Jan 13, 2022

Western Poets Kidnap Your Poems and Call Them Translations

Mona Kareem on the colonial phenomenon of rendition as translation 


Earlier this year, an English translation of Yi Lei, a prominent poet of the ’80s generation in China, was released by Graywolf Press. Tweets and headlines in the American press rejoiced, stressing how this Chinese Emily Dickinson has been brought into English by none other than the Pulitzer prizewinner Tracy K. Smith. They marvelled at such feminist collaboration, our best woman poet and their best woman poet, meeting in verse. ‘An encounter with Tracy K. Smith eased the late Chinese poet’s emergence into the Anglophone world,’ declared the New Yorker. The verb ‘eased’ struck me; like an unwanted pregnancy, her poems arrive in English—a ‘second life’ to use the article’s Benjaminian wording. Tracy K. Smith has no knowledge of Chinese, and as such, I doubt that she knows enough about Chinese poetry and where Yi Lei stands among her generation, or the place of her poetics within their literary domain. In the introduction, written without the co-translator, Smith makes no mention of any other Chinese poets, nor does she contextualize Lei’s work. She describes her as a revolutionary voice, tells us about her brief friendship with Lei, comparing her to one American master: ‘she was huge-hearted and philosophical, on intimate terms with the world in the way of Walt Whitman, one of her literary heroes.’

Smith does not hide her anxiety at the nature of this work yet she does not frame it as a non-translation, or perhaps an anti-translation: ‘I accepted the fact that the music of the original, which I wasn’t capable of recognizing in the Chinese, or gleaning from David’s intermediary translation, could not be a component of my concerns as a translator.’ After all, it is no strange phenomenon for Western poets, from Ezra Pound to Ted Hughes, to hire a linguist or a literary scholar to compose a ‘rough translation’ to then make an adaptation of the text. I hold no objections against adaptation as a form of translation, nor am I interested in guarding definitions of translation but am rather interested in examining how such co-opting of literary translation speaks of a larger attitude toward non-western literatures. Sometimes it is the author of the original text who partners in this process and, where not versed in the target language or its literature, this yields a collaboration distinct for its uneven power relations. Last July, Graywolf announced a new translation, or an adaptation, of Dante by Mary Jo Bang, another beloved woman poet of America. It announced in a tweet, ‘Congratulations to Jo Bang on her release,’ to which I couldn’t help but respond, ‘Congratulations to Dante!’ 

This phenomenon of Western poets calling their renditions translations has always baffled me. Everywhere else in the world, poets might commit the sin of translating a text via an intermediary language which they speak (a translation of a translation) but never would they hire someone to give them a rough draft of the original to then workshop the hell out of it! One can’t help but wonder, if the resources are available for a rough draft, if the enthusiasm is present to ‘ease’ a text into a new language, then what is it that stops western poets and publishers from leaving the task of translating someone of the caliber of Yi Lei to a qualified translator? After all, Chinese is not some obscure language of the Norwegian outskirts, it’s literally the largest language in the world when we count native speakers! In his review of Smith’s adaptation, Andrew Chan writes about the state of confusion he found himself in, wary of the ‘false conclusions’ that Smith’s ‘unfaithful renditions’ would leave the English-speaker with. Chan, who has read the poetry of both Smith and Lei (in the original), is able to tell how Smith’s renditions were decorated by an aesthetic contrary to Lei’s work, a musicality specific to Smith, a drastic difference in style and tone. What poets who are not translators fail to understand is that it is exactly ‘style, tone, and content’ that makes or breaks a translator. Chan too is aware of this phenomenon, offering examples beyond poetry, where the translator takes liberty in not only domesticating a text, but making of it a ‘loose’ adaptation. It is indeed a form of textual violence.

As an Arab poet, I can tell you that stories of what western translators do to our work make a favourite subject in literary festivals, late-night gatherings, and zoom events. One cannot miss the sense of ‘guardianship’ western translators practice over us—how they filter us, make us lyrical, oblique, politically-correct, or appealing. A sense of paternity is at practice by which the western translator takes your hand and guides you into the darkness of the abyss, especially if you do not speak their language. Often, you naively believe in them, after all this is not a matter of ill intentions, the two of you work on the belief that it is a ‘collaboration,’ and as so, whatever it yields, might be worth the while! 


