Afterbabbel: A Rug of a Thousand Colours

Article published on July 8, 2014
Article published on July 8, 2014

Trans­la­tion gives you two poems in­stead of one. What could be bet­ter? Twice as many op­por­tu­ni­ties for pos­si­ble 'ah's and 'oooh's as well as scrunch­ing of the nose. Wel­come to 'Af­terbabbel', chris­tened after the final chap­ter’s title in David Bello's splen­did book on trans­la­tion Is that a Fish in Your Ear.

Be­cause we love what po­etry does, as well as what hap­pens in trans­la­tion, Af­terbabbel takes the form of re­views in di­a­logue. First we read the book, a col­lec­tion of po­etry from any­where in the world, trans­lated into Eng­lish, then we meet over a cup of cof­fee, some­times over Skype, al­ways in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. Then we babbel.

Book: A Rug of a Thou­sand Colours by Tessa Rans­ford and Iyad Hay­atleh

Trans­la­tor: Err, Iyad Hay­atleh and Tessa Rans­ford...

The gist of it: A Scot­tish poet and a Palesti­nain poet now liv­ing in Scot­land write poems based on the five pil­lars on Islam and trans­late each other's work into their own lan­guage.

A favourite quote: 'Cleanse my soul for thirty days with the beauty of forbearance/and let me reach the day of Eid/a new person, with a new dress.'

Dis­cussed: over skype, in Ed­in­burgh (UK) and Göttin­gen (Ger­many)

Annie: What do you think is the ef­fect of hav­ing every­thing in both lan­guages? Not just the poems but the in­tro­duc­tion, pro­logue and essay at the end of the book?

Jess: Well it all comes down to the ques­tion, can you read both lan­guages? As nei­ther of us is able to do that, you know from the out­set that you are going to be al­most shut out from half of the book. You have to be con­stantly aware that here are things you will miss. I like how, even though it is pub­lished by Luath in Scot­land, it’s not just the poems that are trans­lated and the rest is in Eng­lish, but that every piece of text has two ver­sions. It’s very de­mo­c­ra­tic, in a sense.

A: I re­ally like that too. Tessa Rans­ford told me that in a way it was an ab­solute night­mare to pro­duce, as every­thing had to be writ­ten and proof­read in Eng­lish as well as Ara­bic. Also, Ara­bic books are nor­mally read in the op­po­site di­rec­tion  (back to front), so it’s in­ter­est­ing that al­though the lan­guages are on equal foot­ing, you are still im­pos­ing, in a sense, one for­mat for the book.

J: That is a re­ally good point, and one that is easy to for­get as an Eng­lish-speak­ing reader, that it’s not just the words you are blind to, but a whole struc­ture of read­ing.

A: I’m try­ing to re­mem­ber this my­self, but how did you read the book?

J: I read it from cover to cover, I think.

A: Re­ally? I read one poet at a time, maybe be­cause at first I found my­self iden­ti­fy­ing more with Tessa Rans­ford’s poems.

J: I have a ques­tion for you, what did you make of the fact that, after all, this is not a lev­elled, mu­tual trans­la­tion?

A: Oh you mean be­cause Tessa Rans­ford doesn’t read Ara­bic? I don’t know, and I thought it was so in­ter­est­ing! She writes so much about the book being a di­a­logue in the in­tro­duc­tion, and it made me think of how this is much more com­mon than we think. Poets meet up and trans­late each other’s work to­gether, or poet and trans­la­tor sit down and trans­late some­thing. And I think I like that de­spite the fact that Tessa Rans­ford can’t speak Ara­bic, they still did this as a pro­ject and it didn’t be­come crip­pling. I do, on the other hand, find this ‘trans­la­tion’, when you don’t speak the lan­guage you are trans­lat­ing from, a lit­tle bit odd.

J: Prob­lem­atic, I would say. If any­thing, I would have wished for that to be more overtly ac­knowl­edged. It is won­der­ful that it is a di­a­logue and that that’s the in­ten­tion, but the fact re­mains that one per­son does not speak the other’s lan­guage, and it would have been even more in­ter­est­ing if that had been re­flected upon more, al­most mak­ing it a part of the col­lec­tion. I think that would be my main cri­tique ac­tu­ally.

