Interviews

Close Approximations: In Conversation With Poetry Runner-up Sarah Timmer Harvey

"I spent less time in my head or researching, and more time translating purely from instinct, from the body."

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its 3rd edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 editionAfter interviews with fiction winner Suchitra Ramachandran and fiction runners-up Brian Bergstrom and Clarissa Botsford, today we have poetry runner-up Sarah Timmer Harvey in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in New York, where she is completing her MFA in Writing and Translation at Columbia University. Her excerpted translation of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s poetry collection Kalfsvlies (Calf’s Caul) was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest. Poetry judge Sawako Nakayasu wrote, “The tumbling syntax of this poetry could not have been easy to translate, but it works so very well here—carrying the reader along the dark swerves of this youthful, yet not-so-innocent series of mini-narratives with a touch of the surreal.”

Claire Jacobson (CJ): I loved reading your translation of several of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s poems from her collection Kalfsvlies (Calf’s Caul). What was it that drew you to this text and motivated you to translate it?

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): I first became aware of Rijneveld’s work through Dutch literary magazines and blogs in 2015, when Kalfsvlies was first published in the Netherlands by Atlas Contact, who have a great reputation for attracting and fostering exceptional writers. Both readers and critics seemed completely bowled over by Kalfsvlies, something rather unusual in the Netherlands, given the genre and Rijneveld’s youth, but once I read the collection, I understood why everyone was raving. The first line of the first poem in Kalfsvlies (Calf’s Caul) reads “How do you go to bed when you have just run over a sheep?” Now, that is an opening! I found it so incredibly brutal and compelling. I read the entire collection in one sitting and then, the next day, I began translating, purely for the pleasure of it. A little while later, I contacted Marieke Lucas to discuss doing something with my translations.

To me, Rijneveld’s work feels quite rebellious—the narrative voice in Kalfsvlies is unfiltered and entirely unconcerned with establishing its authority. Rather, it is blatantly vulnerable and at times incredibly naïve considering the deeper themes at play: the death of a sibling, alcoholism, struggles with gender and sexuality, the confines of a rural upbringing. But Rijneveld’s youthful eye is also her strength, it draws the reader into a world that feels spontaneous, wildly intimate and full of unexpected wisdom. I can’t wait to read her debut novel, which will be published in the Netherlands (also by Atlas Contact) in October.

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When There’s No Wind, the Sounds of the Past are Audible Over the Danube

On opposite banks of the Danube in Hungary and Slovakia, separated peoples find a way to talk in many languages across the ancient river.

Today we profile a unique literary gathering, AquaPhone Festival, that takes place on both banks of the Danube. It not only features literature from Hungary and Slovakia but also acts as a cultural bridge between the nations that have been isolated from each other’s shared histories by totalitarian rule. It serves as a powerful symbol against the rising tide of xenophobia, as a conversation with Karol Frühauf reveals. 

it could be done by us just shouting
just talking to each other over the water
and not by me going over to you by boat
you going angling? I’d shout into the wind
and your voice would echo across the water
no! I’m going angling! oh, right! I’d shout
all right I thought you’re going angling

— From ‘Modalities of Crossing’ by Dániel Varró, translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood

From the southwestern part of the Danubian Hills, poetry drifts above the waves of the Danube. Lines of verse bounce from one side of the river to the other, hard on each other’s tails yet in accord, dissolving in the air.

lehetne az is hogy csak kiabálunk
hogy csak beszélgetünk a víz fölött
és nem megyek át hozzád ladikon
horgászni mész? kiáltanám a szélbe
és hangod visszaringna a vizen
nem! horgászni megyek! ja! kiabálnám
ja jól van azt hittem horgászni mész!

— From ‘az átkelés módozatai’ by Dániel Varró

Someone is reciting poetry. It takes a while for the words, carried by sound waves, to cross the river. This is how poetry behaves when a poem is recited aloud above a river. The author of this year’s poem, “Modalities of Crossing,” is the wonderful Hungarian poet and children’s writer, Dániel Varró.

dá sa aj tak že si len zakričíme
len si nad vodou pohovoríme
a neprejdem za tebou cez lávku
ideš na rybačku? volal by som do vetra
a tvoj hlas by sa na vode prihojdal
nie! idem na rybačku! aha! volal by som
aha dobre myslel som že na rybačku!

