re: translation class

I am a student in Dr. Wijdan Al-Sayegh’s Contemporary Arabic Poetry class.  The class’s emphasis is 20th and 21st century Arab poets—and translating their work.

In my opinion, the most interesting facet of translation is figuring out what the role of the translator is.  I mean, on the most obvious level the role of the translator is straightforward–you switch a text from one language to another while keeping the original meaning.  But when you actually do it, it becomes clear that it is not at all straightforward.

The first reason that the translator’s role is complicated is because a poetic image might be beautiful in one language but played-out or just plain ugly in another language.  Not too long ago, our class came across an Arabic-language poetry collection titled “roses and rifles” (it was a collection based on the author’s experiences during the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait) and it sounded a lot too much like “guns and roses” to me.   However, although the image seemed bad to me, I think the translator has some a responsibility not to change it—if you do change it, you’re writing a new poem.

Another problem is that the linguistic stockpile or set of images that each language has differs from language to language.  In other words, a line of poetry could evoke a line from the Qur’an or Shakespeare–but in most cases the reference and its poetic effect are lost in translation.  Although at times texts like the Qur’an and Shakespeare could be considered analogous in a very loose way, there is no literal correspondence, nor do they “mean” the same thing to different groups of people.  So, translating Shakespeare with Qur’anic imagery (or vice versa) is most likely heavy-handed translation (as well as sacrilegious, depending on your point of view)—one that is not literally accurate.

In that way, we’ve come to struggle time and again with the question of how to impart the same feeling into a translated poem—and what we should do if the one way to do that is to change the poem.  After all, it is hard to make the argument that you have to change the poem to make it be the same poem.  But when you translate a poem yourself, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

I thank my classmates for their hard work in translating what are frequently difficult texts.  The incredible divergence between how we all translate the same text is an inspiration to keep seeking the best phrases and sentences possible.