolic order of the English language which already has an existent repertory of discourse defining the alterity of the East” (164-65).
In other words, the other has already translated you, has fixed you within given parameters. This happens among all different groups, even among Norwegians and Italians where no obvious power struggle ensues. But it’s more evident when a power struggle does exist, and within that there are options for the work to be translated. And that is why readers in the West have grown to expect a kind of one dimensionality in the work of writers from problematic regions most evident in marketing of such works. Here are the familiar types:
- There’s the rebel exile who has resorted to the West for protection and who confirms to them how awful his home country was. He is most useful if his country happens to be an enemy nation.
- Then there’s the aesthete who just wants the freedom to create art and examine the perennial concerns of art, not politics. Invariably, this artist is an elitist and he adds international credibility to the capitalist class structure.
- Then there’s the melancholic exile who bemoans his displacement, and whose work is there to remind Westerners of the charms of the Old World, a lost innocence that Americans particularly find utterly enchanting. His nostalgia, evoking theirs, confirms their notions of the universal, also confirms their advanced cultural status over his native country’s.
Deviate from these, show ambivalence, or God forbid, critique your “hosts” and you’re pushed into margins you did not know existed.
Trying to smuggle my voice with Darwish and Lorca serving as my coyotes, I had to think also about how to smuggle myself into a given cultural setting while seeming to surpass or forego any claim or desire for being native, and also conscious of being typecast. It seemed enough to be one’s own. But encounters with power in the world of writing, even in a field as marginal as poetry, were inevitable. In a symbolic order that had a discriminating taste for which truffles to pick, translation, expressed as the smuggling of foreign goods, and un-translatability—something like the taciturnity of my father’s one word answer—provided a sense of how to resist being consumed, and if swallowed, to be a cause of discomfort.
It is Thursday July 29th; the Libyan uprising has been going on for five months now, and I am in Benghazi, in Idris Ibn Al-Tayyeb’s office in the revolutionary government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I had come to my home to see my family and to see what I could do on the ground. Beginning with the outbreak of the Libyan revolution I had made several television appearances, wrote several commentaries, and was constantly online following the news and commenting on developments. Two months into the revolution, my wife and I started working at Libya TV in Qatar to help with the cause.
I had been meeting Idris over the past few days and we had talked about, among other things, a peace plan that would enable Qaddafi to leave Libya safely after surrendering power to a group of technocrats acceptable to revolutionaries. “How to fuse the body of Qaddafi’s state and the new National Transitional Council?” Idris wondered aloud, inviting me to think with him. Driving through Benghazi’s cop-less streets, where fellow drivers rode 4×4’s with anti-aircraft guns installed on top and ignored traffic with abandon, and where a sense of glee mingled with palpable panic regarding the future of the state, I found much to think about. Terms like reconciliation, transitional justice, constitutionalism, and decentralization were being bandied about among the people I had been meeting, and the talking heads on the TV channel I worked with in Qatar. But the words were not promising: they were like lumps of sand flung on a dry wall and not sticking, or the proverbial spaghetti noodles flung at a wet wall, quickly slithering down.
In that atmosphere, I sought Idris because he had been a kind of anchor for me in Libya over the past few years. I also came to tell him that I had translated a poem of his, a poem addressed to the city of Tripoli, whose liberation we’d all been anticipating. Idris had written the poem in prison in the late 1970s where he spent ten years altogether. A symbolist piece typical of the poetry written at the time, Idris’s poem imagines the city as a beloved woman caught in the chains of tyranny whom the poet frees, redeeming himself in the process. It was not a poem that had caught my eye prior to the revolution, but given the living longing for the city to unchain itself from the regime, the poem came alive and I thought it deserved to be translated. But even as I translated the poem, I wondered who would read it, and why publish it on a website whose readers generally do not read poetry in translation. I wondered if I should be translating it into English at all. Nonetheless, I felt I had at least done something for my good friend Idris and to tell him in so many words that his words and mine have at last fused.