— From ‘možnosti prepravy’ by Dániel Varró, translated from the Hungarian into Slovak by Eva Andrejčáková

Varró’s poem is read out in several languages: first in Hungarian (the poet’s native tongue), then in Slovak, and finally in German. You have to wait patiently for the lines to reach you from the far shore before you can send your version back by the same route. The extraordinary dialogue is accompanied by live cello, saxophone, and clarinet. There is no wind, the June sunshine is reflected in the water, bathing the majestic domes of the basilica in the distance in its soft light. This is what the AquaPhone festival is like.

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Close Approximations: In Conversation With Fiction Runner-up, Clarissa Botsford

Claire Jacobson speaks to Clarissa Botsford about translating excerpts from an Elvira Dones novel from Italian to English.

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its third edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our interviews with Suchitra Ramachandran and Brian Bergstrom, we are thrilled to bring you fiction runner-up Clarissa Botsford in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Clarissa Botsford has worked in the fields of teaching, intercultural education, editing, translating, publishing and is also a singer, violinist, and independent celebrant. She currently teaches English and Translation Studies at Roma Tre University. Her translations include Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (And Other Stories, 2014), Valerio Magrelli’s Condominium of the Flesh (Free Verse Editions, 2015), and excerpts of Magrelli’s Geology of a Father (Comparative Critical Studies, 2017), which received a commendation at the John Dryden Translation Competition.

Ms. Botsford’s translation of excerpts from Elvira Dones’ novel Burnt Sun was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest, featured in the most recent issue. Fiction judge David Bellos wrote, “In a different class and genre, Burnt Sun by the distinguished Albanian émigrée writer and film-maker Elvira Dones delves into the inner worlds of her compatriots forced into prostitution and exile. Translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford, Dones’s second language, Burnt Sun is both documentary and fiction, a crafted story and a powerful exposé.”

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Close Approximations: In Conversation With Fiction Runner-up, Brian Bergstrom

The translator on the complex interplay of Japanese and "hegemonic" English, and how the relationship informs his translation.

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its 3rd edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our podcast interview with Suchitra Ramachandranwe are thrilled to bring you fiction runner-up Brian Bergstrom in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Brian Bergstrom is a lecturer in the East Asian Studies Department at McGill University in Montréal. His articles and translations have appeared in publications including Granta, Aperture, Mechademia, positions: asia critique, and Japan Forum. He is the editor and principal translator of We, the Children of Cats by Tomoyuki Hoshino (PM Press), which was longlisted for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.

His translation of “See” by Erika Kobayashi from the Japanese was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest. This is what fiction judge David Bellos had to say about it: “Erika Kobayashi’s ‘See’ earns its place as a runner up by imagining a world just like ours save for a craze for a pill called ‘See’ that induces temporary blindness. People take it so as to go out on blind dates and drives to the sea. Read on! The English of the translation by Brian Bergstrom seems to me flawless.”

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Meet the Curator: Joselia Aguiar on Charting the Path To the Peripheries of Literature

The curator of a venerated literary festival in Brazil on innovation, diversity, and the role of the overlooked minority in art and literature.

Flip is a literary fiesta celebrating art and the written word in Brazil. The festival takes over the streets, squares and buildings of the colonial town of Paraty in Rio de Janeiro from July 26 to 30 every year, and calls itself a “feast.” Since its inception in 2003, Flip has garnered accolades in Brazil’s literary circles while also being controversial for favoring mainstream intelligentsia and largely leaving out minorities. The festival’s name stands for Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty (Paraty International Literary Festival). 

The curator for the 2017 edition of Flip is journalist and academic Joselia Aguiar. Over the last twelve years, Aguiar’s work has focused on literature, the editorial market, and public policies for reading. She has served in the capacities of an editor, columnist, academic and workshop leader. Aguiar is also writing a biography of the Brazilian modernist writer Jorge Amado (1912—2001), focusing on the literary and political exchange between Amado and writers of Hispanic America.

Every year, Flip pays homage to a Brazilian literary figure. This year’s honoree, chosen by Aguiar, is Lima Barreto, the Afro-Brazilian writer and journalist, best known for his novella, The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma. Aguiar spoke about curating the festival with journalist and poet Jeanne Callegari in an exclusive interview for Asymptote.

—Maíra Mendes Galvão, Asymptote Editor-at-Large, Brazil.

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Meet the Publisher: Seagull Books and the Value of Independence

The idea of target readers out there is a myth: no one can know for certain what people will read.

