On Translating the Work of a Deceased Poet

By Telche Abu Sulttan

Upon completing the bridge translation of Qarqati’s poem, ‘bayt fi washm al-kharif’, reworked as ‘A Home with Fall’s Brand’ by Harry Giles, the translation numbered ten pages and I was feeling increasingly anxious about a decision to condense the poem.

I had been warned by (co-editor) Sarah Irving, prior to beginning translation, that Qarqati’s was an unusually long poem and that I should consider which verses I may want to omit. After several initial readings of the poem however, I found myself bewildered and besotted – attached to every word and dash. The literary complexity and experimental nature of the poem made any attempts at reducing the poem unworkable, especially when striving to keep faith with the original. But ten pages really was just too long.

In moments away from my faithful friend Hans Wehr (A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic) – battered and bearing the wounds of three eventful years in Edinburgh and an explosive year in Egypt – questions of Representation, Voice and Ownership would play on my mind. When forwarded the table of Palestinian poets’ contacts for the Bridge Translators, the email and phone number for Qarqati were missing. He wasn’t the only one and I recall dismissing it as ‘lost in the post’. Desperate to ask the poet about his use of the forward slash (/) and his opinion on abridging the poem, I began my own search for his contacts.

By sheer chance I stuck to the less common spelling of Qarqati’s first name in English, Faisal, and came across his personal website and email address, but no other information. After writing to Qarqati several times with no response I decided, rather cowardly, to relinquish responsibility for cutting down the poem, before passing ‘it’ and the poem on to a Scottish poet to be poeticized into Scots. Though to my credit, I did highlight in green (with a stinging hesitancy) a verse which I thought could be left out without taking too much away from the poem if push came to shove. The fact that the poem would still number ten pages if this verse was omitted did not concern me, it was more an attempt to pacify that part of me which felt bad for being unable to bring myself to condense the poem as requested.

In fact as a Bridge Translator charged with providing the multitude of potentially meant meanings, I did quite the opposite and semantic options were presented as successive strings, somewhat resembling a literary stream of consciousness:

Dependant on elation/euphoria, I drink polluted/dirty/impure water, And straighten/pull together a lock of history’s hair, so it appears more luminous/brilliant/shiny/bright in death […]
The anger of being inhales me/ breathes me in, (and) radiates/-ing/ emits/- ing/pours/-ing the rain (of the cloud)/the cloud’s rain on me, (so) who led/showed the desert/pointed the desert out to me? […]

Having blindly handed over all responsibility for taking the tricky decision of which parts of the poem to include and which not to include, it was with some shock and relief that I received the following email:

“Thank you for your interest in the poem, ‘A Home with Fall’s Brand’. I am the daughter of the poet Faysal Qarqati. My father passed away after a heart attack caused by a blood clot to the heart on 1 December 2012. Your translation of my father’s work makes me happy. Please provide me with the translation. Regarding your question about the verses, act as you see appropriate bearing in mind the meaning and spirit of the poem. Thank you very much.”

Something about the generous words of Qarqati’s daughter and her faith in the translator’s ability to retain the spirit of the poem reassured me that my decision not to cut the poem at the bridging stage had not been an evasion of responsibility, but a deliberate and conscious choice. The bridging stage is about increasing the potential for the authentic rendition of meaning, not limiting it, and to edit out the poetic work at this stage would be to silence potentially crucial linguistic units and to risk stifling the spirit of the poem. Likewise, the touching words of Qarqati’s daughter, I hope, provides some solace for the person who eventually took the difficult decision of choosing which parts it was possible to omit whilst maintaining integrity with the work by not straying too far from the poem’s spirit and meaning, or what it was perceived to be.

Faysal Qarqati was born in Syria to Palestinian parents in 1954 where he lived until finishing high school. In 1978, he moved to Lebanon where he joined the PLO-affiliated magazine “Palestine the Revolution.” He then traveled to Bucharest, Romania, and in 1982 he graduated with a Masters Degree in Media, before returning to Beirut. Qarqati moved to Tunisia in 1982 along with PLO leadership, then to Cyprus. In 1994, he returned to Palestine to join the Union of Palestinian Writers and chaired the International Congress of Writers held at Birzeit University in 1996. He passed away on 1 December 2012 in Jordan, aged 58.

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4 responses to “On Translating the Work of a Deceased Poet

  1. you are so brave Sarah, I did this for a complex German speaking Swiss poet, but stil made glaring errors with a side by side translation, and even though hewas there for that translation even he didn’t know what he meant at times..I almost had a breakdown. I am trying to do his Taj Mahal poems, but I may never discover the deep meaning behind them all, as he is no longer with us..and I don;t have enough confidence in German now to do it, what a pity but I applaud your efforts and hope you remain sane

    • Hi Pam – thanks for this, but I must stress that A Bird is Not a Stone was a collective effort, and in particular Faisal al-Qarqati’s work was translated by Telche Abu Sulttan, not me!

      • Thanks Sarah, it wasn;t quite clear then, however, I did think you were amazing and are, your book on Palestine is a gem..sorry about the confusion..Telche is quite a poet, you have to be to translate poetry, am so looking forward to this..I am steeped in Mahmoud darwish and that is that, time to branch out.

      • Thanks Sarah, it wasn;t quite clear then, however, I did think you were amazing and are, your book on Palestine is a gem..sorry about the confusion..Telche is quite a poet, you have to be to translate poetry, am so looking forward to this..I am steeped in Mahmoud darwish and that is that, time to branch out. I still do not understand what A Home with Falls Brand means at all but it may al become clearer

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