Translation occurs when some-thing is changed or transformed into something else, when one thing becomes another. Defined and understood in this way, the very acts of speaking and writing in and of themselves can be regarded as acts of translation–the transformations of feelings or thoughts into sounds or markings that, by common agreement and necessity, stand for those feelings and thoughts–thus making the sharing of experience possible through what is then called communication or, in the hands of poets, communion.
The art of literary translation is but one subdivision of translation considered in more cosmic terms. But it differs from most other translations in that it has about it the aura of absurdity.
If T.S. Eliot was correct when he said that poetry communicates before it is understood–and I for one think that he was and, I would add, that that remains true even when we are listening to poetry in a tongue that we ourselves do not comprehend–then the translator aids us immeasurably by helping us understand what we are feeling by giving us a bridge of words between the opposing shores of two languages.
Without translators attempting the impossible, what would be the consequences? I will not further elaborate on the metaphor of Babel, although the temptation is almost irresistible. I will simply say that we would of necessity be limited to our native literatures.
Let me begin by describing the ideal translator as one who is fluent–spiritually as well as linguistically–in the language from which he is translating and equally fluent–spiritually as well as linguistically–in the language into which he is transposing the original. This is a high qualification, and most translators do not and cannot meet it. Indeed even the possession of such spiritual and linguistic fluency in the ideal translator I have described is of dubious value if the translator is not of the same visionary orientation as the person he is translating. Translating a vision is more than translating words, just as performing Mozart or Chopin is more than playing notes. It is somehow translating the untranslatable. How this is done remains a mystery even to the translator himself. A good translator, for example, may do justice to one author and fail utterly with another in much the same way in which a person may flourish by working in one geographical area and not grow at all if he moves to another, even though he may be doing the same work in both. The mystery of success in translation is just that–a mystery. It is a combination of talent, persistence, inspiration, insight, empathy and not a little luck.
And there are pitfalls. Some translators, for instance, have been faulted because they used a poem by a poet they have translated as the occasion for creating their own poem–indebted, obliquely, to the original but essentially the translator’s poem. Robert Lowell was charged with this indulgence in a book he frankly entitled "Imitations." For my part I don’t know exactly how this can be avoided. After all, the translator does re-create the poem he is translating from another language into his own through the prism of his own personality, and some of that personality is bound to find its way into the translation. In some cases it may be pure egotism. In other cases it may result in a poem that is poetically inferior to the original. Or the reverse. On the other hand, when the translation is as good as inspiration and human ability can make it, we can’t get enough of it.
A good translator is quite literally a gift to an author. He can be the difference between international attention and oblivion. Jerzy Kosinski, whose novels were translated into a multiplicity of languages, told me that he tried to meet each of his translators, so sensitive was he to the importance of the translator in the distribution of his work abroad.
From this point I will become personal, speaking about my own attempts at translation from Arabic. In one of my ventures as a translator, I turned into a selection of poems by the Damascene poet Adonis (Ali Ahmed Said) into English. Again, I worked with a linguist but with trepidation since Arabic at its poetic best tends to be an imagistic and aphoristic language. I had tried my hand earlier by translating the work of two other poets from Arabic, and the results were ludicrous. What was picturesque and mellifluent in Arabic became sentimental an almost Swinburnian in English. I took some consolation from the fact that my failures were at least noble.
But with Adonis–and this was true before as well as after I met him–I felt I was with someone whose vision and way of thinking or feeling or felt-thinking (sentepensante in the language of Eduardo Galeano) were akin to my own. When I tried my hand at translating his poems, the spirit of the poetry seemed almost to glide into English, as in the following , entitled "The Days":
My eyes are tired, tired of days,
tired regardless of days.
Still must I drill through wall
after wall of days to find another day?
Is there is there another day?
The more I worked on Adonis’ poems, the more I discovered that the Arabic imagination does things to English that the Western imagination seems incapable of doing. Take, for example, these two words (literally translated) that describe the cramped and frenzied fluttering of a butterfly that is held captive within a cage of cupped fingers of two hands–"jailed astonishment." How evocative, how daring, how simply different and, finally, how perfect.
In some of the longer poems I saw how the genuine elegiac tone and spirit of the original could be carried into English in such a way that the rich rhetorical power of the Arabic was not lost. Take, for example, "Remembering the First Century":
A word without a moon
sounds over us.
carry the snow of Christmas.
"Beware and keep away!
Magi and guests, avoid
us while you still have time.
