The kind you turn. Your turn it because you want to make love to a stranger but you still want to get paid, either in money or jewels or another poem in your pocket you can run away with.
I translated Ananda Devi because I wanted to write those poems. So sometimes it is a jealous trick. I picked up her book Quand la nuit consent a me parler at the bookstore because it was small and its cover was hot pink with yellow lettering. But as I read the poems I knew I couldn’t—could never—have written poems so raw, so honest, so angry.
But I couldn’t translate them in Paris where I found the book. It took my arrival in Pondicherry in francophone India to start to see the poems as mine. And it took three more weeks and my arrival in Varkala, on the shore of the Arabian Sea to feel the rhythm of Devi’s ocean-borne Mauritienne poetics.
Donald Revell argues that you can’t find poetry in poems; it’s likely true, but you can find poetry in translations, more than in writing poetry because in the translation you, the poet, are watching it happen. Poetry finds a place in the poem.
Here is one line of Cristina Peri Rossi’s book length poem of fragments and scraps, called EVOHE:
Una mujer por poesía poseída
A woman by poetry possessed? As if. Here is the famously “untranslatable,” not just because there is no way to fake the slip of the tongue—and it is in the context of this poem a cunnilingual erotic slip of the tongue as well as a very cunning lingual one—but the character of the Spanish labial consonant “p” isn’t sexy in English but pops crude.
Anyhow, I had enough lost opportunities in other places in Peri Rossi’s book to get at her sauciness and her combining of biblical and pornographic dictions—so I made a quick switch out here and solved my problem:
A woman by poesy possessed.
It’s a cheap shot, to be sure, but it works. Taking the “t” out of “poetry” really smooths the line down to sexy. Poesy may be old fashioned but it’s in context dirty too. No one said solving translation problems always had to be hard. Sometimes brazen works.
It brings me to my most recent translation project, Sohrab Sepehri, an Iranian poet who wrote in Farsi, a language I neither speak nor read. When my father went to Iran for work I asked him to bring back to me volumes of contemporary Iranian poetry. I had grown up listening to the Arabic recitations of scripture and the Urdu poetry and mourning songs commonly recited during the month of Moharram but though one of my grandmothers was Iranian I was unfamiliar with the contemporary poetry of that place.
Among the books my father brought back were volumes by Sohrab Sepehri. They had been translated but the poetry of the lines felt stilted, formal, prosaic. I was taken with one line though: “I am a Muslim! The rose is my qibla!” The qibla is the direction of worship toward Mecca. Observant Muslims will turn in this direction wherever they are in the world. In hotels across the Muslim world and in South Asia this direction is marked by a large arrow painted on the ceiling. The fact that Sepehri was declaring not Mecca but a simple rose to be his qibla struck me to the core.
Since I could not read the Farsi myself, I worked with Jafar Mahallati, my colleague at Oberlin. He would read the lines and then translate it on the spot for me. I would copy it down, assemble the poem, make notes, read my rendition back to him, he would stop me, elaborate, we would discuss, debate, argue. Eventually we would have a poem.
Sepehri in Persian is two things at once: very plainspoken, prosaic even, and then incredibly deeply philosophical and abstract. A poem about shopping for pomegranates turns into a poem about the impossibility of knowing the physical world at all. A poem about fish in a pond turns into a reflection on the element of water and then on the tragedy of the separation of human from the divine. No one thing is another in Sepehri’s world yet these observations are tossed off in the most casual language. It is hard in English to keep up.
As we worked on “Water’s Footfall,” the poem from which the above line came, and then other Sepehri poems we found ways to render the language in a lyrical and musical way that matched the stark plainness of the original language. But I never could improve upon the bare declaration “The rose is my qibla” and so kept that phrasing in our rendition. How could we have translated that word “qibla” without diminishing its power in the explanation? We bet on the fact that with increased relationships between cultures eventually the word would find its way into English and in future editions we would even unitalicize it. And anyhow, it’s not a precise translation of the original Farsi line, which reads “Man musulman. Qiblam ek ghul sourgh” or “I am a Muslim. My qibla, one single red rose.” We both found the sparer line closer in spirit to the bare daring of Sepehri’s sentiment than the closer translation which, seemed somehow too lush, too personal. Also, in English syntax the line would require that comma (or a colon) which graphically interrupts the declaration.
There is a space between humans and god, after all, which does not translate across languages. What could Sepehri have meant? Translating means to carry words not just “across” languages and cultures, but often through time itself.
The Iliad as translated by Stanley Lombardo, for example, is brutally contemporary. I say brutal because we know well what it is like to live through ten years of what seems to be endless war. But the war is long in coming in the epic. It opens with the disagreement in the Greek camp, continues with the litany of the ships and then strangely, fabulously, the scene switches to Troy. Helen joins the elders on the walls and points out the various characters among the Greeks. But below them on the field, the men have had it with fighting. They come up with a sensible plan to pack it all in and send everyone home (it took them ten years to figure this out? Of course it did.)
But history is not to be foiled. While the men agree their war to be settled on a single combat, Aphrodite spirits Paris away at his moment of defeat. Aphrodite approaches Helen and demands she comfort Paris, safely ensconced in the royal bedroom. Helen refuses.
Aphrodite, of course, is a goddess not to be trifled with nor questioned. “Wretched girl,” warns Lattimore’s goddess, “do not tease me lest in anger I forsake you.” But Lombardo’s Aphrodite is a little stronger, a little more in control of her situation. “Don’t vex me, bitch,” she snaps menacingly, “or I may let go of you.”
Small wonder Helen complies.
The trick of translation is that the act of it transforms everyone: the original text, the new language, the author and the translator all. Working on Devi and Peri Rossi’s very different engagements with the body changed my own poetics. Sepehri and Marguerite Duras, whom I have also translated, affected my rhythm and diction in English.
I asked Stanley Lombardo once how he came up with such a beautiful and radical departure to have Aphrodite so freshly menace Helen. He laughed. “It’s not a departure,” he said. “It’s exactly what it says in Greek!”
When I completed the Sepehri translation I sent it to my friend Navid and his father, both of whom had read Sepehri in Farsi and loved him. Navid wrote back that both he and his father loved the translation but they worried about one single line, the poem’s most famous line, that is (of course) “qiblam ek ghul sourgh.” They felt that the line was meant by Sepehri as very tongue-in-cheek, a little sarcastic almost, that he was being ironic when he said “I am Muslim,” that it was not an earnest declaration as I read it.
But there was something so true in me when I thought of him saying in full earnestness, “The rose is my qibla,” claiming that part of the natural world as a true direction of worship. He goes on in that same part of the poem to say the stream is his prayer rug, that his mosque is a meadow, that his Ka’aba (the great black cubical mosque in Mecca) is the wind in the trees.
In the end I took a chance.