Translation: Text and Context
Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, translated
from Arabic and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché with Sinan Antoon
and Amira El-Zein
Mahmoud Darwish, The Butterfly's Burden, bilingual edition, translated from Arabic
by Fady Joudah
Mahmoud Darwish, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?, bilingual edition,
translated from Arabic by Jeffrey Sacks
Fady Joudah, Earth in the Attic
from Beloit Poetry Journal, Fall 2008
Although the poems of Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish captured me first by their lyric power, I cannot read them without remembering history. Since the 1947 partition of Palestine to create the state of Israel three-quarters of the land reserved then to the Palestinians has been appropriated by Israeli settlements and restraints such as the separation wall. Darwish's homeland is by many accounts the most crucial tension area in today's tense world. The Palestinian people consider Darwish something like a poet laureate. What better guide can I imagine into this region in crisis than a poet whose work is not primarily polemical but nevertheless speaks compellingly from its cultural and political nexus. Darwish, like Yeats, understands that the quarrel with others produces rhetoric, the quarrel with oneself, poetry. He warns himself in The Butterfly's Burden:
Don't write history as poetry, because the weapon is
the historian. And the historian doesn't get fever
chills when he names his victims, and doesn't listen
to the guitar's rendition. And history is the dailiness
of weapons prescribed upon our bodies.
By writing this the poet makes it impossible to read even a love lyric without hearing the bass line of his poet's identity in his own time and place. But were he not so powerful a poet, I would not be reading him at all. I engage these poems therefore first as music and as a guide through language to the human spirit, yet hearing always the burden (in the sense both of weight and of musical undertone) of their context.
Here then is a précis of that biographical context (leaning gratefully on Fady Joudah's "Translator's Preface" and on a rich review by Suzanne Gardinier in The Manhattan Review, vol. 13, no. 1). When he was six, in 1948, Darwish and his family fled to Lebanon, ousted from their Galilean home by the Haganah, predecessor of the Israeli army. The title of Jeffrey Sacks's Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? comes from this passage, in which a father reassures his son that their house will be just the same when they return. But the boy asks
—Why did you leave the horse alone?
—To keep the house company, my son
Houses die when their inhabitants are gone . . .
Returning a year later, the family found that al-Birwah, their village in the Galilee, had become Kibbutz Yasur, and that they themselves had been branded "present absentees" who had forfeited their property rights by having fled. For the next eighteen years the young Darwish was barred from leaving Israel. Some of that time he spent in jails, where he learned Hebrew. From 1972 until the Israeli siege of Beirut (1982) he lived in Lebanon and then, like many exiles, moved about the Arab and European world, saturating himself in Arabic and world literatures, including the Bible, the Koran, and Shakespeare. Like Doris Lessing, Pablo Neruda, and Gabriel García Márquez he was denied entrance to the United States as an "inadmissible alien." After twenty-some years in exile, having read his poetry to tens of thousands from Cairo to Paris, Darwish returned in 1996 to Ramallah, a city under siege. He authored the Palestine Declaration of Independence and served for a while on the executive committee of the PLO. The books I have before me date largely from that return.
For a broad sampling of Darwish's poetry we have Akash and Forché's Unfortunately, It Was Paradise. Unfortunately, it does not contain the original Arabic, but it does present an interesting approach for transforming one literature into another. Three translators fluent in Arabic who know Darwish's work well created their own versions; the American poet Carolyn Forché then "recreated the poems translated with a different sensibility and made them harmonious in a single voice." Forché seems to have been an ideal choice to harmonize the translations; these are a pleasure to read, and she would not necessarily be expected to imitate the form of the text in Arabic. Nevertheless I miss the direct correspondence to Darwish's lineation that we get in Jeffrey Sacks's and Fady Joudah's more recent en face translations. Comparing Forché's shaping of the lines in "Sonnet II," for example, with the Arabic in The Butterfly's Burden, I see her version divides the poem into two seven-line stanzas, whereas the Arabic original follows the Shakespearean stanzaic convention. Elsewhere, three short lines in the original become one long line in the translation; anaphora gets buried in paraphrase. I confess I am uneasy at the loss. Nonetheless, this volume is valuable for samples of earlier work and for an accessible translation in English of the important and profoundly moving Mural (2000), written after an illness so life-threatening that the poem might well have become Darwish's last.
Fady Joudah's Butterfly comprises three complete books. Joudah, a Palestinian American poet and native Arabic speaker, has set an ambitious and intimate goal for his edition, laid out gracefully in his "Translator's Preface":
Translation should, as Darwish suggests, become more than a new poem in another language. It should expend into that language new vastness. Darwish is a songmaker whose vocabulary is accessible but whose mystery is not bashful. Finding a way to accentuate the orality of the written, that which is on the tip of the reader's tongue, is essential to translating his work. I chose to adhere to the structure of the Darwish poem in order to experience what might emerge when "physical" mimesis occurs, and to honor my faith in the harmony of the human mind. Structure here is syntax as primary tool for translating cadence and tone.
