From Arabic to Hebrew and Hebrew to Arabic: Poetry Translation as a Microcosm of How the World Ought to Work

Series 3 No.9 - Palestine

Where language groups exist uneasily side by side, translating poetry leads to better understanding, the dispelling of misunderstandings and a justified sense of mutual accomplishment.

It is a fact rarely acknowledged that 20 per cent of Israel’s citizens are Palestinian Arabs. This applies both inside Israel and in international cultural and political circles – Arab, Jewish and neither.

One rare acknowledgement came in the years 2001 to 2005. The Helicon Society for the Advancement of Poetry in Israel held joint residential Arabic-Hebrew workshops for poets at the outset of their careers once a month over a period of six months with about sixteen participants in each group, selected on the basis of merit from hundreds of applicants. Among the topics addressed each weekend were principles of poetry translation, with exercises mostly in the translation of English poetry into both languages and collaborative inter-translation – the translation of the participants' works from Arabic into Hebrew and from Hebrew into Arabic.

It has long been evident why it is good for any poet to translate poems from other languages:

Translation is good reading followed by good writing.

The first stage in translating a poem – careful reading – means identifying and understanding the discrete elements of a poem and comprehending how they all work together. This is excellent practice for identifying issues in one’s own work, yet devoid of all the ego problems and blind spots one encounters as a novice in criticizing and polishing one’s own work. As Frank MacShane, who pioneered the literary translation seminar at Columbia University, put it, ‘translation may be useful to a writer in developing his own literary skills. He can concentrate on problems of expression without becoming emotionally involved in the work's structural and thematic problems, since in one way or another, they have already been solved by the author of the original.’

Anyone who has ever translated a poem knows that it is nearly impossible to reproduce the whole of the original in the target language, and anyone who has ever written a poem knows that you can't get every aspect of the trigger experience or insight into the poem and you need to choose those elements that are most important, striking and effective. Anyone who works with beginning writers is aware of the difficulty of persuading them to leave anything out. Translation teaches discipline, pruning, the justification of choices and letting go, even of things that are held dear.

Translating in a group, particularly a culturally mixed group, is also excellent for developing the ability to formulate and accept constructive criticism and to seek agreed solutions to problems. If only these lessons could be learned in political contexts too.

The second stage in a translation is writing the poem in the target language. Here, the issue of responsible choice is foregrounded:

Translation calls attention to the mechanics of the target language – the writer's own language – and to assumptions of both the source and the target cultures.

An English-speaker, unless called upon to do so in a classroom situation, will not pause to consider the difference between ‘I was walking’ and ‘I walked’ but will simply make the right choice in his speech or writing. However, confronted with the necessity of translating, for example, an English sentence like ‘Marc Antony was walking down Fifth Avenue when Bob Dylan walked right past him’, a Hebrew-speaker will have to deal with the fact that the verb in his language does not make a distinction between a completed action in the past – walked – and a continuous action in the past – was walking. The translator might therefore have to add elements to the sentence to make the narrative situation clear, and might also pause to consider the greater implications inherent in the grammar of English, and absent in the grammar of the Hebrew, of the possibility of expressing the slicing of the past in more than one way – which is not a minor issue at all in the politics of the country we share.

Another sort of problem is encapsulated in ‘Fifth Avenue’. I could easily translate the word for ‘fifth’ and the word for ‘avenue’ into Hebrew, say – hashdera hahamishit – but by doing this, I will lose something of the universally-known glamour of that particular street in New York. Alternatively, I could transliterate the words ‘Fifth Avenue’ but then it would come out sounding awkwardly and provincially like feeft evenyu in Hebrew or fiffith awenyu in Arabic. Suddenly I realize that my language has fewer vowel sounds than English, and a rather different set of consonant sounds. I need to choose whether to translate or to transliterate the place name, and I also need to decide whether I will make it my invariable practice to follow the same rule for, say, the Champs Elysées and Unter den Linden, or decide on a case-by-case basis. Place names are particularly fraught. For example, I live in Jerusalem in English and Yerushalaiyim in Hebrew, but in Arabic is it Urshalim or Al Quds – which is far more laden with religious and cultural meanings? Or is it the clumsy Israel Broadcasting Authority Arabic service compromise: Urshalim al Quds?