In a globalized publishing landscape Seagull Books, based primarily in Kolkata, India, stands out as having uniquely made a mark as a world publisher. In its thirty-five years of existence, Seagull has primarily concentrated on publishing literature in translation with a particular emphasis, from its early years, on Indian theatre and cinema from different regional and linguistic backgrounds. Seagull has introduced Indian readers to the joys of literature from different world languages — writers such as the Nobel Prize winners Mo Yan, Imri Kertez, Ellfride Jellinek and the more recent Man Booker International Prize winner László Krasznahorkai. Operating with a small team to produce and design books distinguished by superior literary content and exquisite aesthetic appeal, each Seagull book is a collectible that is also reasonably priced for the Indian buyer. While Asymptote has previously covered Seagull books, Sneha Khaund caught up with Naveen Kishore, Seagull’s founder, to know more about how the publishing house continues to support translation and shape world literature. 

 Sneha Khaund (SK): Can you tell me a bit about how Seagull was conceived?

Naveen Kishore (NK): Overnight. Very specifically, the event that marks our “birth,” as it were, was a festival of grassroots theatre I produced in 1982. Around that time there were a lot of theatre groups working with original themes and using their bare bodies with no props or costumes. Their plays dealt with the human condition around them and the dailyness of survival. Working in a 40km radius around Calcutta, these groups were more interested in going into villages and the interiors of the state rather than trying to perform for an urban city audience. At this event I noticed someone in the front row of benches madly sketching the body movements of the performers. So I turned to a theatre scholar, Samik Banerjee, who was also at the time an editor at Oxford University Press, and I said what a pity there is no way to capture this moment. We were not familiar with words like documentation and there was no digital photography and so on at the time. It was Samik da who suggested that a specialist niche publisher focusing on the arts could be a good way of documenting these evolving movements not just in theatre but also in cinema and fine art. We already had a name! Seagull! So Seagull Books was waiting to happen. We decided to explore the possibility of a theatre publishing programme that would do theatre scripts from different Indian languages in translation and document the vibrant New Indian Cinema movement: Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Jabbar Patel, Goutam Ghosh, to name a few. We would not focus on anything but the performing and the visual arts. So after thirty-five years, in fact after the first twenty-six years—that’s how long it takes sometimes—all the s, a lot of the Tendulkars, a lot of the Mahaswetas, a lot of these plays have now become textbooks. Classics of Indian drama like Ghasiram Kotwal, Charandas Chor. The irony is that even after thirty five years because it’s not a great commercial thing there’s still no other dedicated theatre publisher. It just doesn’t pay enough. So that was the first lesson for a non-publishing person stepping overnight into publishing — that you have to build a back-list because that’s how publishers survive. You can’t produce one book, sell it, recover, then re-invest because the way a publishing chain works is that you are expected to keep producing the books. Regardless. No single book is a profit centre. Small numbers selling across a list of say 500 books is how the numbers begin to make sense. Sometimes there are spikes and you sell certain titles very well. These then support the ones that don’t sell that well! Who said it is easy?!

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Meet the Publisher: Phoneme Media’s David Shook on Translations from Underrepresented Languages

I do think we’re living in a very good time for publishing translations.

Phoneme Media is a nonprofit company that produces books in translation into English and literary films. Based in Los Angeles, the company was founded by Brian Hewes and David Shook in 2013, though it wasn’t until 2015 that the press began publishing on a seasonal calendar. To date, Phoneme Media has put out over twenty titles of fiction and poetry, and is particularly interested in publishing works from languages and places that don’t often appear in English. Many of their books are accompanied by short films that take on different formats, from video poems to book trailers, and have been shot around the world. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to David Shook over Skype about publishing translations from underrepresented languages and some of the titles he’s excited about.

Sarah Moses (SM): How did Phoneme Media start?

David Shook (DS): It came about basically because of my own work as a poet and translator. In my own travels—when I was working in community-based development, mostly in East Central Africa and Latin America—through relationships, through friendships with writers, in places like Burundi and Equatorial Guinea, and writers working in indigenous languages in southern Mexico, for example, I was just encountering all of these writers that I felt deserved to be read in English, that would contribute something important to our literary dialogue and that couldn’t find homes in terms of publishers here in the United States and in the UK, too, for a couple of reasons. The first being the lack of translators working in those languages and familiar with those regions, and the second was the fact that these books were somewhat outside the purview of even the publishers who specialized in translation—some great publishers. I think of Open Letter, for example, which has largely focused on literature from European languages, which I also think is incredibly important, but something like a book of poetry from Isthmus Zapotec, or the first translation from the Lingala—a novel we’re preparing to publish later this year would definitely be a bit outside their wheel house.

