Henry King on A Bird is Not a Stone

The original of this post can be found on Henry King’s own website here.

A Bird Is Not a Stone is the title of a new anthology of contemporary Palestinian poetry translated in collaboration with some of the biggest names in Scottish poetry, including Kathleen Jamie, Billy Letford, Liz Lochhead, Ryan van Winkle, D.M. Black, Ron Butlin, John Glenday – and me. (My years in Glasgow apparently mean I have honorary Scottish status.) The Palestinians include Samih Mohsen, Abdel Nasser Saleh, Zakaria Muhammad, and Murad al-Sudani. If you haven’t heard of them – and I only knew of Murad, whom I met in Ramallah two years ago – then it just goes to show that it’s high time a bit more exposure was given to Palestinian poetry.

I’ve been working on a number of poets’ work; the method has been to start from a literal line-by-line version with appropriate notes, and then to find language for them that is fresh and sharp, making them sing as poems rather than translatorese. This is the way Ted Hughes worked for a great many of his most celebrated translations, as have others. Christopher Middleton, who translated Arabic poetry from medieval Andalusia via Spanish versions, has a wonderful description of this kind of work:

By its very remoteness the unknown coaxes a translator to test, via the mediating text, its imaginable lexicon. Even so, being absent, at best a ghost, the original scarcely provides the very thing a translator needs when coming to grips with an original he knows–the resistance of an actual obstacle. The mediating text resists; yet its status as obstacle is weakened by its being a window on the unknown, not ultimate. Or not even a window, but a lens. Through this lens a translator scans a luminous but empty space out there, where all is expectation, nothing darkened by familiarity. The luminous hollow is positive, all aura, for the unknown must and does remain independent, sovereign, free to be purely imagined, as long as it never announces itself directly–like Rilke’s Orphic Unicorn in Sonnets to Orpheus II, 4. (Introduction to Andalusian Poems)

It’s been absorbing and exciting to get under the skin of these poems, which run the gamut from delicate or impassioned love poems to poems that bear witness to life under military occupation. I’m certain that this is going to be a terrific book.

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