Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mahmoud Darwish

The other day, I picked up The Butterfly's Burden, a translation of three recent books by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Having absolutely no knowledge of Arabic, I can't say how fair the translation, by Fady Joudah, is to the original, but it is, unfortunately, not always great English verse. Joudah, a medical doctor, writes poetry and although there is some discussion of prosody in his introduction, it's probably best to read these as cribs, somewhat prosaic English approximations of the original, probably more faithful to the literal sense of the poems than to their music--or perhaps trying to create in English some semblance of Arabic music that just isn't coming through. Nevertheless, some of the metaphorical imagination of Darwish does make it successfully into English. I was particularly taken by the imagery in "Sonnet II," even while I was frustrated by its syntactic longueurs:

Perhaps when you turn your shadow to the river you ask
of the river only obscurity. Over there a little autumn
sprinkles the stag with water from a fugitive cloud
there, on what you have left for us of departure's crumbs

Your mystery is the Milky Way. The dust of nameless planets,
and your mystery is night in pearls that illuminate only water.
Whereas speech can illuminate with one phrase
"I love you," the emigrant's night between two odes and two palm tree rows

I am who saw his tomorrow when he saw you. I am who saw
gospels the last idolater wrote on Gilead's slopes
before the ancient lands or after. And I am the returning cloud
to a fig tree that bears my name, as a sword bears the murdered's face

Perhaps, when you turn your shadow to me, you give incident
to metaphor as a meaning to what is about to happen ...


The Butterfly's Burden is an en-face translation. Obviously, I can't make syllabic sense of the Arabic script on the left-hand page, but it certainly looks more compact than this metrically-challenged sprawl. It's too bad that Dr. Joudah didn't have another poet working with him on the translation, someone like Ted Hughes, who did amazing work with poets such as Miroslav Holub, who wrote in languages Hughes didn't understand, someone who could have helped turn a labour of love into a better labour of art.

I was sufficiently taken by Joudah's translation to attempt a revisioning of the poem myself. This is tricky business, obviously. As I discovered comparing David Harsent's versions of Goran Simic's Sarajevo poems in Sprinting from the Graveyard to their recent "retranslation" in From Sarajevo, with Sorrow, it can be very easy to betray, with the best of intentions, the intent of the original work. It turns out that, almost without exception, Amela Simic's "cribs" make for better poems than Harsent's versions, which often seemed to editorialize the poem's content through omission of controversial images and statements.


(Disclaimer: What follows is a free adaptation of Joudah's translation of Darwish's Arabic poem. I make no claim of authority on its behalf.)


after Darwish

Turn your shadow to the river and demand
It stay dark. A little autumn sprays the stag
With rain from a stray cloud, sprays a little
Rain on abandoned litter on the strand.
The Milky Way, god semen or spittle,
Is a mystery and yours is a bag
Of strewn pearls flashing in the night’s black hand,
A phrase that lights the migrant river’s night
Between one psalm and another. I saw
All of my tomorrows in the white
Of your eye; I heard the last false idol’s
Gospels. And I came, a rain-pregnant thaw
Bearing motherland’s pain like a title
Deed, jabbed like a rusted spade in your jaw.


fady joudah said...

Thank you zach for your review. No doubt The Stranger's Bed is strikingly different from the other two translated books, which are more colloquial and conversational. Part of the point for me was to show the leap in language style that a major world-poet is capable of acheiving between books, in a short span of time. I enjoyed your translation of the sonnet, however. I was aiming at a method of translation that is perhaps closer to Walter Benjamin's spirit.

elle flanders said...

Just read your unfortunate review of Fady Joudah's translation of Darwish and Dr. Joudah's generous response. Yikes! I cannot believe you had the gall to write such 'shit you shouldn't' as your tag line says. But more embarrassingly without doing your homework! If you can't read Arabic and you don't really know Darwish (and his language shifts), and obviously don't know Dr. Joudah's endless accomplishments in poetry himself (Yale poetry prize 2007), then perhaps indeed you shouldn't write shit. take yourself and the reviews you write seriously. He was kind too about your translation which I might not be. There is a wonderful expression in Arabic in Palestine when someone does something one shouldn't: "respect yourself!" Sorry, but someone had to say it.

Zachariah Wells said...

I'm sure Dr. Joudah has won many laurels, but that doesn't make his translation a good English poem. It isn't. (Which should not be mistaken for a claim that mine is; it was an exercise, prompted by a desire to condense the longueurs of Joudah's paraphrase.) It may well be faithful to the original, but the verse is sluggishly prosaic, metrically flaccid and dully unmusical.

Oh, and I'm sure that Palestinian maxim is much zingier in the original. Must lose something in translation.