SM: How do you find translators for languages like the ones you’ve mentioned?

DS: Well I think our reputation is such that, despite having been around a comparatively short time, we’re often approached by translators working in more unusual languages. Our translation from the Uyghur, for example, by Jeffrey Yang, and the author is Ahmatjan Osman, who was exiled in Canada, was exactly that situation. Jeffrey brought the translation to us because he knew of our editorial interests. In other cases, like our book of Mongolian poetry, I was alerted to its existence because the translator won a PEN/Heim grant. And I do read widely, both in search of writers and of translators, who I think are important. For example, a place like Asymptote, which I read regularly with an eye toward acquisitions. I mean when we acquired, for example, this novel from the Lingala, the translation was a huge issue because there are very few, if any, literary translators from the Lingala, so I actually auditioned a few Congolese translators before finding this husband-and-wife team, Sara and Bienvenu Sene, who did a really great job. They’re really literary translators, whereas most of the translators I’d auditioned were technical translators or interpreters. And it’s pretty spectacular, considering I think English is their fourth language. I think a big part of my work is scouting out these translators and also encouraging a new generation of translators to go out into the world and find interesting books. I’m very proud that we’ve published many first-time translators on Phoneme Media.

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On The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite by Yemeni Novelist Mohammed “Al-Gharby” Amran Followed by an Interview with the Author

There is only one voice and it is the voice of violence.

The Yemeni literary scene is replete with examples of fiction that accompany the tragic events Yemen is going through, principally the war, on the one hand, and on the other the desire for social and political change. This phenomenon is clear in many Yemeni fictional works, including novels by Wejdi Al-Ahdal and Nadia Al-Kawkabani, as well as the short stories of Huda Al-Attas, Arwa ‘Abd Uthman, Saleh Ba Amer, and others. Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran in particular is among those who have touched the heart of real life in Yemen, and whose voice has reached the wider Arabic nation.

Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran’s most recent novel, The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite, was published by Dar As-Saqi in 2014. Prior to that, he had written two significant works, The Red Quran, published by Dar Riyadh Arreyis in 2010, and Yael or Yael’s Darkness.The former produced strong reactions, especially in Yemen, where the book was banned because of its bold ideas, and the latter received the Tayyeb Saleh Award in 2012. He has also written short story collections, including Bed Sheets[1] (1997), published in Damascus by The Union of Arab Authors, and Black Minaret, published in 2004 by The Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers.

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In Conversation: Carol Apollonio on Serving the Spirit of Communication in Translation

"We read translated literature to access a common humanity that transcends borders."

Carol Apollonio translated the first Dagestani novel available in English, The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva. Anglophone readers will find much to relate to in the novel’s premise—a rumor that the Russian government is building a wall between the Muslim provinces of the Caucasus and the rest of Russia. In this free-wheeling, clear-eyed interview with Hannah Weber, Apollonio takes an impassioned look at literatures in translation, and at the simplest yet most complex human propensity—the desire to read.

Hannah Weber (HW): You’re a scholar of Russian literature and translate works from both Russian and Japanese. What led to your interest in these particular languages?

Carol Apollonio (CA): Most of your life path is luck. I knew early on that learning languages came easy to me, so I kept on doing it. After French, it was quite a shock to realize that for Russian you didn’t just plug the words into grammar you already knew. You had to change everything around in your brain. Plus, all the words were different. Anyway, if you’re rebellious enough, you decide it’s worth putting in the effort. It helped that I’d studied some Latin early on.

So, why Russian? Here’s how a Cold War eighteen-year-old radical hippie thinks in 1973: “The Russians are our enemies; the only problem is that Americans don’t know Russian. I’ll learn Russian, become president of the USA, we’ll all learn to love one another, and that will solve the whole problem.” So, I went to college and studied Russian and politics. As it turned out, I was too impatient and tactless for politics. As for Russian, at that time basically there were three paths for Russian-language students: one, learn about the complicated grammar and crazy vocabulary—recoil, and turn to economics or psychology; two, learn the language, recoil from the politics, and go into national security; three, learn the language, love it, read the literature and have your head explode. I’m one of the survivors with the exploded heads. READ MORE…

An interview with Edil Hassan: Writing poetry rooted in migration, otherness and Somali heritage

When I write of those days now, there is something fuller and heavier

Edil Hassan is a poet of Somali background based in New England. Two of her poems appeared in Asymptote’s most recent issue in the feature on banned countries. Ms. Hassan graciously answered a few questions about her work and inspiration.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): Your poems are so grounded in deep family relationships and stories from the past. Can you talk about the inspiration for these poems? What drove you to write them?

