The Responsibility of Translating Other Poets

The Responsibility of Translating Other Poets’

A wide-ranging talk with London-based Iraqi poet-translator Ghareeb Iskander:

By Hend Saeed

Iraqi poet and writer Ghareeb Iskander was born in Baghdad in 1966 and has been living in London since 2002. He’s published a numerous of poetry collections, including High Darkness (Sawad Basiq 2001) and A Chariot of Illusion (Mahafat Alwahm 2009). In 2012, Syracuse University Press brought out a bilingual English-Arabic collection of his works, called Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, co-translated by Iskander and John Glenday. This collection was winner of the University of Arkansas Translation Award.

Iskander himself is also a translator, working between Arabic and English.

My favorite part from Gilgamesh’s Snake:

Uruk is an empty ruin,
all its people fled.
Such devastation; the streets
shimmer in a caul of silence.
He wanders alone—
not a single tree shades his scorched soul,
no wine to quench his longing.
All alone, he cries,
and because victory for him is a defeat that never ends
till the ends of his life, he must
ride the magic palm frond.

After reading Gilgamesh’s Snake, I followed Iskander and wanted to know more about his work, what he thinks about 2018 Baghdad Book Fair, and the Baghdad publishing scene.

HS: What are you working on now? Anything coming soon?

GI: I am currently working on a new collection of poetry, though I’m not sure yet exactly what it will be. Some of the poems were written when I was in Brazil, some in Beirut, and some in London.

I am also working with the Scottish poet John Glenday on translating selected poems by the Iraqi poet Ḥasab al-Shaik Ja‘far. This is our second project together. The first was a translation of my book Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, which was published in 2016 by Syracuse University Press.

When translating from Arabic into English I normally work with a native-speaker poet; when translating from English into Arabic I work alone, such as for Hunā Yakmun al-Furāgh (Here is the Emptiness), the selected poems by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, which was published in 2015.

HS: What did you think of the 2018 Baghdad Book Fair? Was it a good sign? 

GI: I have been back to Baghdad many times since the Change of 2003, but my visits never coincided with the Baghdad Book Fair, except in 2012. Book fairs are always a sign of a country’s healthy literary environment, as they are a chance for writers and readers to meet and discuss their works and other writers’ books, but for a country like Iraq, which has undergone turbulent upheavals in recent times, this is especially true.

Exiled writers who went abroad many years or even decades ago are now able to attend, as are Arab writers from other countries. Often this represents the first opportunity many readers have to meet their favorite writers face to face. The 2018 Book Fair was especially important because it came after the liberation of Mosul and other cities from ISIS. Books and culture can help rebuild what has been destroyed by terrorists. Book fairs can help schools, universities, and public libraries to rebuild their collections. These are all good signs about the ongoing rebirth of Iraq’s literary environment.

HS: Along with the Baghdad Book Fair, the literary and publishing scene in Baghdad is changing. What do you think about these changes?

GI: One clear change since 2003 has been in the themes taken up by Iraqi poets and novelists and, indeed, by artists generally. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of this has dealt with first hand experiences of war and terrorism, but there has also been a blossoming of a wider range of voices and political opinions. This is not to say that there is not scope for further opening of cultural, religious, and gender issues.

On the matter of poetic form, there has been less radical change than that which occurred with the free-verse movement established in the aftermath of WW2 and the loss of Palestine. At that time, Iraqi poets and those of other Arab countries felt that the classical form restricted their handling of these themes and so searched for a new and flexible form.

The multi-stanza form of “The Waste Land” and its complex themes, for example, influenced the Arab poets in the 1940s and the 1950s to use this technique in their poems. They felt this new poetic form was able to cover all social and political problems that arose as a result of WW2. This was clearly reflected in al-Sayyāb’s poems, especially his masterpiece “Unshūdat al-Maṭar” (“Rain Song”). Arab modernists adapted the Western poetic techniques, however, to create an organic response to Arabic poetic traditions.

