By Harry Giles
Teaching myself to write in Scots was about discovering new possibilities in language. I write in a syncretic Scots – a Scots that amalgamates dialects and resurrects words into a mongrel and magpie cornucopia – rather than a vernacular Scots, but doing so is also about diving into the archives of my vocabulary: remembering and relearning how to use the Orcadian words and grammatical forms with which I grew up. Writing in Scots makes me look at old ideas freshly, and makes me think harder about finding new expressions; I think of Scots as a contemporary, experimental poetic language rooted in history. I still write in English too, but I especially choose to write in Scots when I’m writing about home, or memory, or the land, or belonging, or longing, or when I’m dreaming, or when I’m raging.
For all those reasons, when I was asked to contribute to A Bird Is Not A Stone (a forthcoming anthology of contemporary Palestinian poets translated into the languages of Scotland), working in Scots felt like the obvious choice. The project involved working from a bridge translation in English – a literal rendering of the Arabic, often offering multiple options for each phrase – which meant that my work involved understanding, creating and recreating the poem in three different languages.
My first step in translating Faysal al-Qarqati’s haudin the kenmairk o hairst (a home with fall’s brand / بيت في وشم الخريف) was to distil the bridge translation into a working English gloss, noting good Scots equivalents along the way. Then I worked away with four windows open – the literal gloss for working from, the Arabic original for the poem’s shape and visual rhythm, the multiple translation options for clarity, and the working Scots translation. I also had a recording of the Arabic original available to play, to see how the music and flow of my version might work. I had a method, a writing holiday ahead, and a breezy confidence.
Three weeks and two pages in, I gave up hope. al-Qarqati’s writing is fragmented and elliptic, surrealist in its imagery and unorthodox in its grammar. And I was working from a bridge translation, not the original language – so whenever I couldn’t understand a line, I wasn’t sure if it was written deliberately elusively or if something had just got lost in the process. I had hoped to create a faithful rendering of the original, but found myself frequently guessing and glossing to make my way through. I wrote to one of the editors, Henry Bell, for advice. He said the kindest thing an editor can say: “relax”.
I had to accept that a perfect translation wasn’t possible, and wasn’t what the bridge translation method was aiming for in the first place. The aim was not to create a translation that kept all the words but killed the poetry – it was to create fluid, poetic versions of the Arabic originals that conveyed a sense of Palestine and the art that exists under its occupation. Although I was keen to be faithful to the original (and cautious of appropriating al-Qarqati’s important work for my own artistic ends), I had to let go of myself a little in order to make headway.
As soon as I began to trust my own instincts about the poem, it came alive for me. When I decided to trust my understanding of a line – that is, rather than agonising over the perfect rendering of a word, I would make a faithful educated guess about its meaning and context – translations presented themselves more clearly. Whenever I hit a block, I would bounce a line between the bridge, the English and the Scots, doodling with two thesauruses and some free association until a strong interpretation presented itself. When I made a leap of faith about the truth of my ideas, I found myself better able to keep faith with the poem: I found myself working with it, rather than against it. I know that through that there was a real risk of imposing my own interpretation and losing something along the way – especially important to remember given that the aim of the project was to bring marginalised voices to a wider audience – but trusting myself meant trusting al-Qarqati.
I began to make some joyous discoveries. The first was that Scots’ natural rhythms and palate of sounds was surprisingly consonant with the music of the Arabic original: I found myself far more able to harmonise with the original’s tune in Scots rather than in English. Another was that literary Scots’ high register and historic roots were well-suited to the Arabic too: al-Qarqati, despite his experimental approach to form, uses a high and literary register of Arabic, as is common to Arabic poetry. While vernacular Scots and contemporary English are primarily spoken languages, syncretic Scots, like poetic Arabic, is literary. And each new stanza came with at least one serendipity of translation.
I know that I will have lost many of the metaphors and sound devices of the original in translating through a bridge, but I hope I’ve made some gains too. One I’m particularly proud of is rendering al-Qarqati’s العمر (age / times) as the Scots “tide”. Haudin the kenmairk o hairst’s two metaphoric through-lines are water and time, and through Scots I was able to link them together. I hope al-Qarqati would have been equally pleased.
When I had a full draft I was happy with, I had to return to being uncertain about it again. I ran my work past three Arabic speakers from two different countries, checking the lines I was least certain of, and making sure I hadn’t committed any grievous errors in over- or mis-interpretation. They helped me refine my understanding of the original, gave me encouragement, and prodded me in the right direction when I’d gone off course. Still, the original was occasionally so gloriously wild and elliptic that there are a few lines where every one of us was stumped. For those times, I made a wild and loving guess.
I think at least ten people have now worked on haudin the kenmairk o hairst. I’m confident enough in it to put my name to it and take responsibility for the mistakes, but like (and even more so than) most poems it’s definitely a collaborative effort. I opted for calling it a “version” rather than a “translation”, in the end, to make clear that there’s a lot of my own ideas about poetry in there, but, among all of us, it’s Faysal al-Qarqati’s poem first. Working on the poem taught me a great deal about Arabic and Palestinian poetry, and I hope I’ve been able to convey something of the power of the original and its view of Palestine to the reader. Working on the poem also taught me a great deal about my chosen language, and I’m most grateful of all for that.
The translation was assisted by Yasmin Al-Hadithi and Buthaina Al-Awsi, along with the A Bird Is Not A Stone team. The book is forthcoming from Freight in summer 2014.