Section V of "The Damascene Collar of the Dove" provides a small sample of this elegance of form with its marriage of context and lyric grace:
the traveler sings to himself:
I return from Syria
but as clouds
that ease the butterfly's burden
from my fugitive soul
But how am I to evaluate a lyric text in Arabic? The chapter on Arabic poetry in the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry sharpens my regret for my ignorance of the centuries of strong poetry in that language. I have only what drew me to Darwish: in translation these are eloquently moving poems. Although I cannot hear the Arabic cadence by cadence, I can tell that Darwish has been blessed in Joudah with a translator who has respected the original lineation and composed English syntax that is similarly cadenced. In his preface, Joudah tells us that for Darwish cadences are more important than feet and that the most significant feature of his prosodic eloquence is architectural elegance: anaphora, epiphora (lines ending alike), refrain, parallel words and syntax (often lending an incantatory quality), rhythmic dialogue, and often a circular, sometimes chiasmic, structure of the poem as a whole. The translator's alliteration and assonance as well as syntactic cadence give me a sense of something analogous to the original.
Many of the poems in this volume are what Helen Vendler, writing on Yeats, calls the "spacious lyric." Listen to "The Stranger Stumbles upon Himself in the Stranger," one of the love poems in The Stranger's Bed, the first of the three volumes in Butterf1y. The poet begins "We are one in two / There's no name for us, woman, when the stranger / stumbles upon himself in the stranger." It feels criminal to excerpt so tightly organized a work of art, but now listen to these lines from the middle of the poem:
Go behind your shadow,
east of the Song of Songs, a shepherd of sand grouse,
you'll find a star dwelling in its death, then climb a neglected
mountain and you'll find my yesterday completing its cycle in my
You'll find where we were and where we'll be together,
we are one in two /
The passage begins in imaginative personal space ("behind your shadow"), moves out and "east" to geographic space, beyond ancient scriptural time and space ("Song of Songs"), through a wonderfully evocative image of the living desert (the "sand grouse"), to where I find myself, suddenly, in cosmic space and time—"a star dwelling in its death." Then onward up the cryptic "neglected mountain," where I emerge in time—back to the poet's personal time—where "you'll find my yesterday completing its cycle in my tomorrow." I've boldfaced the complex chiasmus in one line to suggest how musical the translation is, supporting the structural repetition (almost an audible anaphora) of "you'll find." Add the sibilance of shadow, east, Song, Songs, shepherd, sand grouse, through star; and then the tonal shift to "dwelling in its death." This passage is where the poem as a whole pivots, crossing in the center of a poem-long chiasmus, turning then west, "disappearing then reappearing / in a body disappearing in the mystery of the eternal / duality," and concluding, completing its cyclical architecture:
We need to return to being two
to embrace each other more.
There is no name for us,
when the stranger stumbles upon himself in the stranger!
When you read the poem aloud you'll make your own discoveries, not only about the lyric form and the character of the speaker, but about how to read a poem by Mahmoud Darwish with its complex relationships between the self and the other: the "other" sometimes personal, sometimes geographical, sometimes political.
Joudah notes that Darwish often speaks about writing in his work. I invite the reader to be alert for flashes of ars poetica, such as this in "Low Sky":
Which time do you want, which time
that I may become its poet, just like that: whenever
a woman goes to her secret in the evening
she finds a poet walking in her thoughts.
Whenever a poet dives into himself
he finds a woman undressing before his poem . . .
Savor the artistry of implication and progression in "a woman goes to her secret in the evening." And may I hear an echo of cummings's reminder of death in "just like that"? Perhaps not, but the phrase does intensify the pace before achieving the lovely symmetry in the lines that follow.
Then try this humbling verse:
(To a critic:) Do not interpret my words
with a teaspoon or a bird snare!
My speech besieges me in sleep,
my speech that I have not yet said,
it writes me then leaves me searching
for the remnants of my sleep . . .
Was it my teaspoon or my bird snare that lurched after a possible cummings echo? I am warned and chastened. For a further mention of the poet as the instrument on which the poetry plays, consider these lines, enacting their subject:
Cadence chooses me, it chokes on me
I am the violin's regurgitant flow, and not its player
I am in the presence of memory
the echo of things pronounces through me
then I pronounce . . .
Dare I mention Plato's "Ion"? Inspiration versus deliberate articulation? It is difficult to imagine an art so exquisitely constructed could be so passively conceived. We have the poet's word for it, but the words also suggest the author's intention.
