Translation, A Reciprocal Process [Interview with Kareem James Abu-Zeid on "Nothing More to Lose" by Najwan Darwish]

It’s always interesting to read a translator’s commentary on his or her translation process. For me personally, hearing how other translators think and work only adds to my personal work and experience, alternately showing me approaches or tactics that don’t work for me and showing me approaches and tactics that I’m not alone in using or obsessing over. The below interview between Liz Kelley and translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid came to us in lieu of a review, as Liz and Kareem are friends as well as colleagues in the world of Arabic literature. I won’t write too much more so as not to steal any thunder from Liz’s own intro to the interview, but one of my favorite parts is Kareem’s thoughts regarding “faithfulness to a text“—which, I might add, are backed up by the thoughts and reactions of the author, Najwan Darwish, himself.

The interview also includes a few poems from the collection—all translated by Abu-Zeid—for your reading intrigue. And if you like what you see, make sure to pick up the entire collection here.

Translation, A Reciprocal Process

Earlier this month I spoke to Kareem James Abu-Zeid, the translator of Nothing More to Lose, a collection of poems by Najwan Darwish published in the New York Review Books poetry series. Darwish is a celebrated and well-renowned poet whose poems have been translated into at least fifteen languages. Trained as a lawyer, Darwish has also worked as an editor, cultural critic, and has been active in arts organizations in Palestine and the Arab world. In addition to translating this book of poetry by Darwish, Abu-Zeid has translated several novels from Arabic, by authors such as Rabee Jaber and Tayel Eltayeb, as well as a poetry collection by Dunya Mikhail.

During our conversation, Kareem shared with me his translation process, which was quite collaborative with the poet. He discussed his implicit rule for translating (“If it sounds translated, I’ve done it wrong”), the way that the back-and-forth of the translation process was productive and beneficial not only for the English poems but even, in some cases, for the Arabic, and why he finds translating poetry more fun than translating prose. We discussed the mechanics of selecting poems and the puzzle of organizing them into a cohesive collection. The book takes its name from its first poem, which is not only beautifully translated here, but also encapsulates the nuance and complexity of the collection as a whole.

Nothing More to Lose

Lay your head on my chest and listen
to the layers of ruins
behind the madrasah of Saladin
hear the houses sliced open
in the village of Lifta
hear the wrecked mill, the lessons and reading
on the mosque’s ground floor
hear the balcony lights
go out for the very last time
on the heights of Wadi Salib
hear the crowds drag their feet
and hear them returning
hear the bodies as they’re thrown, listen
to their breathing on the bed
of the Sea of Galilee
listen like a fish
in a lake guarded by an angel
hear the tales of the villagers, embroidered
like kaffiyehs in the poems
hear the singers growing old
hear their ageless voices
hear the women of Nazareth
as they cross the meadow
hear the camel driver
who never stops tormenting me
Hear it
and let us, together, remember
then let us, together forget
all that we have heard

Lay your head on my chest:
I’m listening to the dirt
I’m listening to the grass
as it splits through my skin . . .

We lost our heads in love
and have nothing more to lose

Liz Kelley: I’ve heard you say that the translation process with Najwan Darwish was collaborative. Could you describe the translation process for these poems? How involved was he?

Kareem Abu-Zeid: What I usually start with, and I think a lot of translators do this, is trying to understand everything going on in the poem, to get the bare meaning on the page.
That obviously involves asking Najwan a lot of questions, depending on the poem; sometimes it’s very straightforward. But then, once that first step has been taken, once I feel like I know everything going on in the poem—it doesn’t mean I actually do—but once I have the impression that I do, I will try to create a poem in English out of it.

In that first stage, I as the translator often go quite free, in order to make it as poetic as possible in English. My main rule in translating, that really, in some ways trumps all other rules, is that if it sounds like it was translated, I’ve done it wrong.

I think that’s a big problem especially with Arabic, a lot of the stuff sounds translated, and you can tell that the translators are sticking to the word order in the Arabic, the way the expressions are formed in Arabic, even grammatical constructions that don’t work the same way in English.

