Antoine Cassar reviews Luggage / Bagage by John P. Portelli

Translated from the Maltese into English by Norbert Bugeja et al. and into French by Elizabeth Grech (Word and Deed Publishing, 2017)

This is an important year for Maltese poetry in translation. 2017 began with the first ever book-length publication of Maltese verse rendered into Arabic: Adrian Grima’s Masafat (Distances), a collection of poems translated by Walid Nabhan. Given the Semitic substrate of the Maltese language and the geographical proximity to the Arab world, and in light of a decade of fertile literary exchanges with the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean (particularly through the annual Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival), it may be surprising that it has taken so long for Maltese literature to reach this milestone. Yet Nabhan, a Palestinian-Maltese writer whose novel L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji (Exodus of Storks) has just been awarded the EU Prize for Literature, has been painstakingly preparing and perfecting Masafat for several years. As Nabhan himself has exclaimed, the timely appearance of his translation of Grima’s verse into Arabic represents a personal homecoming that was well worth the wait. Published by Sefsafa, Masafat was presented at the Cairo International Book Fair in January, and on a tour of universities in the West Bank in March.

Due to appear even further east in the coming weeks is another translated selection of Grima’s poetry: Last-Ditch Ecstasy, a collection rendered into English by Albert Gatt, will be published in Mumbai by Paperwall. Later in the year, Arc Publications in the UK will bring out the long-awaited English version of Immanuel Mifsud’s Penelope Waits, translated by Irish poet Maurice Riordan, with the support of a PEN Translates award. This will be Mifsud’s second collection of verse to be published in English, twelve years after the appearance of Confidential Reports, also translated by Riordan (Southword Editions, 2005).

A steady flow of translated poetry publications continues also at the local level, thanks in large part to the generosity and enthusiasm of editor Terence Portelli. Following on from the bilingual Maltese-English chapbooks of Abigail Ardelle Zammit and Joe P. Galea, fruits of the August 2016 Translation Workshop led by Inizjamed and Literature Across Frontiers, last February saw the launch at the University of Malta of Luggage / Bagage, a selection of thirty-three poems by John P. Portelli, rendered into English by four different translators (Norbert Bugeja, the late Peter Serracino Inglott, Joe Ruggier, and Joe Cauchi), and into French by the ever-prolific Elizabeth Grech. The original Maltese poems appeared mostly in Portelli’s Maltese-English collections Bejn Żewġ Dinjiet / In Between (Melita Books, 2003) and Taħt iċ-Ċirasa / Under the Cherry Tree (PEG, 2008), but they also include poems due to appear in his forthcoming Xewqat tal-Passa / Migrant Desires. As befits the nature of the English-French publication of Luggage / Bagage, in April the book was also presented on the opposite shore of Portelli’s existence as a member of the Maltese diaspora, or more specifically, at the University of Toronto.

Shuttling between Canada and Malta since 1977, Portelli lightly yet poignantly plunges into the experience of living in-between, a condition in which literary translation naturally thrives. The itinerant “migrant” life is easy to romanticise, yet Portelli’s verse sheds light on the inherent sadness of the quest for stability, of the fragmentation of personal space and time, of the niggling feeling of continually leaving things unfinished. The heavy weightlessness that seeps from the poems is exacerbated by their general shortness; they often close too early in the original Maltese, perhaps purposefully leaving words unsaid.

Contemporary “migrant poetry” tends to accept betweenness as a home, much like a shell to its snail, and to celebrate the liquidity of experience as an inside outsider. Such acceptance is not found in the poems selected for Portelli’s Luggage / Bagage, which speak more of discomfort and of longing. In “I Was Asked / On m’a demandé,” the report of a casual yet unsettling interrogation on racial identity, Portelli’s light humour does not seek to dilute a lamentation of the division between how one sees oneself and how one is seen. Meanwhile, in the poem “In Search of Freedom / À la recherche de la liberté,” the Maltese church bells ringing from across the ocean faintly but loudly underline the statement of the poet having found in his adoptive country all he’d wished to leave behind:

I crossed the seas and the void
to find all that I’d shunned.

