Translating cultures through poetry
by Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette 3 Nov 2008
This past month in the UK has been an especially rich time for poetry linked to the Middle East and South Asia. The Poetry International festival, held at London’s Southbank centre every two years, attracted some of the some of the brightest poetry stars from around the world for nine days of events. The poetry of Palestine figured large in this year’s festival, through a session on Palestinian poetry and through the presence of one of the most outstanding Palestinian poets, Mourid Barghouti.
At the same time, a World Poets’ Tour of Britain took place throughout October. The tour was organized by the Poetry Translation Centre (PTC) founded in London in 2004 by the distinguished British poet Sarah Maguire.
The tour, funded by Arts Council England, brought together six acclaimed poets from abroad and their translators, who are prominent British poets. The British poet-translators do not know the languages of the poets they translate, but work via literal translations by experts in those languages. Examples of the high-quality results of this intensive collaboration can be read on the PTC website.
Various combinations of poets and translators travelled to readings and literary festivals in many locations, from Edinburgh in Scotland, to Bristol in South-West England. The poets were Al-Saddiq al-Raddi from Sudan, translated by Sarah Maguire; Corsino Fortes of Cape Verde, translated by Sean O’Brien; Farzaneh Khojandi from Tajikistan whose translator is Jo Shapcott; Kirkuk-born Kurdish poet Kajal Ahmad, translated by Mimi Khalvati; Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac, known as Gaarriye, whose Somali poetry is translated by W N Herbert, and Noshi Gillani of Pakistan who writes in Urdu and is translated by Lavinia Greenlaw (picture, credit Crispin Hughes, shows As-Saddiq al-Raddi reading at the British Library).
The tour attracted media interest, and was featured on a podcast of the Guardian newspaper, and on BBC 4 TV news. The BBC 4 reporter interviewed Gaarriye and Sarah Maguire on the question of whether war poetry being written today, such as Gaarriye’s poems on the fighting in Somalia, can be compared with the work of Britain’s First World War poets in defining our understanding of war.
The tour also created excitement among Britain’s sizeable Sudanese, Somali and other communities, giving them the chance to meet poets from their home countries and to hear their work in its original languages and in English translation.
Poetry International opened with an event held in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Palestinian poetry, and in particular the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. The event featured John Berger, now 82 years old (pictured top), who has long supported the Palestinian cause and its cultural manifestations.
This opening event was preceded by a Palestinian poetry and music event in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Young people from the Southbank’s Street Genius program read poems by Darwish and his fellow Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim and by Israeli poets Tal Nitzam and Rivka Miriam. The young Londoners, most of them black, injected the poems with fresh energy.
The readings were followed by a performance by Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani accompanied by pianist Bruno Heinen. Kelani’s love of Palestinian and other Arabic poetry permeates her work, and her performance was enthusiastically received by the audience. Towards the end she beckoned to the young poetry readers to join her, and they sang and moved to her music in a spontaneous jam session.
In the opening session, Berger was joined by Palestinian anthropology professor Rema Hammami (pictured) of Birzeit University and David Constantine, who co-edits the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation with his wife Helen. A focus of the session was Modern Poetry in Translation’s Palestine issue published earlier this year.
The twin themes of the session were the importance of poetry in translation and the particular resonance of poetry in today’s political climate. Berger said that thanks to the translation of poetry over the past century, “poetry became globalized before the traders got there.”
Berger and Hammami have jointly translated Darwish’s epic poem “Mural”, written after he suffered a serious heart attack in 1999. They took it in turns to read from their translation, breaking off midway for the screening of a film showing Darwish reading from his poem “The Dice Player” in his last public reading, just weeks before he died. Hammami said “The Dice Player” was “probably the most autobiographical poem he ever wrote, trying to explain who he was. Like a goodbye.”
Hammami recalled that when she started working on “Mural” with Berger she had done “a very technical translation, being very respectful to the Arabic and the poet”. The first pages that Berger edited and sent back “scandalized” her: she thought “he’s rewriting Mahmoud”.
Berger described poetry translation as a triangular process-“You have to penetrate the text to what is behind it – what is pre-verbal” and then allow that substance to find its words in another language. Hammami said the process was “like a wrestling match, but a very good one”.
The opening session began with a film of Berger reading, with much warmth and expressiveness, Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s short story “Letter from Gaza”. Berger said he had dedicated his most recent novel “From A to X: A Story in Letters” (Verso, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize) to Kanafani, “a writer I admire very much”. He told of how Kanafani was assassinated in Beirut in 1972 at the age of 36 in a car bombing carried out by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.
“Letter from Gaza”, with its civilians and especially children suffering under Israeli attacks, could have been written yesterday. And yet Kanafani wrote it in 1955, just seven years after the establishment of the state of Israel.
The writer of the story explains to Mustafa, the friend to whom he is writing, why he will not be joining him in California where he has won a university place to study engineering. “No, my friend, I have changed my mind. I won’t follow you to ‘the land where there is greenery, water and lovely faces,’ as you wrote. No, I’ll stay here and I won’t ever leave.”
The writer explains that he changed his mind when he visited his 13-year-old niece in hospital after an Israeli attack on Gaza and found that her leg had been amputated. He ends the letter: “I won’t come to you. But you, return to us! Come back, to learn from Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh, what life is and what existence is worth.”
The main South Asia-related event of Poetry International was ‘The Six Seasons’, a poetic and musical homage to Bengal. It celebrated the dramatic changes in seasons in Bengal through the work of the region’s great poets – Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Jibanananda Das. A performance by Drishtipat Creative combined spoken word and songs with original music by Kishon Khan, Soumik Datta and Sajib Azad.
The importance of poetry, and of poetry in translation, may grow in the dire political and economic conditions facing the world. As John Berger puts it: “The translation of poetry is important now because of the actual situation we are living in.” Berger adds: “In dark periods, poetry has a very special role.”