Promiscuous Translations and the New Palestinian Poetry Collection, ‘A Bird is not a Stone’

Note: Yesterday on Facebook, A Bird is not a Stone editors announced, “We’re sad to have heard that the family home of Raed Issa, the artist who painted the beautiful image used on the cover of A Bird is not a Stone, was destroyed yesterday in an Israeli air attack. The house was in al-Bureij refugee camp.”

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The metaphor of the “faithful” (or unfaithful) translation is as well-worn as that of the text going “lost” in translation. This faithfulness — or not-getting-lost — is often presented as a particular sort of pedantic, dictionary-based equivalency. This sort of equivalency might sometimes serve prose, but it generally does poetry few favors.

A Bird is not a Stone takes an entirely different approach to fidelity, as twenty-nine of Scotland’s celebrated poets co-translate work by twenty-five contemporary Palestinians. The works are brought not just into English, but into Scots, Gaelic, and Shetlandic.

It is immediately clear that “faithfulness,” here, is not conceived as a one-to-one correspondence of words. In one of the first poems, Liz Lochhead, the Scottish national poet, translates “’An al-Tefla.” By a(n extraordinarily tone-deaf) dictionary, this would render as “About the Female Child,” whereas in Lochhead’s version, it’s “About the Wee Girl.” She takes a poem without line breaks and adds them, moves phrases around, alters punctuation.

During a recent Skype chat, Palestinian-Syrian poet Ghayath al-Madhoun spoke about the initial shock of seeing his work in English translation. Although he was assured that Catherine Cobham’s translations were very good, they still didn’t feel like his poems. Then he tried his own hand at translating.

“I had arrived at a point where I was blaming the translator,” al-Madhoun said. “Why did they do that? But then I understood. There is some point where it’s impossible to cross the wall between two languages if you don’t change it.”

The A Bird is not a Stone collection, edited by Henry Bell and Sarah Irving, isn’t afaid to cross the walls between multiple languages, and it isn’t afraid of the charge of “domesticating” a work. It also has a spirit of creative playfulness, reminiscent of Adam Thirwell’s experiment in McSweeney’s 42, wherein some of the world’s great living novelists (J.M. Coetzee, Javier Marias, Rawi Hage) bring stories from one language to the next, sometimes by those who know the source language and sometimes by those who have only a passing familiarity, or were helped by a spouse. Some of the novelists used Google Translate.

Thirwell’s collection has a sort of car-crash appeal, going as fast down the straightaway as possible, drinking beer and waving one’s arms out the window before spinning out and going up in flame.

The experiments in A Bird is not a Stone are more sober. They were made possible not by Google, but by bridge translators, who opened up the Arabic text to the poet and placed the words into their care. There is a danger to this sort of translation, most particularly the one exemplified in McSweeney’s 42. Sometimes, when the texts go from one person to the next, it works like a game of Chinese whispers—or Arab whispers, as it’s called in France. But in this collection, although the renderings are almost never “exact,” they do echo one another, and share similar feelings.

Lochhead notes, in her introduction, that the 25 Palestinian poets included in the collection have rarely been translated into English. When they were, “it was always by academics and generally to be quoted as part of polemical, theoretical, or literary essays and in obscure publications. They were made into far less than poems, or were sometimes effectively censored by the omission of some of their content.”

Well-meaning polemicists, in some instances, have cut away at Palestinian poetry to make it more palatable to the Western reader. Academic translations can be stiff, and are often for younger Arabists who want to read with training wheels. But the bilingualism here is not for a language-learner. There is no one-to-one correspondence, no easy imitation. The Arabic poems and their translations should be read as separate creatures.

As Lochhead points out in her introduction, a “faithful” translation in the strictest sense is not possible. Even a straightforward noun like “horse” is very different between the language pairs, with very different associations. The poetic traditions are also different, as are the styles of reading.

A Bird is not a Stone’s poems are not universally interesting. These are not the time-tested giants of Palestinian poetry, such as Mahmoud Darwish , or even the younger giants, such as Najwan Darwish, Mazen Maarouf, Ghayath al-Madhoun. There are bright moments that open up new mental vistas and there are moments that feel too clever (the poem about Viagra), or too well-worn (Sufi spirituality). But there are also moments of genuine surprise.

Some readers might mis-see this as a “political” collection. Indeed, one of the misfortunes of Palestinian poets is that their work is almost universally read through a political lens. The book’s introduction does have a moment where Lochhead talks about her time in a Bethlehem refugee camp. But elsewhere, what might read as politics in English is generally the life-landscapes of the poets, the memories they mine for their work.

Zakaria Mohammed’s poem, translated as “The Plate Breaker,” would be in a mechanical translation something more like “The Wing of Disappointment.” Its final line does not read the same in the Arabic and the English. But both say something real-feeling about the collection. In English:

“Poetry flips things upside-down. It grants failure a wing and throws it up into the sky.”

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