Our second poet’s blog post, by Juana Adcock, reflects on what can and can’t be translated. The original can be read on Juana’s blog:
I am really excited about the forthcoming publication A Bird Is Not A Stone, an anthology of contemporary Palestinian poetry translated into English, Scots, Gaelic and Shetlandic. The book will be published in summer 2014 by Freight Press.
The poems, by 25 different artists, were translated using the ‘bridge’ method, in which Scottish poets worked from literal translations to create new ‘versions’ of the works. The poems were selected by the House of Poetry in al-Bireh, Palestine, and translated in Scotland. The idea for the project was born at a meeting between Murad al-Sudani and Rana Barakat of the House of Poetry and Scottish poets Liz Lochhead, Billy Letford, Henry King, Henry Bell and Lorna MacBean in summer 2012.
I worked very hard at my humble attempt to translate 3 poems for this project, and one of them was 8 pages long! It was such a fascinating challenge to work from Arabic (which I studied, for two semesters 12 years ago!). Reading through the literal versions I felt so intrigued that I couldn’t not take part. Filled with vocative cases and swelling, sensuous imagery, the literal versions absolutely captivated me. Of course, not being an Arabic speaker, I ran into my fair share of translation conundrums. Many of the words had such a variety different meanings, and where the sense of the sentence was very abstract or metaphorical, it was very difficult to choose just one. One of the words in a poem I worked on meant either “ashtray,” “feather duster” or “vacuum cleaner.” While I can see what these three things have in common, it still felt nearly impossible to integrate the more ambiguous or encompassing word into the metaphor: “ashtray of my fatigue,” for example. Another interesting one was a word that meant both/either “generosity” and “moisture,” and the phrase was along the lines of “what remained of the moisture/generosity of salt.” Both meanings for the word make the metaphor so alive: who would think of salt as generous, as moist? And what a shame it would be to lose either one of those images in favour of just one word! The only option, of course, is to take as many liberties as possible, finding an intelligible meaning while still trying to respect the ‘foreignness’ of the poem and avoiding colonialist attitudes towards the text. This is particularly true when we talk about cultural aspects in certain concepts/words. One example is the soles of the feet, which, as far as I understand, are considered an inner side of the body which should not be shown, and this same word/concept can apply to other, more abstract inner or hidden things. How do you translate such untranslatable concepts which do not exist in the target culture, and therefore no equivalent words exist? Of course, this is where the creativity of the translator has to come in, along with their extraordinary feel for the written language. The result should feel smooth, natural, graspable, but not at the expense of butchering out all the parts we think don’t fit into the constraints of the target language. It should also feel as beautiful and alive as the original. I have no idea whether my translations achieved this goal, but this is what I was aiming at.