So I’d produce a text that was often quite free, then I’d send it back to Najwan, and that would usually begin a bit of a back and forth. Maybe he’d ask me: “Why did you translate this like this?” or he’d say: “This is too free” or “Actually, this isn’t what I meant to say here, you’ve gotten this wrong.” Through that back and forth, eventually we’d come to something we were both really happy with.

I’m lucky with Najwan in that he’s done some translating himself, and for him the main thing is not mirroring every word of the Arabic in English. For him, the main concern is for it to be poetry in English. If that means that a little bit of the literal meaning of the Arabic is sacrificed, then that’s what happens.

Also, I think his poetry allows for a certain freedom within the translation, which is really nice. There’s a lot of room for it. There are some poets who are bit more direct. With Najwan, his poetry lent itself quite well to that type of process.

LK: Do you have any examples of what that process, the back and forth, looks like? Any particular poems from this collection?

KAZ: This is hard because it gets into the nitty-gritty stuff of language. What tends to happen in the back and forth is that my translation winds up getting closer to the Arabic, usually.

One other thing, with regard to collaboration: Najwan usually doesn’t publish his poems in books in Arabic. He’s had a couple books come out, but he often publishes in magazines, journals and stuff, and a lot of the poems that made it into this book were fairly recent ones. One of the cool things about translating him is that I feel like his poetry seems to get better over time. Some of his poems from 10 or 15 years ago, when he was just starting to write, were a bit more direct, and even a bit angrier. The newer ones, I find to be much more powerful and more interesting.

I was translating texts that he hadn’t really published yet in Arabic even. Or if he had it was in journals, not in book form. One tends to think of the poem as fixed when it is in a book. Occasionally, through our work, he would change the Arabic. It didn’t happen all that often, but it happened in a few instances, where the Arabic would be changed slightly after the back and forth about the English translation. So that was kind of neat to see that, too.

In that respect, there is a lack of editing that happens in the Arabic speaking world. It’s much more pronounced with novels, you get a lot of novels that have this potential to be something amazing, and they turn into something mediocre or good, but not amazing, because no editor in the English sense of the word has been there to say: this part is weak, cut this 40 pages, etc., etc.

That’s been good in that with some of the poems, the translation process almost worked as an editing process as well. That was with a few of them, not too many. It was satisfying to me because I see, much more with novels than with poetry, I see the great potential that has been wasted. Even with some of the best novelists of the Arabic-speaking world, I think if they had an editor go through this, someone who does this professionally, you could have had something amazing. You could really be at 100% in terms of quality—whatever that means—and instead you’re left with 70%.

LK: I find that process to be super fascinating, for translation to be a reflective reading process, to provide that growth for the original and translation. Could you say a few more words about that?

KAZ: Najwan, of all the Arab writers I’ve translated, is the one least in need of an editor, he knows how to do it himself, because he’s an editor himself. With him, much less so than any of the other projects I’ve worked on, he doesn’t actually need it. But, what’s great is that because he’s an editor, he’s open to it if something comes up. He’ll even give me a text, and say, “I’m not sure about this one,” or “I’m not sure this one really works.” Occasionally, you have the texts that work great in Arabic, and I can’t get them to go in English.

Since this was a selected poems collection, there was an advantage there in that I could let go of those texts. They didn’t have to go in the book if they didn’t work.

LK: Could you tell me a bit more about the genesis of this collection? How did you choose the poems?

KAZ: I’d been translating Najwan’s stuff for several years: first for a poetry festival in San Francisco, then for a literary festival in Holland, just here and there, then for a couple journals once we had a relationship. Then, I read some of the poems at a literary translator’s residency in Banff where we did a couple of informal reading nights. I wasn’t working on this project there; I was working on a novel by Rabee Jaber. But, we did a few informal reading nights where we were supposed to read whatever we wanted, not necessarily what we were working on there. And I read some poems of Najwan’s that I had translated. One of the editors of NYRB (Jeffrey Yang) was there, because he’s also a poet and some of his poetry was being translated into German. So he was there and he said, “We’ve got this poetry series that we’re doing, I think this would be good for the series.” I was excited about that prospect because I am trying not to translate, or translate less, for specialized presses that work just on Arabic.