On one level, Idris and I have had a kind of friendship that I’d had with several Arab poets, a friendship marked by a tension over my ability to introduce them to a new world of readers. Often enough they are poets whose poems do not come to any good in my own words or my diction. I should say that my view of Arabic poetry has been affected by my ability to translate it. If I am not challenged to translate a poem I find it difficult to appreciate and connect with. And so I had been underappreciating Idris’s until his poem in Tripoli spoke to me.
But appreciating and admiring Idris himself is what I had done for years. He’s a remarkable man. He’d had polio as a child. Due to his handicap, his father sent him to a religious cloister in a distant oasis where he memorized the Quran and studied to be an imam. A voracious reader, he caught the literary bug in his teens, but he continued to be an apprentice imam for the love of it. He once told me about taking over a little mosque in Tripoli that used to play the call to prayer and recitation of the Quran on a cassette for Friday prayers. He disliked this so much that for months he volunteered to recite the Quran and chanted the adhan to the worshippers’ delight. Due to his excellent language skills and because had learned some English, he landed a job as a correspondent with an international news service. And shortly after getting his Islamic studies diploma, he landed a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It all came to an abrupt halt, however, when he was sent to jail for being a communist sympathizer in 1978. After his ten years in prison he was somehow reinstated in his Foreign Ministry job, and hence resumed his diplomatic career. When I first met Idris in 2001, he was second secretary at the Libyan embassy in New Delhi. He’d had some of his poems translated to English there, and badly so, but I never had the heart to tell him that the translations were poor.
Of course, translation is important to Idris. A few days earlier, he had received a shipment of his Indian-English book, which he personally reprinted in Egypt. He must have been giving away copies of his book to all the foreign reporters and dignitaries who had come to Benghazi in droves since the revolution.
So when I stood at Idris’s door, he was on the phone and waved me in. When he hung up, he told me that General Abdul Fattah Younis, chief commander of the revolutionary army had been kidnapped. Idris’s phone kept ringing, at one point he received a call from Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council—the revolution’s veritable George Washington. I was struck by a particular phrase he said to Abdul-Jalil. “We need a statement from the NTC about the Younis situation,” Idris said. “We need to translate it so that we can also translate our situation to the world,” he added.
Idris really had no time for me that day so I left him to his work. The following night, after an agonizing wait filled with rumor and random gunfire, Abdul-Jalil made a statement on TV. He reported that Younis had been kidnapped by anti-Qaddafi fighters from a Jihadi group. His body and those of his companions were found dumped on the outskirts of Benghazi; all had been maimed and burned. It was a shocking revelation that stunned the country.
Things moved quickly thereafter. Tripoli would fall on August 23rd, and I too was caught in the euphoria of the victory, for I could hardly believe that the regime that had shaped my life in many ways had finally buckled. People in Tripoli were overjoyed. It seemed the vision of the bride breaking the shackles that bound her in Idris’s poem was fulfilled. Benghazi, however, was summarily displaced as the center of the revolution, and Idris was not called to join the new government in Tripoli.
The huge disorder uncorked by the Younis assassination was a troubling sign that would come back to haunt Benghazi and the rest of Libya. The inability to address that crime, among many other signs indicated that the country lacked a deep language, a language that distinguishes between a mere insurrection and a revolution.
The Qaddafi years had left us with little national culture to speak of, and very little poetry complex enough to transcend its local origin and unite the country. The country’s modern history was too brief to build a sense of the presence or the future upon. The early Qaddafi years, dominated by pan-Arab rhetoric, were followed by decades of the insipid doggerel of Qaddafi’s Green Book, which sucked the oxygen from the nation’s political consciousness. In the meantime, the Islamist tide rumbled underneath, weeding out any sense of humanism outside the fold of radical Islam. Together, Qaddafi’s nativism and the Islamists’ self-righteousness established a state of derisive anti-intellectualism fueled by arrogance and willful ignorance.