Though to my knowledge not himself a poet, Jeffrey Sacks in Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? reinforces my sense of Darwish's poems as a lyric score, as in these lines from his translation of ''The Tatar's Swallows":
We, the people of the ancient nights, have our customs
rising to the moon of the rhyme
We believe our dreams and deny our days
for since the Tatars came, all of our days haven't been our own
I can ride these cadences without translating them into classical feet. I am carried by the allusive "We, the people of the ancient nights," echoed two lines down; the e sounding in "We believe," continuing into "dreams and deny"; the assonance of "ancient" and "days" and "came" and again "days," of "rising" and "nights" and "rhyme," not to overlook the chiasmus of "rising to the moon of the rhyme." Joudah and Sacks incline me to trust that they are approximating a dense music in the Arabic, indeed "finding a way to accentuate the orality of the written."
Entranced by that music, I am not deaf to the historical burden in which Tatar hordes are representative of the waves of invaders that, as the poet's father reminds him in another poem, have for millennia advanced and retreated over their homeland. Indeed, the very sound of Tatar breaks the harmony of the rest of the passage. English speakers can enjoy these poems for their sensuous texture, their passion and longing, and their shapeshifting imagination ("rising to the moon of the rhyme"!) but cannot ignore the political resonances without impoverishing the poems and ourselves.
Setting aside my teaspoons and bird snares, I can only say that reading Darwish even in translation I know I am reading wonderful lyric poetry—important poetry. Although every translator to some extent traduces the true text, we need translation, as Edward Hirsch said in a 2003 interview, "to get a sense of the full dimension of the poetry universe." And we Anglophones especially, isolated linguistically as well as geographically, need to know the peoples of this troubled globe. How better than through individual poets? I deeply appreciate the efforts of Forché, Sacks, and Joudah, and hope that more of Darwish's poetry will become available in English. I regret that I have no room here to explore recurring themes in his work: the delicate handling of the personal, political, and historical "other"; the variety and range of tone from volume to volume, including the comic spirit in recent work; and the brilliance of imaginative imagery ("So I felt that I had won, and that I had been broken / like a diamond, that nothing but light remained of me") that shines through even the darkest of his subjects.
* * *
Fady Joudah seems to have learned much from Darwish in the course of a long devotion to translating his work. Joudah's The Earth in the Attic is Louise Glück's selection for the Yale Younger Poets this year. Born to a Palestinian immigrant family in Texas, he is a physician and field member of Doctors without Borders, an international organization that sends medical personnel into war zones to aid victims of violent conflict. As such, his life and his poetry recapitulate on a global scale the experience of exile and displacement that are his inheritance also as a Palestinian. His strongest poems, while lyric, have a narrative thrust—fables, folktales, or exempla created out of his service in refugee camps (unnamed but today suggesting Darfur). But their freely associative movement from image to image makes their political landscapes sound like dreams, which in turn look like political landscapes: "—A camel / Caravan floating like ocean otters / On the desert floor / / Is a hell of a cadence. / The wood they carry is massive."
Some, like "Immigrant Song," with its elusive resonances, rich reticulation of echoes in sound and sense, and cyclical construction, are both lyrically and formally reminiscent of Darwish:
We the people in god we trust.
We the people in god we trust everyday around noon a mule.
We the people dream the city:
Yet in context they reveal a different, individual, voice as well, more edgy and disjunctive, more reflective of Joudah's characteristic narrative immediacy, density of sensuous detail, and ironic grounding in his experience as a physician. Here's a larger section of "Immigrant Song," incorporating the lines I just quoted and describing a scene where "every day around noon a boy on a mule" brings dinner to men in the field:
The one-radio, one-coffee-shop village without an ink-line on paper,
Now spilled like beads out of a rosary.
Not what they would have grown.
We the people in god we trust.
We the people in god we trust everyday around noon a mule.
We the people dream the city: Oooh you give me fever.
Oooh you give me fever so bad I shake like beads out of a rosary.
Fever so bad it must've been malaria.
Hey doctor! You mule-ride away, you cost the rest of harvest.
In these poems, as in many of the Darwish poems he has translated, Joudah's language is propelled by a tension between compassion and regret. In the physician's language the regret is most mordant. We need both poles to achieve not only a sense of "the full dimension of the poetry universe" but an insight into the human condition. As Louise Glück says in her foreword, "in the absence of the authenticating earth—where home was—only language remains, having to take on the work of both earth and spirit."
Both Joudah's and Darwish's poetry are grounded in internal displacement; both poets have suffered exile from their mother cultures and have chosen the poetic vantage point of the wanderer, the world traveler, the other. Their poetries, in Joudah's words, take wing on 'The thousand feathers that aren't mine / And are whole for no one," fusing the personal and political in eloquent music at this crisis point in human history. In all of contemporary poetry it is hard to think of more needed voices and perspectives.Beloit Poetry Journal
Editors: John Rosenwald, Lee Sharkey
Editor for Reviews and Exchanges: Marion K. Stocking