NYRB have only had a few books come out with this series, major European poets, an Indian poet, all in translation and very high quality. I think the last one that came out before Najwan’s was by Pierre Riverdy, and it was a big collection of poems by him. So that’s where the idea for a selected poems collection came out. Even though the book is not called “Selected Poems,” that’s what it is. Many books in the series are selected poems and don’t have a title, just the name of the poet. We decided to give this one a title because we thought “Nothing more to lose” kind of encapsulated the collection. That was actually a poem that Najwan wrote after much of the book was done, and then that one came and we were like “Oh, we have a title for the book now.”

LK: Tell me a bit more about “Nothing More to Lose”? Was it a new poem? How did you choose it as the title?

KAZ: It’s funny because I think sometimes Najwan doesn’t even know which of his poems are stronger and weaker. As soon as I read it, I knew it would be very close to the beginning of the book, if not the first poem. And then we wound up making it the title poem! When Najwan and I talked about having a title for the book—did we even want a title for the book?— “Nothing More to Lose” was the only one that really stuck. We threw a couple things out, but there wasn’t really even another candidate. It was either that or there wasn’t going to be a title for the book.

That was one of my favorites, because with “Nothing More to Lose,” you think it’s a collection all about loss, which makes sense in the Palestinian context, and that’s true. But then when you actually read that poem, the end is very different and it’s a little big ambiguous. The end is this, almost a moment of love. So that was another reason I liked that as the title poem, because you think it’s going to be one thing and then when you actually read the poem, it’s more complex than that. . . .

I have to say, it was fun. I’d never done a selected poems collection before. Getting to order the poems was fun. It was something I’d never done before. How do you order poems in a collection? What makes sense? What doesn’t?

LK: Was this a conversation you had with Najwan?

KAZ: The ordering of them? No, Najwan, chimed in after I had established the order, and then I shifted a few things around. I guess it was a conversation I had with him, but only after I had come up with a preliminary order. Then we did this back and forth thing that was almost like working on a translation.

I tried to vary it up. It was actually kind of fun: the whole book was printed out, and I laid them out on the floor of my house. I could see all the poems together, and kept shuffling them around. It was kind of like a puzzle. I tried to keep it varied. And I wanted to frontload, at least the first 15-20 pages to be what I considered the strongest in the collection. And then of course you want to end with a very strong poem, and that sort of stuff. There are certain themes and motifs that recur. I almost categorized the poems according to those themes, and then for the most part made sure I didn’t have five poems right after another all dealing with, for instance, the Christ image. Or some of his earlier poems are more about resistance in a literal, military sense, and I didn’t want all of those to be together, either. It didn’t really make sense doing it chronologically, because I thought most of his stronger poems were more recent ones, from 2007/2008 on. I didn’t want all the prose poems together either. There’re a few prose poems in that book, and some of them are quite long. It was just kind of keeping the variety in there.

LK: You mentioned that in some cases, the back and forth resulted in a change to the Arabic? Can you give an example of that?

KAZ: In the first poem, there was something that we changed in the second to last stanza, “Lay your head on my chest” was the same “I’m listening to the dirt / I’m listening to the grass / as it splits through my skin” I don’t remember exactly what it was in the Arabic, but I know those two lines changed. All the changes were minor. It wasn’t like rewriting the whole poem; but that image was slightly better or slightly more powerful this way. There was grass involved, but it wasn’t splitting through the skin, it was doing something else. But it was interesting because when I translated, that was the image I saw, grass coming up through this corpse, so I put it there. It was an unintentional effect of the Arabic, and then Najwan decided to make the unintentional effect slightly more intentional. I kind of saw the potential in the Arabic and brought it out in the English, and he said “Oh, ok, that wasn’t quite what I meant, but let’s keep that” and then he made some slight modification to bring out that part of the image a bit more clearly. So in a way it might have been a misreading of the Arabic.

LK: But a rich and rewarding misreading! . . . Are there poems that you’re particularly proud of? That you think were particularly strong, or particularly clever, fun to translate?