Once the revolution started, Qaddafi’s mottos were officially expunged, and in their absence the impoverishment of the national discourse was laid bare. Yet, to promote national unity, some revolutionaries found themselves repeating phrases from Gaddafi’s Green Book, not knowing they were the words of the man they had fought to the death. Some saw the need to impose a rule of “iron and fire” to bring order to the country as if that was not what they had lived under. The nation’s language was too raw and the terminology of modern governance had no texture in the national consciousness that it could cling to.
The lack of a common language and the violence that was to be post-Qaddafi’s Libya acted like two moving walls blocking any sense of vision. Yet in Idris’s inadvertent insistence on translation I continued to see a thread of evanescence, a glimpse of the ineffable that cannot be reached but that can take one a great distance nonetheless. I saw a sense of belonging. What I saw is what Walter Benjamin spoke of in “The Task of the Translator” whereby the translator can captain us to the shores of “pure language” and where translation is “a reference to a thought in the mind of God” (76). I saw a different opportunity for both my native language—or the context of Libya—and for myself, a coming home through translation.
As I’d been trying to say in so many words earlier, translation had always been for me a means to belonging. Through what I had translated so far, I did want to create a shelf of poetry so that nobody can wonder—as Frank O’Hara once mockingly said, “what the poets in Ghana [or the Arab world for that matter] are doing these days” (37). And yes, as it had been noted, I translated poets who perhaps need not have been translated, or whom I’ve failed to honor fully, if translation is such a thing. Arab poets have been witnesses in Carolyn Forche’s sense of the term, where “political circumstances pervade the poem and necessarily complicate the extent to which the poet can exercise agency” (Forche). Like Idris, they’d been witnesses for human dignity in the most adverse psychic, political, and economic conditions. Not only did they chronicle their times, but also persisted in seeing beyond what they were forced to see. A writer from a country where only the dictator’s name was known, I was a branch cut from the tree, as the proverb says, trying to root myself in another language and tradition, a shady suitor asking for the hand of another tribe’s beauty. So I brought with me the wisest, bravest, and most gifted men and women of my tribe. They spoke for me and I spoke for them. I carried their interlocutors’ questions and I was the face of the answer. A current of apprehensions and desires flowed through me and I felt as a river that defines the lands around it.
This sense of community-making is at the essence of translation. The irreplaceable translation theorist George Steiner tells us that the first stage in translation is “initiative trust” (312) an investment in the meaningfulness and seriousness of an adverse text…” (312) This is a “psychologically hazardous” (312) state that leaves the translator “epistemologically exposed” (312). The philosophical bedrock of this initiative trust is a belief in “the coherence of the world,” (312) in “the presence of meaning in very different perhaps formally antithetical semantic systems,” (312) as well as in “the validity of analogy and parallel” (312) in human interaction.
I recall now the thrill, perhaps known to many translators, of jumping headlong into the first draft of a translation, when one cannot wait to tackle the possibilities, that initial sense of mutual trust between one’s abilities and the text translated. The thrill of the first draft, even before the actual translation occurs, is akin to catching a glimpse of the cell at its fullness before it separates, a reproductive moment where the two languages are congealed in the translator’s mind, in what Whitman called “the womb cohering.” Here one’s past, present, and future are tangled up, and multiple androgynous texts are pregnant and also in need of being birthed through translation. In this unity of potential and merit, of give and take there is safety and belonging. These are the elemental seeds of thought where the transference of one person’s synapses is about to hook itself with another’s, a moment where minds are watching the genus of their cells interlace in language.
If I’m leading toward the erotic in my imagery of this union, it is indeed to affirm what Steiner had also argued, which is that Eros and language mesh at every point.
Intercourse and discourse, copula and copulation, are sub-classes of the dominant fact of communication. They arise from the life-need of the ego to reach out and comprehend, in the two vital senses of “understanding” and “containment” of another human being (39).
Sex, adds Steiner, is a “profoundly semantic act” (40). Together with language “they generate the history of self-consciousness, the process… whereby we have hammered out the notion of self and otherness…” Eros and language/translation “construe the grammar of being” (40).
