This is the third volume of poetry translated by professor Shihab and the first he was personally commissioned to translate by the expatriate Iraqi poet Jamal Juma following his two successful translations of Mahmoud AlBreikan’s “Selected Poems 1953-1995” published in 2006 by AlMaamoun House in Baghdad, and Yaseen Taha Hafidh’s “War: A Long Poem” also published by the same house in 1988. The volume, which is still in manuscript form, consists of two poems. The first poem is the longest subsuming four chapters under the title “An Overture Not Bach’s”. The whole volume, however, bears the title “Diary of Sleepwalker” and is riddled with fantastic images that give rise to a dreamlike world inhabited by extraterrestrial beings. In this review, I am going to examine some aspects of Prof. Shihab’s translation setting out with some observations about language and translation in general.
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Language, English in particular, offers its users a wide variety of choices that are necessarily motivated. Whether on the lexical or syntactical level, these options testify to the creative aspect of human language and its infinity. As such, to be part of this infinitude and to get into what Lacan calls its jouissance, the language user, the translator in this context, should be cognizant enough of this multiplicity of options and their generative interaction. The translation of poetry is a very hard test of the translator’s competence in mastering language, both TL and SL. A more demanding job would be the translation of poetry from one’s mother tongue into another language, where one usually did not pass through its natural phases of acquisition. To translate from Arabic into English would not be an easy job; and to translate Arabic poetry into English poetry would call for tremendous efforts and a wide cumulative knowledge that transcends that of the bilingual dictionary, which is most often a trap than an asset.
Robert Frost, the US poet, once defined poetry as “what is lost in translation”. Loss in translation is inevitable. But how to make for such a loss and what should a translator have at his/her disposal to render faithfully every aspect of the text and contribute to its re-creation?
It seems to be a taken-for-granted issue that human beings do not depend solely on knowledge of language to communicate effectively. They need to know what they are communicating about. In a sense, knowledge of the word (language) must of necessity by coupled with a knowledge of the world. In translation this is no exception. Translators should possess a knowledge of the language as well as the domain they are translating into. Hence the view that one cannot translate poetry unless he/she is a poet.
Though not a poet, Prof. Shihab has managed to produce a very fine piece of translation that can hardly be excelled. And by so doing, I believe that he shattered the poet-translator myth. I had the opportunity to discuss some of the poems with the translator, who has generously given me access to his drafts of the translation.
During my discussions with the translator and my review of the translation and the drafts, I arrived at the following points:
The translator does not need to be a poet to translate poetry.
S/he needs, however, to be a cultivated reader of poetry.
Human thought reverberates over different places and ages. A poem written today in Iraq might possibly touch upon a topic addressed by a poet in Britain during the 1950’s, for example. As such, knowledge of this poem would avail the translator to produce a translation well-suited to the English reader’s sense.
The multiplicity of linguistic options should all be conjured up and invested. The choices to be made renders translation as a political exercise requiring careful decisions to be taken at critical junctures.
The choices made, at the paradigmatic and syntagmatic levels, are similar to chemical interactions: they have to be made according to certain rules and formulae. Otherwise, a big explosion might be caused and hence monstrous deformities in the produced text would be churned out.
Translation of a poem is an endless activity.
Readers have only the end-product of the translation at their hands and so they might flout the translation by overlooking the phases of its production. A simple sentence like the following:
(الروح سجينة الجسد، سيأتي الموت ويطلق السراح)
appears in the final version as
(The body enchains the soul. Death will come,
And on-sets the release)
The Arabic sentence is as simple as it may appear in the translation. However, this sentence is the result of a tiresome struggle on the part of the translator to come up with a simple rendering that adds to its perfection. It is not a question of correctness but of what is the best and fittest. Let us look at the generative phases of the line above that stands just like the tip of an iceberg:
Syntactically speaking, the construction of the Arabic sentence is quite simple and does not call for any concern. Nevertheless, we see that the translator is not satisfied with what comes first into his mind and tries to display all the potential options offered by language before his eyes to choose from. Consider for example the phraseالسراح يطلق which is supplemented by different equally valid equivalents by the translator:
Makes the release
Bestows the release
Let it unchained
Offers the release
On-sets the release
The list is not exhaustive; we would also have
Let go of it
Sets it free
Leave go of it
The translator, albeit, embarks on ‘on-set the release’. Onset, which is equivalent to ‘start’ and ‘initiate’, would give a sense of immediacy congruent with the idea of death. For me, though, I would choose ‘offer the release’ for I see the soul so tormented by the prison of the body that it desires death and would accept it when offered. This, however, is very true to poetry which is open to differing readings and interpretations that automatically produce different translations.
What characterizes this translation of the volume is that it strikes the reader as unexpected, as something surprising and not common. This is again attributed to the aware investment of the multiple choices the translator has at his disposal. For example, consider the title of the first poem in the volume:
افتتاحية ليست لباخ
It is skillfully rendered as
An Overture Not Bach’s
Not simply as: An Opening that is not Bach’s, An Overture that is not Bach’s or simply as An Overture that does not belong to Bach. This awareness of the workings of the English language gives the translator the flexibility to maneuver through the Arabic text. It is “an overture”, a musical introduction, not simply “an opening” because it is “Bach’s”. Let us look at a more difficult example. Consider this excerpt from ‘A Requiem Not Mozart’s’
نم ايها الجسد
ظلالك لن يمحوها احد
حتى ولا الظلام.
Where it is rendered as
O body wake up not
Your shadows no one will phase out
None else even darkness.
The use of the archaic form “wake up not” would add to the overall sense of the volume which centers over issues of death, dreams and reveries. It would also contribute to the smooth flow and tempo of the poem and provide a phonic equivalent to the rhyming lines. Moreover, there is fronting, which is a marked form in English to give emphasis to a certain phrase or expression, so that ‘Your shadows’ is justifiably emphasized as in the Arabic text. Other twists and turns can be observed throughout the volume as in the following example from Jars in the chapter of Dreams:
برسائل تطلب الغوث
من غرقى مجهولين،
يقذف بها الموج كل ليلة
لتتلاطم على تخوم سريري..
With letters asking for the aid
Of many a drowned unknown,
Them the waves fling every night
To wax rough on the edges
of my bed.
Instead of using the bland expression “of many unknown drowned people”, the translator conjures up the still fresh construction many + a + noun = Plural, which he uses to overcome the first longwinded option. It is these choices that constitute the delightfully astounding element in the translation despite the fact that there are some instances where the reader gets clogged at a certain word or expression.
To put it in a nutshell, I can conclude by pointing out that translating a poem is by no means a finished project. Just like readings differ across times and through places, so is the case with translating poetry, where the indeterminacy of meaning and multiplicity of interpretations are what give poetry its power and efficacy. One can also say that though simple as they might appear, the poems in this volume do not lend themselves easily to translation. The very themes they tackle and the far-fetched images they evoke make it incumbent upon the translator not only to call up his/her linguistic repertoire and encyclopedic knowledge, but also to give a free rein to their imagination. The translator has really to get under the poet’s skin to probe his world of fantasy and surrealism, where the bubbles are spitted out of the mouths of the fish to be transfigured into moons, and where the pillows are clouds.
Above all, it seems that one has no option but to reiterate the words of the US translator, Clifford Landers, who acknowledges that “as someone who has seldom had the temerity to venture into the poetic arena, I do not conceal my admiration for the brave men and women who specialize in bringing into English the loftiest thoughts expressed in languages other than our own.”