KAZ: I front-loaded the ones that were my favorites, for the most parts, some are scattered around the rest of the book. The first 15 or 20 were my favorites. I really love “Jerusalem II,” it begins: “When I leave you I turn to stone, /and when I come back to you I turn to stone.” I really liked that a lot. I’m proud of that one because it stayed fairly close to the Arabic, and more than many of my other translations, there was a very clear rhythm in the Arabic and I captured a very close equivalent to that rhythm in the English. And that doesn’t often happen in English. The Arabic was almost iambic at times, and I was able to keep that. The lines in that one—usually I’ll gravitate toward shorter lines—but in that one I kept the longer lines.

It kind of went against many of the things I usually do when translating, such as shorten lines. But Arabic is a very compact language, in many ways, and English will most of the time need more words. This means that the English translations very often have more lines than the Arabic. With Najwan, that’s not always the case, but it is often the case. With other poets even more so. . . .

I have to say I was also really happy with the first one, “Nothing More to Lose,” partly because you don’t really need the notes. Obviously there are notes in the back that explain specific references, so in that one there’s Wadi Salib, there’s madrasah of Saladin, there’s the village of Lifta, which are all very specific references. The village of Lifta is a weird case where a whole village was, for whatever reason, left standing. They didn’t raze it. And yet nobody can live there. It’s a very, very specific reference that for a Palestinian has a very clear resonance, it might be the only example of something like that happening in the Arab world. And then you have Wadi Salib, where you have a similar thing; it’s a neighborhood in Haifa, where again the Israelis for whatever reason didn’t destroy these houses, they cemented them shut. So you have these weird cement boxes just standing there, almost as a memorial.

There’re notes in the back about all this, but what I liked about “Nothing More to Lose,” is that I think it still works in English even without those references. The context of the poem tells you about those even if you don’t see the notes. And that’s rare where you don’t need the references. You don’t trip over it in English. So I was really happy with that one because that’s one of the really hard things about Najwan’s book in particular is that there’s a lot of very specific references, and that’s why we put the notes in the back. And yet I think even the references that are specific to Arab culture, those poems still work without the reader necessarily knowing what that reference is. All of those cases made me happy, but I think it worked particularly well with the title poem.

LK: Its interesting to hear you talk about “Jerusalem II,” that one of the things that’s strong and successful about it is that it sticks close to the Arabic and recaptures the rhythm of the Arabic and the number of lines is at parity with the English. But your earlier comments were about a “freer” or looser translation style about sounding poetic in English.

KAZ: I don’t want to go free, but usually, literal translation sounds really, really bad. The last two months, in my work as I freelance editor, I’ve done two projects where I’ve edited a translation that someone has done from the Arabic, but the whole thing, I’m not even really looking at the Arabic, it’s just turning a very literal translation into something that reads a bit better in English. It’s very rare that you can stick that close and keep it sounding poetic and fluid and not sound like a translated text, where you don’t get the sense that “oh, this doesn’t sound quite right.” There’s a lot of that, in my opinion, in Arabic novels translated into English, and a lot of the poetry. The few big anthologies that have come out, they’re great for academics, they mirror the Arabic lines, but they don’t read poetically. But they’re at university presses. In my opinion, most of them are not poetry in English. The academic project is wonderful and great, but if that’s how we translate Arabic into English, then the only people who are going to read these translations are people who are already interested in the Arabic-speaking world, or are academics. I’m trying to break that mold a little bit as a translator, in whatever way I can.

It’s a disservice to the original poetry. People are trying to stay close and be faithful, but I think you end up with these unreadable, or very flat translations that aren’t poetic, where the Arabic was poetic. Poetry is a set of effects, in addition to meaning. It irks me a lot when I see these amazing poets who just get flattened out in English, and it’s usually by accident. It comes from a good place, that’s the thing. The desire is to be faithful to the text, to keep the line breaks the same. But the conventions are totally different in Arabic poetry and English, even in the modern era, so you can’t do that. I don’t think it is possible to keep it the same and have it be an accurate translation.

LK: How do you deal with rhythm and meter?

