Feb 1, 2019

He Who Goes to the Place: Sargon Boulus Translates Himself and Others

Every bit in Sargon Boulus’s world is worth a story and a few drinks. On his headstone in California, they wrote: “Sargon Boulus (1943-2007), Beloved brother, Renowned Assyrian poet, Founder of Free Verse Arabic Poetry movement, Translator of Shakespeare, Ezra Pound, Pablo Neruda, Jubran Khalil Jubran, and many others.” Sargon was a scarce poet and a prolific translator who left with six collections of poetry and 130 poets in translation. In a new volume, al-Jamal publishing house collected most of the poet’s translations, which he had completed between 1964 and until his death. Sargon started publishing in Baghdad and Beirut in the mid ‘60’s but did not care to see his poems in a book until 1985 with Arrival In Where-City, published by a small Arabic press based in Athens.

Looking at the contents of his anthology of translations, we see the poets organized according to language groups; from Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Bengali, and Turkish, he translated Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Zhang Yanghao, Basho, Ghaleb, Tagore, Shinkichi Takahashi, and Hikmet. From English, he did Shakespeare, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Allen Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Carlos Williams, Pound, Marianne Moore, Kunitz, Roethke, Karl Shapiro, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Levertov, Etel Adnan, Ammons, Robert Bly, Merwin, Anne Sexton, Gregory Corso, Derek Walcott, Sylvia Plath, McClure, and Seamus Heaney, among many others. From other European languages, translations included de Quevedo, Rimbaud, Machado, Pessoa, Lorca, Vallejo, Borges, Alberti, Neruda, Paz, Heine, Rilke, Brecht, Ritsos, Milosz, and Vasko Popa. Sargon spoke Modern Aramaic and Arabic as his native languages, English as a second language, and tried learning French and German. He relied on his writing craft and a comparison of English and Arabic translations to produce his own. He also translated poetry into English, mostly the work of his Iraqi and Arab contemporaries.

In his final years, Sargon was busy preparing all of his work to be published after his death. In 2008, his translation of Jibran’s The Prophet came out, becoming the seventh Arabic translation of the book.  Sargon argues that Jibran is the unnamed father of the Arabic Prose Poem (also referred to as the Free Verse Poem) who didn’t think his work would realize its potential if written in Arabic. In 2010, Sargon’s self-translated poems were published by Banipal Magazine for Arabic Literature entitled Knife Sharpener. In 2012, his translation of Auden’s poems was released, followed by a selection of Ginsberg’s poems two years later. His vast knowledge of poetry and his practice of the art via translation established a poetics that continue to gain momentum among Arabic readers.

In Sargon’s poems, the figure of the poet-translator manifests itself through the stranger who is constantly departing and arriving, with blurred memories of the journey itself. He often starts a poem in the second-person, the poet or the exilée, who then shifts to the third-person; the reader, the witness, or a fellow clandestine. Many times, Sargon recalls his journey out of Iraq, smuggled through the desert, in great detail. Alone this trip is remembered from the rest of his departures. In the poem “He Who Goes To The Place” published in his fifth collection If You Fell Asleep In Noah’s Ark in 1998, one can notice the absence of the journey between the first and second stanzas. Like someone healed from a sickness, the stranger returns from death, chased and breathless, only to reappear abruptly in distant places. The stranger’s only revenge is his reappearance, his reoccurring arrival, in some shape, “under a monument, in a place, a public square,” constantly passing, never sure of his memory, yet content with half endings.

Sargon’s translation of his own poem is truly masterful; he knows what his duende needs outside its home. The opening line of the awaken sick is abrupt in Arabic, but detailed in English; the “stone-pillow” is translated as a mysterious stone, found under his head. The walk to the inferno is only a passing in Arabic, but rushed steps in English. With line-breaks, Sargon dwells between these two motions. Line-breaks and punctuation, in the Arabic prose poem, are not very regulated. A poet usually ends a line with a complete fragment of an image, a scene, or an idea. It has the motion of walking down a stairway, with short breathes in between. In the translation, Sargon does not utilize line-breaks as a pattern the way it is practiced in English, yet he fulfills its aim of maintaining a continuity, like a promise, for suspense.

In his translation of Auden’s “Look, Stanger,” Sargon plays on shifting the location of images to preserve this promise, which is at the heart of Auden’s craft. In English, unlike Semitic languages, it is natural to start with pronouns. Therefore, the “stranger” and “leaping light” are intentionally pushed behind “look” and “discovers.” The translator adds a few commas to Auden’s poem as to capture his slow and panoramic rhythm. He writes: “Auden’s language of incitement is loaded with an urgent knowledge and charged with an abundance of references and styles.” (Faradis Magazine, 1992). As if speaking to the stranger in Sargon’s poem, Auden reminds him of the journey, in witnessing growth and decay, and the rested presence of all elements. Both strangers are preoccupied with arrival and memory; one is a terrified ghost with a fractured memory, the other a sailor waiting to capture the moment.

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