Christine de Luca on translating Maya Abu al-Hayyat

By Christine de Luca

I was immediately moved by the poems of Maya Abu al-Hayyat; even in bridge translations I could feel the raw emotion of family life going on in very difficult circumstances. I sensed the poems would ‘work’ in my mother tongue, Shetlandic, as it has a muscularity and an immediacy born out of the lack of abstract nouns.

Not having any deep understanding of the original poems was a problem, but the opportunity to hear the poems read in Arabic was important and also offered us a chance to clarify some possible meanings. Having access to further help (from bridge translator Danielle Kiedaisch) was a real support; even something as simple as which tense had been used, and whether that was important. I knew I couldn’t replicate sound patterns or rhythms but at least I could render meaning and, I hoped, the ‘tone’ of the source poems.

There were several places in each of the four poems where meaning had to be teased out: for example in the poem In love the bridge translation had a phrase ‘sleeping early’ which might suggest several things. I asked if it meant ‘sleeping when the other is awake’ but was delighted to find it meant that ‘when we are in love we can’t go to sleep early’! So I was able to use the Shetland word ’aaber’ which suggests a certain excited ardour.
The poem Children had me asking a few questions too. After a little clarification the English bridge translation:

Whenever a heart for me got hungry
On Kalandia checkpoint
I open my mouth and start to eat
Eating emotional with excessive salt
Blocking the spark of the eyes that cry everywhere

transformed into:

Ta hadd mi haert
at Kalandia checkpoint
I oppen mi mouth an stuff mi face,
glunsh da maet o mi feelins smored in saat
ta hoid aa da stingin een dat gowl

In Shetlandic, ‘ta hadd da haert’ usually refers to food, the full stomach physically supporting the heart; but in this case eating is an emotional response to stress and longing. The verbs ‘stuff’ and ‘glunsh’ suggest a desperation, and the salt of the tears echo the salt-drenched snacks.

I hope I have been faithful to Maya’s beautiful and moving poems.

One response to “Christine de Luca on translating Maya Abu al-Hayyat

  1. Beautiful work. I speak neither, but will begin Arabic this summer. Listening to poetry has given me a sensory experience and feel that I hadn’t thought would be as communicative as it has. Might be reading all of the emotion and effort that is poured into translation in this and @arablit’s columns. Thank you

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