At the Tanta International Festival of Poetry in the last week of October 2017, the Lebanese journalist and poet Linda Nassar asked me to give her my thoughts on poetry translation and the harmony between the original text and its translation.
Although Maltese is a language of Arabic, mainly Maghrebi origin, I cannot talk about the translations of my poems into Arabic by the Palestinian-Maltese poet and novelist Walid Nabhan. I don’t know Arabic and I don’t know the many rich conventions and traditions of the literatures written in Arabic. I can pick up some words here and there because they are practically the same in Maltese, but that is as far as I can go. The title of my poem “Sebgħin Sena Tbenġil,” which appears in the anthology of this 2017 edition of the Tanta festival of poetry, is practically the same in Arabic, and this makes it sound very familiar to me, but I cannot judge what these words mean, semantically and emotionally, to audiences and readers in different parts of the Arabic-speaking world today.
I see poetry translation as the recreation of a poem in a “foreign” language and literary tradition. Translation crosses a divide. Rather than trying to cover a distance, to bring languages and literatures closer to each other, literary translation creates a work all over again; it creates a new work. It tries to transmit the “spirit” and emotions of the original work, but it sounds different and it creates a new universe. When I listen to my poems “translated” by Walid into Arabic, I am listening to something new, something different. If it works well, people will come up to me to say they liked the poem, hopefully that it touched them, that it means something personal to them. But the physical poem that they are talking about is “foreign” to me. In important ways, they are talking about a poem that I don’t know and will never know.
In other ways, my poem translated into Arabic (and almost all other languages) is still my poem. It tells the story I told. It refers to the emotions I tried to explore. If it is possible, it attempts to create the same scenes. And this is where I can connect with it, even if I don’t know the language and literature in which it has been reinvented.
After a reading in the Faculty of Commerce of the University of Tanta, a man came up to me to tell me, through a friend who doubled as a translator, that my poem “Sebgħin Sena Tbenġil” had really touched him, that he saw the suffering of his own father in it. In some important ways, it became his poem. This happened not only because the poem was translated into Arabic: it happened because we are not empty inside when we listen to a poem. We process the poem we read or listen to with our full individual selves, with our whole individual and indivisible being. In this sense, every reading is a translation. Even when we read the original. A poem does not exist outside of the consciousness of an individual human being. A poem exists because there are individual human beings who read it. Individually.
Translation is a particular, arguably heightened form of rereading, of recreation, of reinvention. But every reading is a rereading.
The “Translation” and the “Original”
Ideally there would be harmony in the aesthetic vision transmitted by the original poem and the translation. In the sense that they would both be seeking to realize a particular idea of what beauty and truth are in the art of poetry. So if the original poem seeks to create a fast, breathtaking rhythm, one might want the translation to do something similar. But it would have to adapt to the literary tradition in which it places the new version, even this meant challenging tradition.
We all have different concepts and experiences of what is art, what is true, what is beautiful. Inevitably, my aesthetic vision has changed profoundly over the years. Now I give so much more importance to the word as a physical object. Literally. The word as a sequence of sounds. The word as an image. The word as an entity that enters into an unusual relationship with other words, other sounds, other baggages.
I’m not sure harmony is always possible between various aesthetic visions. Sometimes our vision of art is very different from that of other writers, poets and literary translators, and what we try to do with words is also profoundly different. In many ways, for me art transmits, first and foremost, rhythm, stylistic and structural tension, emotions, images, experiences, moments, associations. I’m not into “cerebral” poetry. But I know that sometimes, what I write may sound too strange, too complicated. When that happens, when the strangeness is too foreign, I think my words fail to create beauty.
Poetry and Meaning
Poetry is not solely about meaning, at least not exclusively. This is what we find so frustrating about it sometimes. It refuses to communicate plain and simple meaning. But of course there are meanings in poetry. They are part of a complex, unbridled and restless “whole.”
Nonetheless, translation has no right to consciously change meaning, to produce new meanings, to add meaning to the original. What probably happens is that different words convey different worlds, slightly different ideas and emotions, connecting to readers in different ways by virtue of the simple fact they are different words, different sounds, different stories.
I live on an island which is also an independent state, so my everyday experience of borders is very real. It’s not possible to get on a train in Malta and end up in a different country. When I was in Brussels for the first time in the 1990s, I wanted to catch a train to Bruges, but I almost got onto a train to Paris by mistake. That cannot happen in Malta. Our borders our determined by the Mediterranean Sea. You are either in or out. You cannot really be in between.
But on the other hand, we impose significant cultural borders. Are we European or Mediterranean? Are we Euro-Mediterranean (a term I dislike)? Are we European or Southern European? Our island lies south of Tunis: so what does it mean when we say that we are culturally European?
I think translation is vital. There are many instances when I literally cannot talk to someone because there is no verbal language that we share. We may share smiles, or some kind of cultural affinity. But words take us beyond the here and now. When I attend a festival, like the one in Tanta, I’m so grateful when somebody translates for me and allows me to connect with people with whom I would otherwise not be able to connect in any deep way.
Translating between borders, translating languages, cultures, emotions requires language translation. The more languages we speak, the more we can connect on a human level. Translation today is more crucial than ever.
Adrian Grima (Malta,1968) is a prizewinning author of collections of poetry and short stories in Maltese. He has read his poetry in many countries in the Mediterranean and Europe, but also in Australia, Nicaragua, Bali and Makassar in Indonesia, and India. Anthologies of his poetry in translation have appeared in Arabic, English, German, Italian and French. Adrian Grima teachesMaltese literature and representations of the Mediterranean at the University of Malta. Last-ditch Ecstasy is a translation by Albert Gatt of his most recent collection of poems in Maltese, Klin u Kapriċċi Oħra (KKM 2015). and has appeared in Malta (Midsea) and Mumbai (Poetrywala).
Adrian Grima, Tanta, Egypt, 29 October 2017