Lost Without Translation: Fady Joudah on the Poetry of Ghassan Zaqtan
Fady Joudah first became associated with Yale University Press in 2007 when he was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize by then-judge Louise Glück, and the subsequent publication of his first volume of poetry, The Earth in the Attic, in April 2008. He returns to our list this spring as translator of Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan’s Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, published this week from the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. To help us further the literary conversations of the series’ mission, we sat down with Joudah to probe his thoughts on the art of translation and the specific task of bringing Zaqtan’s recent work in Arabic to English audiences, reproduced in part below. Be sure to sign up on the new WRL site to receive full e-mail updates and interviews with authors and translators.
Yale University Press: Tell us about the origins of this project. How did the idea to publish Zaqtan’s poems in English come about and what impact do you hope such publication will have on the English-speaking audience?
Fady Joudah: I first encountered the work of Ghassan Zaqtan in the literary pages of Al-Karmel, the brilliant cultural & literary journal Mahmoud Darwish used to edit. I knew right away I had found a special poet. And the more I learned about his poetry and his importance to Arabic poetry, the more I became certain there was a project in it for me. The impact is self-explanatory, I think: In translation into any language, we tend to categorize other poetries in a narrow view. Translating the very individual poetry of Zaqtan expands an English reader’s vision of what Arabic poetry is and has been. More specifically, I do believe Palestinian poetry and literature is important on the world-stage. I believe it has much to offer us, in the way we have embraced post-Holocaust literature, Polish literature, Irish or Chilean literature. There are of course those who’d raise their eyebrows at this statement, understandably so, since we are also confined to absorbing literature as it relates to stages and theatres of power dynamics. Palestinian literature, in Deleuze’s sense, is minor literature par excellence, and has a centrality around the peripheralized existence in an age largely defined by construction and illusion of the nation-state.
YUP: Can a translator ever succeed in “translating” the customs, connotations, cultural implications of one nation into those of another?
FJ: Of course one can, but not always. Translation as I said celebrates difference, and in that it demands a larger sense of oneness, of togetherness. It’s up to the reader, or the reading culture to truly embrace that difference, seek it, without so much of the “aesthetic merit” masquerade.
The three-line poem “I have no Reason Beside This” reads: “I have no reason to remain here/I have no reason to nurture funerals as others do/ I have no reason to wait by the doorstep.” Other poems in the collection poignantly convey a sense of dislocation. Is this feeling of absence or loss something that the readers of the poems in their English version can experience even more acutely, at least linguistically?
I don’t know. Why wouldn’t anyone experience absence, dislocation, and relate to it. Or do you mean in English a reader is really not surrounded by funerals as much as a Palestinian is. If so, I beg to differ.
YUP: So then, is fidelity to the original possible? And what would you consider such fidelity (words, meaning, the emotion that the poem evokes)? Poetry poses particular difficulties—if not utter impossibilities—of line to line translation.
FJ: Walter Benjamin referred to the “spirit” of a text; the question is always how. I find that I don’t like to talk about translation much, in part because the obsession with technicalities for me is such a symptom of our previously mentioned super-specialized world. It’s like that great line in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: If you want to shoot, shoot, don’t talk. Similarly, if you want to translate, translate, write poetry.
Fady Joudah is a practicing physician of internal medicine and an award-winning poet and translator. Among his translations are two poetry collections by Mahmoud Darwish, If I Were Another and The Butterfly’s Burden. The Earth in the Attic and Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me are available now from Yale University Press.