Mona Kareem, activist, translator and poet, talks in this issue about her translations of Ashraf Fayadh’s Instructions Within. Fayadh was imprisoned in Saudia Arabia and sentenced to death for apostasy on the evidence of this collection. Mona notes the collective spirit of the translation and how it brought with it companionship, a ‘secret love’ which bound Fayadh’s translators together in the face of monstrosity. Marilyn Hacker, the translator of Syrian activist and exile Fadwa Souleiman, writes in a similar way about the act of friendship and reciprocity that is translation: ‘I worked with [Fadwa] learning to recite Arabic poetry, Darwish especially, the way she had in drama school in Damascus’. Stephen Watts has often talked about translation as a poetic and creative act, but he has also written about the loving solidarity which he experiences as a translator and which infuses his translations. For the sequence published here Stephen visited Golan Haji in Paris and they worked on the poems in Golan’s flat whilst Golan’s baby daughter slept.
Translating someone’s work means listening to them so intently you can hear their pulse, you can hear them pausing to swallow. You follow their thoughts deep into the subconscious and you find there a synthesis of your own subconscious and theirs. Although translation is often described as the closest act of reading, it is also an act of enormous sympathy between the poet and the translator. A poem is a projection in words of something shapeless and nameless: an instinct or a sensation, a memory or a yearning, and to translate that requires us to reach through the net of words stretched out on the page to a place beyond. If we do not ourselves attempt to befriend that initial impulse it is hard to translate the poem. We are reduced to marshalling words into a harmonious but unimportant order.
I am not for a moment advocating carelessness towards the actual words of a poem. They are the coordinates, the map, the hand gestures, all we have to go on. Nor is this any kind of theoretical to translation. The expression of sympathy is an individual matter: I only know that when my sympathy is engaged I am bound to want to make the poem live in my own tongue, in my own mouth. I am changed by it.
Most of the general debate around poetry translation is occupied with the notion of failure, or even worse, with the destruction of an original. We don’t think of friendship in this way. It is possible to love a friend and know their love without the relationship being destructive or somehow failing. This is not a utopian thought.
The best friendships allow insights on both sides, they ‘change without perishing’. In the same way translation is a dynamic practice. Mona is right when she says in her conversation with Alice Guthrie that the old clichés about ‘bridge’ and ‘exchange’ are useless because they imply stasis and distance: two rocky islands with a cautious footbridge between them. We should instead be talking about how translation changes us, how poet and translator are no longer who they were, and the poem is no longer what it once was – it has undergone the closest act of friendship.