We rule like princes over nothing.
Our history dissolves like foam.
I warn you. Go away."
Mud engulfs us like a net.
We drown in it.
covers our eyelids.
our necks like silk.
it came without a cloud.
What happened to the thunder?
Who stilled the prophecies
Invade our sacred lives.
Our women wait
for you behind the bushes
of their dreams, in chambers,
on the grass.
Their loins and nipples
stiffen with the aches
their only lover."
are you no more than air,
no dearer than a hill of salt?
Have you been stained too long
with the ashes of scribes?
you are an old soldier.
Like me, you give your very guts
to move ahead.
you groan with every step.
I mourn with you.
how a back breaks.
your fate beneath this tree
of my despair, but the roots
of the plague are clear to me.
Blink by blink, I wait
a darker eagle.
my shoulder stands the shepherd
of no hope.
His flutes break in my chest.
The road before me
bleeds with nothing but anemone
I hear a rasp
Despair, I call you
by your right name.
We were never
strangers, but I
refuse to walk with you.
My work with Adonis led to a few other translations that I did for Selma Jayussi in her Columbia University volume, "Modern Arabic Poetry." The results, now that I look back on it, were mixed.
The next major effort I made in translation was a sequence of poems by Nadia Tueini called "Lebanon: Twenty Poems for One Love." There were poems written by Mrs. Tueini in French (but, as I was told recently by a close friend of hers, in French words that were linguistically close to their Arabic counterparts) as a kind of poetic geography or map of Lebanon, despite its gradual disintegration and destruction by feuding internal parties and the Israeli invasion. It was a testament not only of memory but of history itself. She lists 20 separate and uniquely Lebanese subjects or keystones: individual cities, towns and villages, the famous cedars of Lebanon, the women and men of the mountains, and so forth.
After I worked over the versions that I made from the transliterations, I made arrangements to go over the poems with her husband, Ghassan Tueini, the prominent editor, publisher, author, and former ambassador from Lebanon to the United States (Mrs. Tueini died in 1983). He is a man who is absolutely devoted to his wife’s memory and her poetry, and his wish to have a good version of the Lebanon poems in English (they already had been translated into Arabic) was just as intense as my own.
I thought and still think the poems beautiful, but Ambassador Tueini’s taste in poetry was more Tennysonian than mine, and we had a good many disagreements about how the poems would work best in English. Some of them were minor. Should it be "Byblos, my beloved’ or "My beloved Byblos." Some involved a knowledge of background–there is a small village where, as a native Lebanese knew, the inhabitants kept basil plants in their flower boxes so that the whole village smelled of basil. This explained one of the images in one of the poems. The result of all this backing-and-forthing was uniquely satisfying to me, and all the efforts in retrospect were well worth it. Here is an example from the sequence:
In The Lebanese Mountains
Remember–the noise of moonlight
when the summer night collides with a peak
and traps the wind
in the rocky caves of the mountains of Lebanon
Remember–a town on a sheer cliff
set like a tear on the rim of an eyelid;
one discovers there a pomegranate tree
and rivers more sonorous
than a piano.
Remember–the grapevine under the fig tree,
the cracked oak that September waters,
fountains and muleteers,
the sun dissolving in the river currents.
Remember–the basil and apple tree,
mulberry syrup and almond groves.
Each girl was a swallow then
whose eyes moved like a gondola
swung from a hazel branch.
Remember–the hermit and goatherd,
paths that rise to the edge of a cloud,
the chant of Islam, crusaders’ castles,
and wild bells ringing through July.
Remember–each one, everyone,
storyteller, prophet and baker,
the words of the feast and the words of the storm,
and sea shining like a medal in the landscape.
Remember–the child’s recollection
of a secret kingdom just our age.
We did not know how to read the omens
in those dead birds in the bottoms of their cages,
in the mountains of Lebanon.
Despite all of my theories of and attempts at translation, I can only conclude by stating that the art of translation remains a mystery to me. One thing I have learned is that translation is not a science, linguistic or otherwise. It is fundamentally a matter of arranging a passage of spirit and feeling from one language to another, and the happy result, when it does occur, is somewhat of a miracle. One simply does as well as one can and then hopes for the best. But not to make the attempt at all serves only to strengthen those inclinations in our nature that condemn us to separation rather than communion, and no human being should be in favor of that.
This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, No. 23 ( Spring 1998)
Copyright © 1998 by Al Jadid