Translation means reading other literatures, which leads to the enrichment of both individuals and cultures.

This is hardly an interesting observation. However, in a situation like the one that prevails between writers of Hebrew and writers of Arabic, it is exceedingly important, particularly for the writers of Hebrew who, unless they specialize in Arabic studies in secondary school and university, are not exposed at all to Arabic poetry or for that matter Muslim and Christian Scripture. By contrast, in the Arab-language schools in Israel, some modern Hebrew literature, as well as Old Testament and Talmud are taught. This asymmetry in knowledge was a source of dismay to the Hebrew-speakers and a source of ironic pride to the Arabic speakers.

Reading poetry in the other’s language also draws attention to what is universal. One writer of Hebrew, a business administration student, told a reporter about his experience working on the translation of a poem of his couched as a letter from a mother on the anniversary of her son’s death: ‘For Jews, most of the bereavement for mothers is a result of the encounter with Arabs. There I was sitting with an Arab woman, translating the poem. I felt that my context was foreign to her, but the feelings I expressed were universal. Politically, you can be on either side, but every mother loves her boy.’ An Arab lawyer and poet from the northern town of Tira commented: ‘Translation is no simple matter. It is like creating something anew. It involves a kind of intimacy with the poet. You get to know him, enter his private places and emotions, and come to an understanding of how he sees things.’

Translation in a group teaches that translators, like poets, have individual voices and that there is more than one good solution to every problem.

Israel’s Hebrew-speaking population is for the most part a population of immigrants and children of immigrants. This accounts in part for the fact that literary translation has always been a part of the culture; the comparison of translations is almost a national pastime. In training writers, seeing and hearing a number of translations enables the hearing of distinct voices. It is impossible to have everyone write the same poem, but it is possible to have everyone translate the same poem. This makes it possible to clarify the understanding of each poet-translator's unique translating voice, which, as we have found is very like his or her own unique poetic voice. Learning to translate is learning to listen to others and to ourselves.

Where language groups exist uneasily side by side, translating poetry leads to better understanding, the dispelling of misunderstandings and a justified sense of mutual accomplishment.

Inter-translation worked like this: Since all of the writers of Arabic could read Hebrew but very few of the writers of Hebrew could read Arabic, the writers of Arabic were asked to make a transliteration into Hebrew or Latin letters of one of their poems, so that in addition to hearing it read aloud everyone could also ‘see’ what the poem sounds like – repetition, rhyme, alliteration and so on. Writers of both languages were asked to prepare a line-by-line ‘kit’, calling attention to intertextualities and customs that are culture-bound, for example: ‘We always serve only water and unsweetened black coffee to people who come to console mourners’; ‘This word tashlih literally means “something thrown” but it is ordinarily used only to refer to the custom of symbolically casting out one’s sins from one’s pockets into a body of water on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and the prayer that is said then.’

Pairs or small groups of speakers of the respective languages work together on a literal translation of the poem from one language to the other – Hebrew to Arabic or Arabic to Hebrew – all the while explaining and asking questions about the text. For example: ‘This is a reference to a verse in the Koran – let's look it up’; ‘In your language you have two different words for earning your own living and for making money to support your family. In our language, we use the same word for both. What can we do about that?’ Once this process is completed a speaker or a pair of speakers of the target language make a polished translation.

As a method of verification, someone who spoke both of the languages, but was not in the group that worked on the particular translation, took the translation and rendered it back into the source language – a practice that proved very illuminating and helpful in catching nuances and misunderstandings before the final polishing of the translation.

We always came out of the sessions with the feeling that this is the way the world ought to work. Perhaps this activity could also be developed in other places where language groups exist uneasily side-by-side, as for example within the expanded European Union along the German-Polish border or in the states of former Yugoslavia.

Vivian Eden

The system for inter-translation was developed over the years along with my colleagues, especially Helicon director Amir Or, based on methods used by Professor Daniel Weissbort at the Translation Workshop of the International Writers' Program and the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa, by Martin Mooij at Poetry International in Rotterdam and by Poetry Ireland, which has an extensive program of translation by poets. A more extensive description of the practice may be found (in German) in: Vivian Eden, ‘Über Sinn und Möglichkeiten der lyrischen Übersetzung in der Schreibschule’ in Schreiben lernen Schrieben lehren, Frankfurt am Main, 2006.

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