I had thought that the phenomenon of western poets adapting someone’s translation had vanished. I would argue that it did disappear for a few years from English, only to return at the hands of poets, not translators! Translation has become ‘cool’; in some way its popularity speaks of the failure of a liberal intellectual class wrestling with the rise of Western fascisms. It rejuvenates their monolingual diction and imagery, it fits in the tenure dossier, it rescues the Third-World poet who is always imagined as a singular voice against the savage masses; as if the Cold War has never ended, or God forbid, hasn’t been won by the United States. Translation today, as scholar Dima Ayoub argues, is seen not only as a necessity but also necessarily good. What makes translations a must? Where does this blind faith in translation come from? Doesn’t translation act also as unconditional access, as surveillance, as an expanding force of the global capitalist market of literature? 

This year, I was invited to review Let me Tell You What I Saw by Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sayegh. I had read the poetry of al-Sayegh in my teen years and can still remember his ability to amuse and surprise, through unexpected imagery, as well as playful renditions of Arabic texts, both canonical and modern. Al-Sayegh is a poet of the ’80s, and this English translation is specifically excerpted from his epic-like poem The Song of Uruk or The Anthem of Uruk, first published in 1996. It was a blunt attempt by al-Sayegh to bring back the long-form poem, at a time when his contemporaries were moving fast and steady toward the condensed minimalist poem. He did not shy away from high lyricism, which for many Arabic poets feels undesirable in the intimidating shadow of Mahmoud Darwish. I took note that the co-translator of the text, Jenny Lewis, is a poet and theatre practitioner who has a lifelong interest in the Epic of Gilgamesh. I thought it would be a perfect pairing, but the translation revealed otherwise. 

Instead, I found myself again before a translation by a Western poet who had hired a native speaker to produce a ‘rough draft’ before workshopping the translation with the author for ‘hundreds of hours’ as Lewis states in her afterword. The book production makes the mistake of placing the original and the translation next to each other, as if to make stark the many basic wrongs committed in the translation. The book’s outline highlights the very absurdity of adaptation as translation—the Arabic pages placed on the left, when the language is written right-to-left. As an object, it is confusing, a mass of papers shoved into a binder. I was anxious at the idea that such translation is the product of ‘hundreds of hours’; I could only imagine what other useful work such labour might have produced. Lewis, a lecturer at Oxford, refers to her co-translator Ruba Abughaida—a Lebanese-Palestinian fiction writer—as her student whom she hired for the task. The English poet is blind to the power-relations she draws for us here, a hierarchy between her and Abughaida. Her name appears on the cover without Abughaida’s name. The ‘collaboration’ brings me to raise an additional question: why is a native speaker assumed to be a translator? 

In her notes on the ‘translation,’ which is not her first of al-Sayegh’s work, Lewis compares the Iraqi poet to Andalusian poets, to Ibn Hazm; she speaks of her approach to bring al-Sayegh closer to Dylan Thomas! In reality, al-Sayegh might have come closer to T. S. Eliot, via the influence of Iraqi poet al-Sayyab, and his translations of Eliot. Al-Sayegh was hoping to write a contemporary adaptation of Gilgamesh, one to which the modern Iraqi reader can relate, to its subjects of war and repression, exile and love. In this attempt, he was in conversation with the voices of many Arabic poets, canonical and modern, sometimes hijacking their lines and completing them with his. This brings me back to what Chan said of Smith’s translation: where is style, tone, and content? But I must add: where is the intertextuality of the text? Why is a text reduced to the singular, instead of becoming a tunnel, a little river to lead into the ocean that is Arabic poetry? Lewis has missed even the opportunity to put her playwright skills into amplifying the epic-like features of Adnan’s poem, especially how it switches between the singular and collective voice, the protagonist and the chorus. 

When reading the translation face-to-face with the original, I can say it’s a literal translation that fails at the very task of being literal. The poetic compositions that, for Adnan’s generation, often take the form of a ‘construct case’ are reduced to basic digestible images. The text opens with, ‘On the balcony of vigilance I sit’ which Lewis makes into ‘I sit on the balcony, alert.’ Two lines later, the poem reads ‘my lips are cracked like the trunk of a palm tree overlooking the river’ which Lewis turns into ‘like the roots of the palm tree.’ The latter image makes no sense, it fails to capture his contrast of the texture of cracked lips to the harsh trunk of a palm tree.

