What can I write in response to the beautiful 2016 collection of translations from the Arabic of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, A Monkey at the Window (Bloodaxe)? What might be useful? What might be interesting from someone with no more knowledge of or insight into Arabic or Sudanese culture, history and religion than anyone else?
Should a reviewer pause before reviewing a translation? Well, this is my first; and I do pause, briefly. It’s not that I don’t read poems in translation much, I do; and of course I feel I’m as entitled to have reactions to them as anyone else. But to review them, and publish on a blog? Am I qualified?
There is a Philip Larkin quote from The Paris Review, which comes over these days as pretty xenophobic:
“I don’t see how one can ever know a foreign language well enough to make reading poems in it worthwhile. Foreigners’ ideas of good English poems are dreadfully crude . . . But deep down I think foreign languages irrelevant. If that glass thing over there is a window, then it isn’t a fenster or a fenêtre or whatever.”
Although hemmed in by the prejudices of his day, Larkin was making a good point. Isn’t it true that you must have a fairly profound understanding of a language before you can enter into its poetry, either as reader or writer? And doesn’t reading a translation just present you with the same problem at one step removed? Yes and no.
The problem – if it is a problem – can be overcome to an extent firstly by the teamwork between the writer and the translator (or translators, literal and final), who work together towards a text which is more than any one of them could produce alone; and, secondly by the understanding that the word translation does not mean “exact copy into a different language”, rather “new piece of work inspired by a previously existing one which happened to be in another language”.
But Larkin’s point can be extended, I think, to include a ‘foreign’ culture as well as just another language. I feel this sometimes when I hear rap – I understand the words, but do I really understand what’s going on beneath the words? On the other hand, perhaps if you follow this road in the direction logic takes it, you must also include work by those of other regions, cities, classes, genders…every body is a foreign body, after all.
And besides, Carol Rumens wrote this 2007 article in The Guardian which convinces me that translations are in fact worth the effort. The only crime, for reviewer as well as translator, is to ignore the fact and nature of the translation.
Anyway, brief pause over and my urge to ruminate being the same for poems in translation as any other poems, I present not a review exactly but 12 observations on this almost exhaustingly lovely collection:
I quoted Auden recently in this blog: “Poetry makes nothing happen”. Now, I read these lines in Sarah Maguire’s and Sabry Hafez’s translation of ‘Theatre’:
to set the world ablaze
so poetry quickens in your hands
and inflames you with desire
I think about these two poets and what must be their very different experiences of life that led them to have such polar views of what poetry can do. Suddenly Auden appears rather lazy and dismissive.
The literal translations on the PtC website (an amazing resource) make me wonder whether the final translation above adds a political dimension which is not there in the original (transcribed as “I write/so that the world lights up in you”); but it also makes me consider the conversations between Maguire, Hafez and Al-Raddi that must have led to the final version. What has the final translation mined from the Arabic that the literal translation was not able to express, I wonder.
As I read these translations and I look for meaning, almost blindly feeling around for sense and significance, I feel like the poems are asking me to forget for a moment as much as I know. They are lights onto a different world of understanding from the one I exist in.
The original Arabic is set out on the left-hand page with the translations on the right; so English readers begin towards the middle and move further to the right, while Arabic speakers who also begin towards the middle, move further to the left. But at the line endings both readers’ eyes return towards the middle, together.
The Arabic and the English reader go on their separate journeys, but they come home to the same place. Is the ultimate aim of translation? It feels too simple. The ghost of Larkin stirs.
Each poem and its translation could be friends leaning against one another, facing outwards and poised for attack from an enemy circling the page. Or they could be duellists about to march their paces, turn, and shoot. Or lovers, sleeping – we do after all make odd shapes with our bodies in our sleep.
Or they could just be Rorschach blots.
I’m aware of seeing the two versions of the same poem with different parts of my brain.
The English looks solid, calm, to my trained eye.
The Arabic looks as though its quivering, straining to be free, to my untrained eye.
The body of a bird in your mouth
Raw light spills from your eyes,
These lines of Al-Raddi’s (the first from ‘A Body’), translated by Sarah Maguire and Atef Alshaer, demand attention. If you take a moment, you can feel the scratchy, feathery, beaky bird inside the soft flesh of your mouth; you can feel the warmth of its breath against the inside of your lips causing them to open and allowing the song to escape. That’s the mouth, then there are the eyes. If I block out Cyclops from the X-Men, I suddenly see that something terrifying is happening: by ‘looking’ you are giving to the world not taking from it, and by giving you are exposing yourself entirely. The words ‘raw’, ‘spill’ and ‘utterly’ are the translators’ I notice, but they heighten the lines to an emotional level which I have to assume is equalled or surpassed by the original.
The rest of the poem demands equal attention.
I am not usually aware of needing to rest between poems, but with these I am.
I think again about (8) above, then about (5) and (6). On the right, my cynical western atheism; on the left Al-Raddi’s Sudanese Sufi mysticism. These poems are taking me into the crevasse, the inside of the spine, between the two.
And a violet blossomed fiercely in the bosom of the sky
These words (from ‘A Star’) are a negotiation between Al-Raddi, Mark Ford, Hafiz Kheir and…here’s the revelation…me. And they’ll remain a negotiation.
What they are negotiating is not Arabic or English but an understanding to which both languages lead.
When I return to ‘A Body’, the image of the X-Men’s Cyclops again invades my brain, and I resent this elbowing-in of my own culture as I try and open my Self to Al-Raddi’s. It happens again in ‘Traces of an Unknown Woman’:
The end of a tribe is a tribe.
Here, against my will and denting my pride, I hear The Who singing ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”.
The snob in me wishes my cultural references were more cerebral.
A Monkey at the Window is published by Bloodaxe and is available here.