Echo of bells
in the distance,
the sun
sears the open road.

(vv. 7-12, translated from the Maltese by Joe Cauchi)

Elizabeth Grech’s French title, “À la recherche de la liberté,” adds a level of sad irony to the poem, as if to identify the distant church bells with Proust’s madeleine, here providing the taste of a freedom not found across the Atlantic.

Another interesting poem of displacement, which will lend its name to Portelli’s forthcoming collection, is “Migrant Desires,” in which the yearnings of the poetic “I” shuttle more than the physical self, to the point of piercing it. With both shores of the poet’s culturally and geographically divided life offering an equivalent frustration, the ocean between them may as well be considered nonexistent. The poem is worth quoting in its entirety:

Migrant desires
yearning after here
and there

They migrate
without passport,
place or anchor
and without frontier:
their only end
to pierce the I.

(translated from the Maltese by Norbert Bugeja)

Though Portelli is more concerned with sincerity and transparency than with the craft of verse itself, the Maltese poem ends with an active alliteration in f, n, and d/t, sharpening the blade of longing: “il-fini tagħhom biss / li jinfdu ’l jien.” The effect is expertly translated in Elizabeth Grech’s repetition of the guttural French r, bilabial consonants, and the insistent hiss of the s: “leur seul but / transpercer le Moi.”

Amid all the flux and instability, Portelli suggests that language and writing are constants we can grasp onto. Translation, if more creative than literal, can make both of these more tangible. As argued convincingly by Joaquín Rubio Tovar in his extended essay Literatura, historia y traducción (La Discreta, 2013), not only do good translations improve the original text, they may also continue to write and complete it, enhancing rather than betraying the intentions of the author. This occurs in the translations of two of Portelli’s poems. Solitude in the poem “In the Shadow of the Cherry Tree” / “À l’ombre du cerisier” offers the possibility of becoming one’s own geography, at least for a short while:

In the shadow of the cherry
no one shall distract me.
In the shadow of this cherry
I shall never tire of dreaming.
Leave me here alone to loiter
among what never was
and perhaps may never be.

(translated from the Maltese by Joe Ruggier)

In the original Maltese poem, the illusion of solitary ataraxia is acoustically burst by the cutting double consonant rhyme “ħadd / qatt” (no one / never). In Grech’s French version, the rhyme is replaced with an open vowel sound, and extended along the poem (“cerisier,” “distrait,” “rêver,” “été,” “jamais”), adding a sweetness to the solitude which, one could sense, had become too buried in the original Maltese.

In the second of the two poems, “Sea / Cette mer,” the waves of the ocean provide neither comfort nor possibility, but frustration at the constant movement, embittering the desire for stillness. The flat, apathetic lexis of the original Maltese poem is at pains to engage the reader; however, both the English and French versions solve the problem. In Bugeja’s rendering, the first two lines have become an iambic rhyming couplet, illustrating with delicious irony the inexorable relentlessness of the waves:

This wrathful sea
was made for me

and alienating
without end


(translated from the Maltese by Norbert Bugeja)

Meanwhile, in Grech’s French version, the insipid ending “bla tmiem. / Bla fini.” is blown up through the use of a single fortunate letter, the plural -s: “sans fin. / Sans fins.” When listened to, it will sound like a repetition, reflecting the monotony of the waves and suggesting its continuity; when read, the plural “fins,” equivalent to “without ends” or “reasons,” multiplies the waves infinitely, deepening the sense of desperation.

Luggage / Bagage is a work of poetic generosity, an example of how careful yet creative translation can enhance the original text not merely by lexical choice, but through an intelligent redisposition of rhyme and rhythm, and grammatical craft. Transposing the agglutinative nature of Maltese (capable, for example, of including subject, verb, and object in a single three-syllable word) into other languages, particularly into English, often risks a dilution of the rhythm, yet the translators of this volume have creatively avoided this pitfall, despite the directness of Portelli’s verse. In these times of rising nation-state claustrophobia, readers of English and/or French who may feel trapped between an unpromising rock and an increasingly unwelcoming hard place will easily identify with the bulk of the poems in this collection.