Although these techniques — in particular the prose poem which dominates Arabic poetics at present, seem capable of expressing and exploring these ‘catastrophic’ issues of invasion and occupation, terrorism, corruption and the heritage of dictatorship in Iraq after 2003 — it will be interesting to see if a new aesthetic treatment evolves over coming years.

Translations might play a crucial role in this process, as it did in establishing the free verse and, subsequently, prose poem movements. This is not to diminish the creative contribution of these poets, however, since most movements and schools in the history of world poetry have depended heavily on translation of and influence by those of other cultures.

Poets have always undertaken the responsibility of translating other poets. Thus, in modern time, many Western poets were also translators, such as Pound, Eliot, Baudelaire, St.-John Perse, Rilke, Auden, and Stephen Spender. Likewise, almost all Arab modernists were translators: Sayyāb, Nāzik al-Malā’ika, Adūnīs, Yūsuf al-Khāl, Tawfīq Ṣāyigh, Buland al-Ḥaydarī Jabrā Ibrāhīm Jabrā, Sa‘dī Yūsuf, Lūwīs ‘Awaḍ and Ṣalāḥ ‘Abd al-Ṣabūr. It is against this background that I too have started to translate those poets I feel worthy introduction to Arabic readers and to a lesser extent vice versa.

HS: How can we do a better job of supporting poetry, when so much support goes to the novel? 

GI: This is a difficult but important question. Poetry is a dominant literary genre in many countries, especially in Iraq and other Arab countries. It’s often considered the highest representative art and is used widely in education. Poets are viewed as generous and humanistic, are often called on to contribute their creativity to aid others in times of crisis, such as to raise funds and offer spiritual and mental support for peoples affected by war or natural disaster. Yet they get relatively little support from governments, institutions art councils etc., compared to other literary genres. How this can be changed … I wish I knew.

 HS: What are the new exciting things you think is happening in poetry? 

GI: Poets and poetry lovers across the world organize festivals, workshops, translation events, and creative meetings. They invite other poets to discuss and translate their poems to broaden their audiences. This is perhaps the most exciting thing as it brings writers and translators together despite their different backgrounds, languages and cultures. On a personal level I am particularly moved when I meet poets from the Middle East or other war-torn areas for whom poetry is a powerful device that enables them to deal with the misfortunes they have encountered.

Read more poems by Iskander in translation.

Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She had published a collection of short stories and recently started “Arabic Literature in English – Australia.” She is also a translator, life consultant, and book reviewer.


Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s ” The Leb’s:Depicting Arab Lives in Australia

Michael Mohammed Ahmad — author and founder of ‘Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement” — is launching a new novel, The Lebs, on February 27:

By Hend Saeed

Ahmad’s essays and short stories have appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, The Guardian, The Australian, Heat Seizure, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin and Best Australian Essays, and his debut novel, The Tribe(Giramondo, 2014), received the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist of the Year Award. He also adapted The Tribe for the stage.

His new novel, The Lebs, is being launched next week.

Michael Mohammed Ahmed: Like many Lebanese families who arrived in the 1970s, my grandparents immigrated to Australia. My grandfather originally was from Syria, but lived in Lebanon.

My parents arrived Australia when they were between seven and nine years old, and they met in Sydney when they were 22.

Life wasn’t easy for my grandparents and my parents, as it wasn’t for many Lebanese families at that time, and they worked hard to give my brothers and I access to higher education.


HS: You are the founder and director of “Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.” What is the aim of Sweatshop? And why it is for western Sydney ?

MMA: The movement started in 2006 when I established Westside. I got a scholarship to prepare my doctorate, and I used some of the money to start Westside. Then, in 2013, I established Sweatshop to continue the work on a larger scale.

The aim of the movement is to teach young people creative writing and cultural representation and to help them to find hope through writing. I chose “Western Sydney” because it has a diverse community. Some even call it “Sydney Others.”

