Jona Fras, one of the bridge translators on ‘A Bird is Not a Stone’, reflects on his experience of working on this project (and NB: he is not responsible for the pun in that title. I don’t know what came over me…):
Learning Arabic has, by now, become more or less a lifelong project for me; a project not without its difficulties, setbacks and frustrations. Sometimes it really does seem like a language with “no end to it”, as a (Syrian) teacher of mine once put it. The murk of the unknown that always seems to wait just around the corner – even for those who’ve lived with the language for years, decades, all their lives – is often terrifying; more than a little so if you’re trying to lay claim to a little piece of this language, and take on the responsibility of translating it.
Every language has its own resources for poetic expression. It’s the simple effect of grammar, on the one hand, of linguistic structure; of how well nominal clauses work to express certain things, or the aspects of an action that can be elegantly conveyed by a single verb in one language but require a rickety array of word-props in another.
On the other hand, there is tradition: the kinds of meter and rhyme considered appropriate, what counts as poetic and what as prosaic, beautiful or tacky. Conventions, tastes, and preferences vary. And as a bridge translator, you’re right in the crossfire: trying to manage all the shades and nuances, keeping as accurate as you can, aiding your versifier while not leading them astray.
The many homophones and (near) homographs that Arabic so relishes make the process all the more bewildering. How much effort should you expend preserving these associations, when it’s a fact that sometimes, a word just happens to sound like another word? At times, there’s no choice but to narrow down the meaning; at others, ambiguity can be preserved, but perhaps the links to other words and structures make the context so different that interpretations can change completely.
But in the end, somehow, it works. Collaboration with the poets themselves was a crucial part of the experience: seeing how the imagery and the feeling can be refracted into another language, finally molding something as dry and technical as a literal translation into a poem that can be enjoyed in its own right. As always, it ends up being a kind of betrayal; but in this case I would argue that it’s important to make the effort. Palestine has so much to offer, in terms of art and literature but also the hard weight of emotion and experience and everything else that lies behind artistic expression. There’s always more, of course – in poetry, in art and literature, as in language – but A Bird is Not a Stone provides a valuable glimpse. I feel truly honored to have had the opportunity to participate.