A: It’s funny, be­cause it means that Hay­atleh’s poems were trans­lated twice, once by him into Eng­lish, and then by Rans­ford work­ing on the style. I know var­i­ous pro­jects where this is being done. In a way it’s al­most sad be­cause ob­vi­ously not every­one speaks Syr­ian or Ara­bic, but you do have all these Syr­ian poets who do speak Eng­lish and are will­ing to take part in the trans­la­tion of their poems. Is that al­ways going to be un­equal?

J: The prob­lem that it brings up for me is that this kind of process, to some ex­tent, turns down the need for Eng­lish speak­ers to learn other lan­guages. This has al­ways been the great thing about trans­la­tors, that they are the peo­ple who know both; they are the ves­sels, as it were. This doesn’t hap­pen here, and there is an el­e­ment of that which I’m slightly un­com­fort­able with, be­cause in prac­ti­cal terms, that means that there is one less rea­son for peo­ple to learn other lan­guages than Eng­lish. I do very much ad­mire the ef­fort be­hind it, though, and the am­bi­tion to cre­ate the work in spite of these lin­guis­tic ob­sta­cles.

A: A re­ally lovely, al­beit odd, thing would be if poets trans­lat­ing other poets in this way came into learn­ing the lan­guage in the end.

J: You could argue that poets who trans­late oth­ers with­out know­ing the lan­guage do it on the merit of being poets. That is their lan­guage and ex­per­tise, the po­et­i­cal con­text of po­etry in Eng­lish which they bring to the table. It makes the skill of po­etry it­self valid, but it shouldn’t over­shadow, I think, the lin­guis­tic skills of trans­lat­ing.

A: I think some of the poets I most ad­mire are those who are both amaz­ing poets and also trans­la­tors. The Ger­man poet Jan Wag­ner, for ex­am­ple, has trans­lated poets such as Simon Ar­mitage and he says that the trans­la­tion en­riches his own po­etry, be­cause he is forced to think very care­fully about why he chooses a par­tic­u­lar image.

J: That would be the ideal case, wouldn’t it?

A: What were the dif­fer­ences be­tween the two poets and cul­tures that you picked up on?

J: That is so dif­fi­cult. One of the things I not­ed­no­ticed was this idea of po­etry ver­sus prayer. Many of Hay­atleh’s poems felt to me a lot more like prayer. Rans­ford’s poems, even though they deal with spir­i­tual is­sues, felt more like what I am used to read­ing as po­etry. I think it has to do with the form of ad­dress and the role of the ‘I’.

A: I in­ter­viewed John Burn­side once and he said he loved read­ing po­etry in Ital­ian be­cause they can talk about the soul and you can’t do that in po­etry in Eng­lish. Tessa writes in the in­tro­duc­tion that she made some of Hay­atleh’s poems less flow­ery. Maybe it is to do with that; in con­tem­po­rary Eng­lish po­etry there isn’t the close link to mat­ters of re­li­gion.

J: I guess it’s to do with how sec­u­lar a so­ci­ety is at a par­tic­u­lar point in time as well.

A: What I found with Hay­atleh’s’s poems was that they were less de­fined by re­li­gion and more by his exile.

J: Ab­solutely! And I think that is where they find com­mon ground, the works of both poems, in talk­ing about what home means. It’s like a low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor. One of my favourite poems in the col­lec­tion is the one about Pil­grim­age by Tessa Rans­ford.

A: Do you think that it mat­ters not know­ing the ref­er­ences in Hay­atleh’s poems?

J: I feel like if there is some­thing that jars me and I need to look it up I will.

A: There is a com­mu­nity that will be able to read both, though, and have both sets of codes.

J: It re­minds me of lis­ten­ing to the Amer­i­can au­thor Junot Diaz talk­ing about his novel The Brief Won­drous life of Oscar Wao at an event once. He was very con­scious of how dif­fer­ent the same book would be to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. His grand­mother from the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic would com­pletely re­late to the Span­ish words and the po­lit­i­cal his­tory, whereas a twelve-year old sci­ence fic­tion geek would be en­tirely in the know when it came to those sec­tions of the book. I love that.

A: With A Rug of a Thou­sand Colours, just like with Diaz’s book, you be­come aware of it, don’t you? That this is ac­tu­ally the case with most books. The ef­fects of cul­tural codes are so in­tri­cate that one book will never be the same read for two read­ers.​