Another feature of Adnan’s poetry is punctuation. In Arabic, italics and formatting are not a feature of literary writing, while punctuation, though present, is not a regulated business like it is in English. Adnan was known for his exploitation of punctuation as a way of switching between one voice and another within a single poem, or in other places, for spacing and repetition, to give a theatrical and lyrical affect to his verse. In the English, Lewis merely copies and pastes these features, missing the fact that punctuation too must be translated. What comes as an intervention in the Arabic poem, must also be reinvented as such in the English. If brackets and dots do not resonate similarly in English poetry, they should have been substituted with italics and formatting, to give one solution. This can be seen as well in the way he uses interpolated clauses (digressions), appearing aimlessly in English as is, or sometimes arbitrarily interrupting the very logic and flow of a verse. 

The adaptation omits basic sentence parts, such as pronouns or adverbs and conjunctions, without which the narrative is lost. Lewis translates: ‘In my name and yours / attached / to the skyline / is the arch of lazord’ when it should have been ‘as the arch of lazord’ referring back to the names. She adds: ‘Tiresias laughs: love cannot be buried / yet Juno buries it out in the wasteland / leaving it half-covered, its penis exposed’; the use of ‘it’ makes it sound as if love, in abstract, is what Juno buries, when in fact she buries Tiresias himself, or as the myth goes, she blinds him. Similarly, the translation struggles to catch the Arabic’s easy switching between a human and their parts, from the total to the particular, sometimes misleading the reader to think there are two women addressed in the verse, not the same one: ‘Should we waste our days at the newspaper? / I am closed like a book / I stroke your eyes as you drowse. And she makes me slide between her breasts / as her breast bursts out of her dress / free as a runaway ghazal’ instead of ‘As they [the eyes] let me slide through your cleavage / your breast bursts out of the dress / running free like a runaway gazelle’, the animal, not ghazal, the poetic form. 


Now I must ask you, dear reader, do you think this level of work would slide with translations from French or Spanish? Would it be funded, published, praised, listed? Can an Arab poet in England use his Russian student to produce a rough translation of say, Maria Stepanova, then go sit with the Russian poet to produce a translation? The history of literature teaches us that in the East or the West, the pre-modern writer was necessarily multilingual; it was a given, not a genius only afforded to aristocratic writers of the likes of Nabokov. History also teaches us how the European nation-state brought upon us the illness that is monolingualism, and ever since, the gift of polyglotism has become exclusive to specialists who, unlike bilingual immigrants and refugees, are afforded the chance to study the other and translate him. I grew up reading Russian masterpieces translated into Arabic from the French, as I also read Mishima and Kawabata in Arabic translations from the English. I love these translations and still return to them; they are their own beautiful creations. Nevertheless, today in the pre-capitalist Arabic publishing industry, readers demand more, demand better, they devour re-translations and battle each other in evaluating one against the other.

Thinking of translation as a service for the Third-World poet, as an ‘easing’ into the colonial language, as a championing, a celebration, or an unearthing, should simply not be tolerated. Translation into English today reflects a general mentality shared by Western writers themselves—that they know it all, have seen it all, and the only thing left for them to do is to take us under their wings. They do not see us as their counterparts, as their comrades, their savior-complex is clothed with polished words and a self-described radical poetics. Their canon, which does not make even a third of, say, the Arabic or Chinese canon, somehow has more to draw from and fit into when they translate us. The establishment, the industry, the poet, the translator, come together in allowing a level of mediocrity afforded only to certain figures. The Third-World poet too, fascinated with the West, with the wondrous machinery of western publishing, surrenders to whatever the mud might make of their work. How can one any longer believe in ‘collaboration’ or in ‘translation’ without first addressing the power structures that cast their shadows over any two people working together? Today, translation has become so vicious that certain Arabic writers would prefer their work be published in English first, before the original Arabic. The Guardian would then declare him a best Arabic writer, as if Guardian critics know anything about Arabic literature, when that given Arabic writer has not even been read yet in his own language. I am not arguing that a poetry translation might win you the Nobel or welcome you into the canon, but I am saying the textual violence disturbs my peace and pleasure alike.


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