KAZ: As close as I can keep it to the Arabic, I do. But the problem is you often can’t. This [Jerusalem II] was a very rhythmic poem by Najwan. Not all of his poems have that rhythm. In terms of rhythm, there’s almost a set meter in this one, which he usually doesn’t do. . . . In general in translation, rhythm is one of the hardest things to carry over. When you do carry it over, it’s usually not the same rhythm that was in the original. It usually can’t be because meter works very differently in Arabic than in English.

But “Jerusalem II,” reading it out loud, that one in particular works. It was lucky because it was one of the earlier poems I translated by him, and I had a chance to read it at a few different places in English and Arabic. That process helped me tweak the translation for the book. Reading it out loud in Arabic and then in English and really helped. That’s not all that often the case, when I think about some of the other poems. That’s a poem that, more than others, is meant to be read out loud, rather than a text to be read. Maybe that’s why the cadence was so important there. All poetry is written to be read out loud, but there’s a difference between “Jerusalem II,” and then say, there’s a short poem called “In praise of the Family.” You don’t need to read that one aloud. Whereas some of them, you do. I think also, that one has a lot of repetition, and the repetition, the sonority is very powerful when it’s read out loud.

LK: I really enjoyed reading the collection, and it has been wonderful hearing about the process of translating and putting together this collection. Any last thoughts?

KAZ: I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, so far. When I started translating Arabic literature, it was with poetry. I switched to prose and this reminded me how fun it is to do poetry. Especially since I have no real professional reason to translate. Doing novels isn’t paying the bills; it’s something I just do for the joy of it. But this, I think I’ll do more poetry now. This was a fun one to translate, where I really loved to translate it. It’s more fun to translate poetry than prose.

LK: Why is that? Why is it more fun to translate poetry?

KAZ: You can be a bit freer—no, why is it more fun to translate? I feel like with poetry you can . . . I spend longer on each word. I spend a lot more time per word on poetry than in a novel. You can’t pore over a novel in quite the same way you can with a book of poetry. And I do feel that translating poetry, there’s a little bit more room for “freedom” in the translation process. The emphasis is at least as much on sound and rhythm as it is on meaning. It’s not that that isn’t there in novels, but the balance of power is a little bit more on meaning in a novel. Very concrete and specific things are happening and those things need to be conveyed, relatively accurately, so that the reader isn’t confused, or else the novel is no longer effective. It’s more just about that balance of where the energy is going.

Jerusalem (II)

When I leave you I turn to stone
and when I come back I turn to stone

I name you Medusa
I name you the older sister of Sodom and Gomorrah
you the baptismal basin that burned Rome

The murdered hum their poems on the hills
and the rebels reproach the tellers of their stories
while I leave the sea behind and come back
to you, come back
by this small river that flows in your despair

I hear the reciters of the Quran and the shrouders of corpses
I hear the dust of the condolers
I am not yet thirty, but you buried me, time and again
and each time, for your sake
I emerge from the earth
So let those who sing your praises go to hell
those who sell souvenirs of your pain
all those who are standing with me, now, in the picture

I name you Medusa
I name you the older sister of Sodom and Gomorrah
you the baptismal basin that still burns

When I leave you I turn to stone
When I come back I turn to stone

Sleeping in Gaza

Fado, I’ll sleep like people do
when shells are falling
and the sky is torn like living flesh
I’ll dream, then, like people do
when shells are falling:
I’ll dream of betrayals

I’ll wake at noon and ask the radio
the questions people ask of it:
Is the shelling over?
How many were killed?

But my tragedy, Fado,
is that there are two types of people:
those who cast their suffering and sins into the streets so they can sleep
and those who collect the people’s suffering and sins
mold them into crosses, and parade them
through the streets of Babylon and Gaza and Beirut
all the while crying
Are there any more to come?
Are there any more to come?

Two years ago I walked through the streets
of Dahieh, in southern Beirut
and dragged a cross
as large as the wrecked buildings
But who today will lift a cross
from the back of a weary man in Jerusalem?

The earth is three nails
and mercy a hammer:
Strike, Lord
Strike with the planes

Are there any more to come?

December 2008


Liz Kelley has a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California Berkeley, with a concentration in linguistic anthropology and translation studies. Her interest and studies specialize in Arabic literatures.



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