Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

I translate, therefore I am

Nourhan Tewfik found plenty to ponder in Khaled Mattawa’s AUC lecture

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Of the Libyan-American poet Khaled Mattawa’s three American University in Cairo “In Translation” lectures (organised by the  Center for Translation Studies and the English and Comparative Literature department), the last, “Power, Identity and a Prayer for Repatriation: on Translating and Writing Poetry”, delivered on 17 March at the Oriental Hall in the Tahrir campus, presented three different encounters with translation, explaining “living several lives in translation within one life”.The two other lectures were “The Challenge of Tradition in Multi-Ethnic American Literature” and “The Making of a Poem: Points of Departure and Arrival”.

Born in Benghazi but living in America since the age of 14, Mattawa is a renowned poet and translator; he is the associate professor of Creative Writing and American Studies at the University of Michigan and a 2014 Macarthur fellow.

IDENTITY: Mattawa revisited his week-long trip to New York as a last year student at the  University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in December 1988. It was during this week that he first encountered Federico García Lorca and Mahmoud Darwish and, inspired by lines of theirs that he translated, begin composing his own lines.

The discovery was twofold: Mattawa experimented with literary translation and, through it, began to look for his voice as a writer; but at the same time Mattawa identified and began to come to terms with his own alienation. “Translating Darwish,” he says, “was also a sentimental education. As a political refugee, I was uncertain about where I’d end up or where I wanted to be, and I was aware that I’d been gone too long, that the link between my upbringing and my early adulthood had many gaps, which were the only place I could exist.”

In the context of difficulties faced by Arab immigrants in 1980s America, Mattawa could also relate to the repertoires of other poets of exile: Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Constantin Cavafy and Nazım Hikmet, as well as those of American poets, like Philip Levine, whose “generous justifiable anger” he felt he could “embrace”.

“Every American poet I latched into, had about him or her the scent of translation. Translation was the sweat and frankincense of home, variable and the same. Translation is something I encounter on a daily basis. As soon as I say my name I’ve put myself outside the border; I have to crawl back into the center. When a stranger asks me my name—and they ask maybe four or five times a day—every time they ask they’re telling me ‘I don’t know this name.’ Then I have to find a way to translate or legitimate the existence of my name in this world, in their language. Translation, not alienation or estrangement, becomes a kind of existential state, a form of identity.”

At his father’s funeral in Libya, the formulaic statement of condolences azaana wahid (meaning, “we seek consolation just as you do”), uttered in the original Arabic, left Mattawa untouched. Only in translation did they take on emotional weight, and “that effort into reading the words beyond the words people said, the quiet probing of what my countrymen were trying to really tell me and my need to translate them, was how I began to seek my return, my place at home.”


POWER: Mattawa went on to recall a comic encounter, a visa interview at the American consulate in Athens in 1986, in which he was acting as an interpreter for his parents. Explaining the word siyaha (or “tourism”), his father’s one-word answer to the question of why he wanted to go to America, Mattawa elaborated to the consular official, “He wants to visit my brother and me and spend some time with us and see the country.” But, realising that Mattawa was taking poetic license with the business of interpreting what his father was saying, the official abruptly ended the interview.  

“My reaction to the consular official’s quick dismissal of us was to stand dumbfounded, if not ashamed. Having been a kind of exile of some years, I thought I was adept at ‘translating’ myself and my background.” The impromptu performance had emerged out of a desire to “smooth out” differences, and to make the “powerful less powerful and the powerless less powerless”. It didn’t work. “People in authority distrust being loved and may love being feared, but are generally impotent before apathy,” Mattawa reflects. “They can’t stand people who refuse to be translated.”

It’s a thought that continues to give Mattawa “considerable guidance”: while translation presupposes “parties of equal power”, much of his work as a translator does not take place in this “cultural détente”. It is an inequality that is in itself a legacy of centuries of “European dominance in the world, American imperialism, Orientalism, the Crusades and fear of non-whites”.

The same awareness influenced the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s own approach to translation of his poems. Tagore approached his Bengali and English poems differently, Mattawa says. He chose to translate poems that English readers would find “palatable” and hence only translated devotional poems into English, because English audiences were familiar with the “stereotypical Indian guru persona”.

In the words of Mahasweta Sangupta, the symbolic order of the English language meant that “meaning and signification are already fixed according to the differential network of relations” by a system that “patterns and regulates all thoughts and action within a given discursive field”. That is why Tagore, a “colonised subject”, abided by a definition of the east found in the existing “repertory of discourse”.

“In other words, the other has already translated you, has fixed you within given parameters. This happens among all different groups, even among Norwegians and Italians where no obvious power circle ensues. But it’s more evident when a power struggle does exist, and within that there are options for the work to be translated.”

Mattawa found himself in a similar position. The attempt to “smuggle” his voice into Darwish and Lorca was part of smuggling himself into a “given cultural setting while seeming to surpass or forego any claim or desire for being native, and also conscious of being typecast”, he says.

“In a symbolic order that had a discriminating taste for which truffles to pick, translation, expressed as the smuggling of foreign goods, and un-translatability—something like the taciturnity of my father’s one-word answer—provided a sense of how to resist being consumed, and if swallowed, to be a cause of discomfort.”


HOMECOMING: In the third and last section of the lecture, Mattawa moved from discoursing about translation as a form of identity, and a place where power relations, equal or unequal, unfold, to translation as “a way of coming home.”

This story had unfolded in Libya during the fifth month of the uprising, during meetings and discussions with Idris Ibn Al-Tayyeb at the latter’s office in the revolutionary government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Benghazi. The object was to reach a peace plan that would allow Gaddafi to pass on power to a group of technocrats accepted by the revolutionaries and to depart Libya safely.