Edil Hassan (EH): The Drought for a long time was only the last stanza. I had seen a picture of a capsized migrant boat in the Mediterranean on some news site—a new picture every week or month, never the same boat. It’s like those videos of Black girls and boys who are killed; I’m waiting to know the person behind the camera. I knew though that this poem was incomplete, and like all stories is layered. Migration comes with a loss of place, and mediating on family helps me track that disappearance.

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In Conversation: Lesley Saunders on translation, poetic collaboration and creating new writing with refugees

I think there’s a place opening up where poet-translators can have a kind of collective presence

Lesley Saunders has published several books of poetry, and a new collection Nominy Dominy is due out from Two Rivers Press next year. She has won several awards for her poetry, including the inaugural Manchester Poetry Prize, the Stephen Spender Award for poetry in translation and The Poetry Business 2016/17 International Book & Pamphlet Competition; she is currently working on a book of translations of selected poems by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Teresa Horta. Find our more about her work at www.lesleysaunders.org.uk

Theophilus Kwek (TK): Congratulations on winning the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation with your lovely translation of Poema by Maria Teresa Horta! In your commentary, you write about that striking central image of the poem—a ‘prowler-intruder’—which, as compared to Hughes’ ‘thought-fox’, is felt rather than seen. Did you face any challenges in rendering such a tactile ‘muse’ in a different language?

Lesley Saunders (LS): This is a really hard question! I’m very much guided, in my translation, by a text I’ve come across quite recently: James Underhill’s Voice and Versification in Translating Poems, which is wonderful – and which I first discovered by being asked to review it. I started reading the book more out of duty, then was completely captivated by how Underhill describes the difficult but not impossible challenge of translating poetry.

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In Conversation with Iranian-American poet and translator Kaveh Akbar

"How do you change everything about a poem and still preserve the essence of the thing?"

Kaveh Akbar is a recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida. His newest collection, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, is forthcoming from Alice James Books this fall. Earlier this year, Mr. Akbar was featured on PBS after tweeting poems from banned countries in response to President Trump’s infamous travel ban, and translated Negar Emrani’s poetry for Asymptote’s feature on banned countries in the Spring Issue. Claire Jacobson spoke to Mr. Akbar about the experience. 

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What are some of the limitations you found in translating between Farsi and English, in general or specific to poetry?

Kaveh Akbar (KA): I can speak to my own limitations as a translator—I don’t actually speak Farsi, not really, and so I rely on Negar’s patient explication of her own poems. She provides me with the trot, and then allows me to ask question after question after question about connotations and specific meanings and idioms. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s necessary to ensure a kind of fidelity.

CJ: How does working with the author change the way you approach the process (as opposed to, say, translating someone who is no longer living)?

KA: Being able to work directly with Negar, who speaks English well enough to talk me through her poems and answer my questions, has been such a treasure. She signs off on the final drafts (and often rejects many earlier ones), which affords me a kind of confidence in the fidelity of the final translations. Besides that, she’s an absolutely original poetic mind, and being able to spend time talking with her and exploring the cosmology of her verse has taught me so much about poems in general.

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Between two worlds: An exclusive interview with Ubah Cristina Ali Farah

"The language we choose to write has a powerful political meaning."

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is a poet, novelist, playwright, and oral performer of Italian and Somali heritage, best known for her novels Madre piccola (2007) and Il comandante del fiume (2014). Her piece, “A Dhow Crosses the Sea” recently appeared in the April issue of Asymptote, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson of the University of Iowa.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What can you tell me about the oral storytelling quality of your work?

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (UCAF): While I was studying at the Sapienza University of Rome, my favorite authors were Amos Tutuola, Amadou Hampâté Bâ and the great Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa. I learned to love the oral, anonymous poetry of the medieval bards, the romancero evoked by García Lorca, Italo Calvino’s rewriting of traditional Italian tales, and Pierpaolo Pasolini’s striking collection of popular songs and poems. However, my first loves, the texts that influenced me most, were the Somali oral poems and tales, under the wings of which I grew up. I was looking for the oneiric feeling that resonated in the oral poetry, a text disconnected but at the same time coherent, a voice encompassing both colloquial and erudite styles and registers of language. A storytelling that could embody the throbbing power of the voice.