I consider the program a transition period in the lives of these young ethnic writers. Writing helps them to educate themselves and shift their thinking from computer games and their troubled lives to their writing and changing the world around them. By changing the lives of young people, we can change the world’s perceptions of them.

These young people still face a lot of problems from the community and we need to restore the community’s confidence in them.

HS: Your first novel  The Tribe won the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist of the Year award in 2015. Can you tell us something about that novel?

MMA: The Lebanese community in Australia, unfortunately, are featured in the media as a culture of crime, assault, and drugs. This idea came about because many Lebanese families who immigrated to Australia in the 1970s had informal educations and were unemployed, and that created some problems, as it does in any community in the same circumstances. After that came the events of 2000 and the 2005 riot.

Now the third generation of these families are educated, employed, and participating in the community, but the media — and people’s perceptions — haven’t changed. The Lebanese  have to work hard to prove themselves.

I wrote The Tribe to show the other side of this community — the day-to-day lives of Lebanese  families who are like any other families, have problems and challenges in life. I wanted to normalize the Arab Muslim identity in Australia.

The award is very special to me; first, because it is the recognition of my writing in Australia; and second because, that year, the award was given to myself and others five from minority groups — Asian, Malaysian, African — and that’s what made it special.

These minority groups, including Arabs, are changing the face of Australian literature.

HS: Your new novel The Lebs is about Lebanese as well. Is it a sequel to The Tribe?

MMA: Yes, it is almost a sequel to The Tribe. It is the story of Bani Adam, and, in The Tribe, I talked about his life from the age of 7 to 11. In The Lebs, he’s 14 to 19 years old.

But let me explain something about the term “The Lebs” and how it’s used in Australia. This term was created to depict a group of young people from different ethnic groups who walk, dress, and speak Arabic or English in a particular way. They can be Jordanian, Iraqi, Lebanese, even Malaysian.

They have created a unique new identity in Australia.  You will not find them in Lebanon or Jordan or in any other country of origin.

I wrote The Lebs to shed light on the psychological effects of racism on those young people and how they either adapt to their way they’re presented in the media or hate themselves.

After 9 /11 and other incidents in Australia — the gang rape in 2000 and the riot in 2005 — the young Lebanese were treated differently and were represented in the media as violent people and terrorists. It was hard for young people to avoid seeing that.

The Lebs talks about violence in a school and how sometimes those young people act out because they have encountered racism, so they pretend to have guns, to be strong and part of gangs. They are trying to protect themselves from what they are facing in the community.

HS: You named your character Bani Adam – means the son of Adam.

MMA: Bani Adam in Arabic means a human or a person. He represents humanity.

Bani Adam didn’t love himself as an Arab, and he thinks he is better than the others. He didn’t want to relate to any Arab. But in the end he learned to love himself and to be an Arab.

‘Bani Adam thinks he’s better than us!’ they say over and over until finally I shout back, ‘Shut up, I have something to say!’

They all go quiet and wait for me to explain myself, redeem myself, pull my shirt out, rejoin the pack. I hold their anticipation for three seconds, and then, while they’re all ablaze, I say out loud, ‘I do think I’m better.’

It’s hard for the young people from minority communities to know how to love themselves in a climate that hates them.

In The Lebs, I wanted to tell the world that, regardless of our beliefs and our cultures and languages, we are all human in the end, and we all face the same life.

Talking about racism, I would like to mention something Ghassan al-Hajj had said: The young generation faces racism twice as bad as the generation before them. It’s harder for them, because the racisms come from their own people in their own language  — those people who are born on this land — who are Australian and speak English, and they don’t know the country of their parents.

HS: How do you see the Arab Australian literary scene? Are Arab voices heard?

MMA: All minority groups in Australia are under-represented on the literary scene, not only the Arab Australian.

The system only supports White writers, and publishers doesn’t understand different cultures and don’t try to. Even schools and universities teach only European and Anglo-Australian literature.

But change is happening.

Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She had published a collection of short stories and recently started “Arabic Literature in English – Australia.” She is also a translatore, life consultant, and book reviewer.

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