This remains true although the other stages of Steiner’s definition of translation, such as aggression, sound less peaceful. The aggression stage of translation is, however, “inclusive, incursive, and extractive” (313) action to bring the text home. The translator, like a hunter-gatherer “invades, extracts, and brings home,” (314) adds Steiner. Afterwards we proceed to “incorporation,” where we accommodate the new text in the new home, to widen one’s grammar and vocabulary. The process definitely “adds to our means” (315) as “we come to incarnate alternative energies and resources of feeling” (315). To incarnate is to live in the flesh of the other. The risk here “is that we may be mastered and made lame by what we have imported,” (315) or put on. Then finally, we reach reciprocity where the translation is supposed to “body forth its object” (316).
We are back in the erotic realm, but with new anxieties as we experience new ways of looking and reading. The translator notices “an imbalance” where the translation falls “short of the original” (318) perhaps, but where new energies, and new “autonomous virtues of the original” (318) text become “more precisely visible” (318) by the translation. What we’re talking about then is a manifold relationship where fidelity, like identity, is being created. The translator “endeavors to restore the balance of forces, of integral presence, which his appropriative comprehension has disrupted” (318). This requires tact so “intensified that it becomes a moral vision” (318).
To be true to another text is not to be an Echo to Narcissus, but to be curious and initiate curiosity. The novelist and art critic John Berger tells us that love is ultimately a kind of curiosity—and there is no richer trail of inquiry than translation, a process that guides us toward the “great longing for the completion of language,” (81) to use Benjamin’s words. In translation’s various phases we experience longing and its fulfillment being undone by each other, myriad encounters with the ineffable that encapsulate what we live for, and real evidence, in the translated text, that the broken languages of others can find a home within us, a process where longing becomes belonging.
What has excited me about translation since the murkiest days of the Libyan revolution has been the potential of translating to Arabic, of course, something I had not done much before. Fantasies of the many poems that could and needed to be translated have flooded my mind, from the poems of John Clare to Bluegrass and Gospel songs to the ancient Hala poems of India, and the exciting potential that I could experience as I travel back and forth between my two languages.
The energizing element here lies in the opportunity to deepen the roots of contemporary Arabic expression. The young people in my native region indeed sought freedom, but when it came to structuring the new national life, they had few terms to work with. In a recent study of political views in Arab and Muslims societies conducted by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, radical Islamists, more even than the secularists, insisted that freedom and freedom of opinion were the most important facets of the society they wished to create (2008). And yet, and predictably so perhaps, when these radical elements got the least bit of power, they went about robbing other citizens of their freedom. In the best cases, they filed lawsuits to ban free expression. And they’ve moved on to assault, kidnapping, torture, and assassination. What freedom are our radical brothers talking about?
The language of the Arab spring—the language of chat rooms and Facebook—has not been Arabic per se, much of it is in Latin letters and numbers too, a language devoid of concepts or rootedness. And while it enacts a rebellion against official and religious demagoguery, it also looks and sounds like a hieroglyphics of our impoverishment and despair. Yes, Libya needed to ‘translate itself’ as my friend Idris had said, but what is most needed is to have new worlds translated into us, to explode our language into life.
Why translate? When do languages and literatures engage in translation? Arabic literature is perhaps in its third millennium, it’s not a new literature or language seeking to pump itself up through translation. But the conditions in Arab cultural life fit two conditions that give rise to translation that sociolinguist Itamar Even-Zohar had outlined (48). One is that modern Arab literature, especially poetry, is indeed marginal in its society and around the world. When you feel that your own literature is marginal or is becoming closed in and closed-minded, that’s when you go out and translate other literatures into your language. Furthermore, Arabic may be a holy language, but it is becoming less respected in its own milieu. It is not the language of freedom, or invention, or technology, it is not the language of tolerance. It is the language of God and God, and our current discourse, brings only martyrdom, sacrifice, sin, prohibition, and shame, terms that are beginning to fall on dead ears. Even for fundamentalists themselves who are now enrolling their children in English language schools, Arabic is merely there, like formaldehyde to lifelessly preserve the faith.