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Spotlight on Banned Countries Feature

A Q&A with ALTA director Aron Aji and co-translator Bakhit Bakhit

After our Blog Editors’ and Section Editors’ Highlights, we turn our attention to our Banned Countries Special Feature, put together by founding editor Lee Yew Leong. These Q&As by new Assistant Interviews Editor Claire Jacobson shed further light on the creative process of translation. First up, we are thrilled to be joined today by Dr. Aron Aji and Bakhit Bakhit, who collaborated on a translation of Mohamed Abd-Alhai’s poem “Al-Salmandel at the Edge of Absence”. Bakhit, originally hailing from Sudan, is an MFA candidate in literary translation at the University of Iowa, where Dr. Aji is his advisor. 

Beyond the obvious differences between the Arabic and English grammar, Abd-Alhai’s syntax presents particular challenges to the translator. Often adverbs and adjectives are placed to accentuate sound and rhythm, more than sense. To ‘correct’ their placement in order to conform to the English usage would hurt the sound structures in the poem. Likewise, each stanza presents a single thought unit through the network of linked images and ideas developed across the four or more more lines. It is not unusual for particles or pronouns to simultaneously refer both to a preceding verb, noun, or image and to one that might follow. The translation, therefore, has to reflect these simultaneous links, working against a conventional linear reading. The actual process involves breaking down the original stanzas into phrasal units and to reconstruct them with these links in mind. A good example are the lines:

She on her loom waiting
driving time, onward once, then back

that should capture the movement of the loom back and forth and the workings of her mind between memory of loss and the longing for return.

Bakhit Bakhit’s collaboration with Aron Aji, too, involves the weaving together of two discrete translation processes that yield or resist to each other—now interrogating now complementing—hopefully moving toward an English version remains sensitive to the Arabic cadences—in sound, sense, or imagery.

—Bakhit Bakhit and Aron Aji

In your translators’ note above, you mention your “two discrete translation processes” that work together to produce a single translation. Can you describe the different approaches you take to the text, and how you were able work together to produce this translation?

Bakhit is the one who knows the poet, the poem, its aesthetic and socio-cultural context. Our collaboration begins after Bakhit completes a relatively advanced draft; then Aron enters into the process, silently reading the poem while listening to Bakhit read the original in Arabic; Aron marks the translation according to the rhythms and sounds he hears in Bakhit’s reading, in places where the Arabic feels more resonant, more charged. What follows is a rich conversation about individual words, lines, etc., in order to tease out this “charge.” Some inevitable semantic revisions notwithstanding, our conversation is about carrying into English the subtler, less intellectual, more intuitive aspects of the original, what belongs not so much to the body of the poem, but maybe to its soul.

Can you talk about your decision to leave the words al-samandel and hijra wal awda in Arabic?

We preferred keeping the Arabic phrase hijra wal awda to counteract the negative reception of the words, immigration and immigrant, nowadays. In Abd Alhai’s poem, immigration as hijra is always attached with return as al-awda. It is a journey where the immigrant always comes back after attaining self-knowledge and knowledge of his/her roots. Coming back may not always mean physical return to the homeland. But it always means growth, recognition, wisdom that has to do with a reconciliation with, a consummation of the past.  He may be welcome with songs and celebrations or he may die with honor, “if lost in his inclination to the sea ….”

As for al-samandel, the English translation is “salamander” but does not necessarily carry the mythic resonance that Al-Samandel does.

In these instances, we were not deliberately trying to be foreignizing or to provide a cultural flavoring. Rather, both hijra wal awada and al-samandel are meant to function like windows through which the sincerely curious reader will look and find out much that would have otherwise seemed lost.

What do you see as Abd-Alhai’s contribution to the conversation on banned countries, given that he wrote in a different time and context? 

The “Inclination to the sea” is about the nomad condition—whether of the hero, the immigrant, or the refuge—which lies at the heart of Homer’s The Odyssey as it does of Abdl-Alhai’s poem, which, in fact, directly engages the classical epic. The woman at the loom may be Penelope or Fatima, but also represent homeland, a place of real or imaginary return.

Find Mohamed Abd Alhai’s poem “Al-Salmandel at the Edge of Absence” in Bakhit Bakhit and Aron Aji’s translation here, where you can also listen to Bakhit Bakhit’s reading of the poem in the original Arabic.

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