Mattawa was also visiting Idris that day to tell him that he had translated a 1970s poem Idris had written in prison, addressed to the city of Tripoli. In the poem, Idris “imagines the city as a beloved woman caught in the chains of tyranny whom the poet frees, redeeming himself in the process.” Interested in how the poem yearned for the city to “unchain itself from the regime”, Mattawa had felt that “the poem came alive” at this more than any other time and therefore had to be translated.

But during this visit, Mattawa came face to face with the effort to “translate” the Libyan situation to the world. Idris was on the phone, informing Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the National Transitional Council (NTC), that general Abdul Fattah Younis, the commander of the revolutionary army, had been kidnapped. Idris was telling Abdul-Jalil that the NTC had to make a statement about Younis: “we need to translate so that we can also translate our situation to the world.”

That night the murder of Younis was announced on TV, however, and things picked up speed. Tripoli fell on 23 August that year. For Mattawa, “it seemed the vision of the bride breaking the shackles that bound her in Idris’s poem was fulfilled”, yet he felt that the inability to address the Younis assassination “indicated that the country lacked a deep language, a language that distinguishes between mere insurrection and a revolution”, as he put it.

“Qaddafi’s nativism and the Islamists’ self-righteousness established a state of derisive anti-intellectualism fueled by arrogance and willful ignorance... The nation’s language was too raw and the terminology of modern governance had no texture in the national consciousness that it could cling to.” That is why he saw in his friend Idris’s “inadvertent insistence on translation a “sense of belonging”.

In Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator”, Mattawa said, “Work by the translator can captain us to the shores of ‘pure language’.” Translation is, in Benjamin’s own words, “a reference to a thought in the mind of God”. For Mattawa, translation was reintroducing itself as a sense of belonging that he had always felt.  “I saw a different opportunity for both my native language—or the context of Libya—and for myself, a coming home through translation,” he said.

“A writer from a country where only the dictator’s name was known, I was a branch cut from the tree, as the proverb says, trying to root myself in another language and tradition, a shady suitor asking for the hand of another tribe’s beauty. So I brought with me the wisest, bravest, and most gifted men and women of my tribe. They spoke for me and I spoke for them. I carried their interlocutors’ questions and I was the face of the answer. A current of apprehensions and desires flowed through me and I felt as a river that defines the lands around it.” It is in this sense of community creation that Mattawa sees the “essence of translation”.

To illustrate this point, Mattawa referred to George Steiner’s “Stages of Translation”, beginning with “initiative trust” or an “investment in the meaningfulness and seriousness of an adverse text”. Steiner thought this stage was “psychologically hazardous” because it keeps the translator “epistemologically exposed”. Eventually comes the “thrill of the first draft” as a “reproductive moment where the two languages are congealed in the translator’s mind, in what Whitman called- ‘The womb cohering’”.

“Initiative trust” is followed by “aggression” and “incorporation”: bringing the text home to where the translator acts like a “hunter-gatherer” who, in Steiner’s own words, “invades, extracts and brings home”; and accommodating “the new text in the new home, to widen one’s grammar and vocabulary”, a process that “adds to our means” as “we come to incarnate alternative energies and resources of feeling”, says Steiner.

According to Mattawa, “to incarnate is to live in the flesh of the other.” The result is a creation, not a mere transfer of meaning. “The translator endeavours to restore the balance of forces, of integral presence of the original text, which is appropriative comprehension has been disrupted... In translation’s various phases we experience longing and its fulfillment being undone by each other, myriad encounters with the ineffable that encapsulate what we live for, and real evidence, in the translated text, that the broken languages of others can find a home within us, a process where longing becomes belonging.”

For Mattawa, the Libyan revolution had presented the potential to translate himself back to Arabic, but while he acknowledged that young people in his native region had “sought freedom”, when it came to moulding the new national life, “they had few terms to work with”. In fact, Mattawa said, much of the language of the Arab Spring, that of “chat rooms and Facebook”, was not in Arabic and was mostly in Latin letters and numbers, “devoid of concepts or rootedness”. Here, then, is the problem:

“I believe, and still do, that the revolutions in North Africa are indeed a turning point. There is a sense of opportunity rising now with the beginning of the end of Islamism. Amidst the fissures created by the political struggles new experiences, new aesthetics, tastes and metaphors are being smuggled into these previously closed societies. Individuals are beginning to rearticulate what they had experienced and what had lain suppressed in them. Even in conservative Libya new visions of the future are being drawn in colors that had not been seen before.”

At this point the translator’s role is “crucial”, in Benjamin’s words the translator must “break through the rotten barriers of his own language” and “extend the frontiers” of it.

“I realize that these exhilarating descriptions of transforming one’s language sound more appropriate for poets than for translators. To that I’ll say: show me a poet who has revolutionized his language without translation. Show me a renaissance that was strictly monolingual, that was the product of cultural incest and isolation. Humble and subordinate as he or she is supposed to be in the service of the original text, the translator shares with the modern writer the potential ‘to create new totalities, to cultivate random appetites’, as Edward Said notes. Like a revolutionary poet, the translation can plunge us ‘into unforeseen estrangements from the habitual’.

“‘Everything can be translated,’ my good friend Anton Shammas once told me,” Mattawa said. “That openness demands that one remain uncertain for a while longer, which is itself a reward. In the wait perfection flickers like an endless supply of matches, whole and ephemeral, but goodness is possible and evident in the translator’s labor and time. In that lack of finality, in our endless attempt to comprehend each other, life roils and kinship weaves us into one another.”

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