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.)
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.