Another evident condition for an upsurge of translation according to Even-Zohar is a historical turning point. I believe, and still do, that the revolutions in North Africa are indeed a turning point. There is a sense of opportunity rising now with the beginning of the end of Islamism. Amidst the fissures created by the political struggles new experiences, new aesthetics, tastes and metaphors are being smuggled into these previously closed societies. Individuals are beginning to rearticulate what they had experienced and what had lain suppressed in them. Even in conservative Libya new visions of the future are being drawn in colors that had not been seen before.
Translation is instrumental in rearticulation. Through it a language renews itself testing, speaking, and bodying forth new ideas of what it is to be human. And language renews itself by violating its own parameters. Here the translator’s role is crucial. Benjamin advises the translator to “break through the rotten barriers of his own language…” to “extend the frontiers” (82) of one’s language. A translator fails, adds Benjamin, when “he holds fast to the state in which his own language happens to be rather than allowing it to be put powerfully in movement by the foreign language” (82).
I realize that these exhilarating descriptions of transforming one’s language sound more appropriate for poets than for translators. To that I’ll say: show me a poet who has revolutionized his language without translation. Show me a renaissance that was strictly monolingual, that was the product of cultural incest and isolation. Humble and subordinate as he or she is supposed to be in the service of the original text, the translator shares with the modern writer the potential “to create new totalities, to cultivate random appetites” (9) as Edward Said notes. Like a revolutionary poet, the translation can plunge us “into unforeseen estrangements from the habitual” (12) allowing us to experience what had been called defamiliarization, a necessary component of art throughout the ages according to Shklovsky. And like Harold Bloom’s strong poets, translators can have ambition, and often do, in finding “through prior [translated] texts an opening for their own totalizing and unique interpretations” (120) of a given culture or social order. They can, even through the least willful of translation, provide us visions they wish to advance.
What I’m saying is that translation contains one of the essential gifts of poetry. The great poets, to me, are those who have a wider sense of what they can see, of what they allow themselves to see, let alone what they allow themselves to feel or empathize with. This is a lesson to us both as poets and as translators. We have to be willing to change what we see and say, to attempt a wider sense of what can be said, seen and felt. Where else can one open up the range of the possible in one’s self other than in language, first and foremost. As one translates one sees the host language playing out itself—how the phrase “into” in English splits like bacteria, and how in Arabic you have to try to find the appropriate single cell/word to place it in because when divided “in” and “to” are heading in different directions. The host language offers more synonyms for your chosen words or less; sometimes it puts its foot down and demands alternate sentence structures. “Everything can be translated,” my good friend Anton Shammas once told me. That openness demands that one remain uncertain for a while longer, which is itself a reward. In the wait perfection flickers like an endless supply of matches, whole and ephemeral, but goodness is possible and evident in the translator’s labor and time. In that lack of finality, in our endless attempt to comprehend each other, life roils and kinship weaves us into one another.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Translation Studies Reader. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Esposito, John, and Dalia Mogahed. Who Speaks for Islam: What Do a Billion Muslims Really Think. New York: Gallop Press, 2008.
Even-Zohar, Itamar. “The Position of Translated Literature within the Literary Polysystem.” Poetics Today 11:1 (1990), 45-51.
Forché, Carolyn. “On a Poetry of Witness” http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/forche/witness.htm
Mendoza, Plinio Apuleyo and Gabriel García Márquez. The Fragrance of Guava. Trans. Ann Wright. London: Verso, 1983.
O’Hara, Frank. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Ed. Donald Allen. Berkeley: U of California P, 1971.
Said, Edward. Beginnings: Intentions and Methods. New York: Basic Book, 1975.
Sengupta, Mahasweta “Translation as Manipulation: The Power of Images and Images of Power.” Between Languages and Cultures: Translation and Cross-Cultural Texts. Ed. Anuradha Dingwaney and Carol Maier. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1995. 159-74.
Steiner, George. After Babel: On Language and Translation. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.
Whitman, Walt. “The Sleepers.” http://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/241