In The Guest, poet and literary translator Robin Myers explores poetry translation as process, practice, vocation, meditation, and craft. Drawing both on her own projects-in-progress and the work of other translators, The Guest is a kind of diary, a thinking-out-loud about the pleasures, challenges, and decisions required—and invited—by bringing poems into another language. To do them justice and to make them new.
Poetry, it’s often said, is the most musical of literary forms. There’s lots to talk about in this respect: the oral roots of narrative poetry in many languages, the oral role it continues to hold in cultures all over the world, the slippery distinctions between lyrics and poems. Not to mention all the features of music, both conceptual and concrete, that also crop up when we think about poetry: cadence, voicing, polyphony, assonance, rhythm, rhyme.
Sound, in short. Sound as stuff, as substance, strategy, lattice of tools.
Sometimes, though, I feel funny about sound. About how we describe it. As if it were a self-contained Thing that just sort of wanders around, making noise, announcing information independent from whoever hears it and how.
Because we learn to listen. We learn that different sounds, or rhythms, or textures, evoke particular things in the language and traditions we’re immersed in (which means they may evoke quite different things in other ones). They get tangled up in different brambles of our imaginations or expectations or emotional associations, depending on where and when and how we’ve learned to hear (or speak, or read).
A musical memory comes to mind. Years ago, living in Palestine, I was hanging out with two Palestinian friends and a German acquaintance, listening to music by the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. “All this music is so sad,” said the German guy. One friend rolled her eyes and scoffed at his generalization. What an ignorant thing to say, she said. How would you know? You can’t even understand the words.
She was right. It’s not hard to imagine that the German listener was reducing and exotifying what he heard, looking to confirm his expectations of what he thought Arabic music was supposed to express. It made me wonder if I was doing some version of the same thing, made me want to peel back the assumptions at work in my own ear.
I had a thought so obvious it embarrassed me. Clearly, both the German guy and I had grown up in a musical landscape in which major keys = happy, minor keys = sad. Simple as that. An association that falters—collapses—when confronted with entirely different scales and tunings and vocal styles. When the ear strains to unlearn what it’s been told.
Speaking with Kareem James Abu-Zeid about his English translations of the Syrian poet Adonis, I felt an instant sense of kinship with his attitude toward sound. He believes, as I do, that translating poetry involves paying close attention to elements like rhythm, assonance, consonance, end/slant/half rhymes, concision, etc. It means taking a holistic approach that plumbs sound as deeply as it does “meaning.” In line with other translators I’ve interviewed throughout the course of this column (I’m thinking in particular of Conor Bracken and Kristine Ong Muslim), Kareem treats this holistic approach as a call to “compensate for the loss of certain sonic qualities (e.g., rhyme) with other sonic qualities (e.g., rhythm, assonance, etc.).”
Kareem is the co-translator, along with Ivan Eubanks, of Adonis’s 1961 book Songs of Mihyar the Damascene (New Directions 2019; Penguin Modern Classics 2021). In the words of Robyn Creswell, who wrote the introduction, this book “evokes classical, Quranic, and biblical sources on almost every page, even while announcing its own originality.” The “grandly inscrutable” character of Mihyar is a “heretical prophet,” invoking possible precursors as disparate as the eleventh-century poet Mihyar al-Daylami and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. These poems hum with both a classical and contemporary spirit, sometimes taking on an incantatory tone that both echoes earlier eras and sings out in a transformative new voice.
Many of the poems in this book, Kareem tells me, have strong end-rhymes in the original Arabic—and yet, in Arabic, they have a vibrantly modern feel. Considering this, Kareem and his co-translator Ivan Eubanks decided that strong end-rhymes “do not really feel like a modern mode in English poetry anymore, so we abandoned them in favor of other sonic devices.” And yes: don’t countless English-speaking kids grow up force-fed a handful of old rhyming poems in school, only to deduce that poetry a) must rhyme and b) is old? Neither, of course, is true! But this association is something an ear can learn, then close itself off to. And it’s part of what a translator of a text that “sounds” both classical and contemporary must contemplate.
In minute 1:56 of this recording, you can hear Kareem read Adonis’s poem “Mihyar is King” in the original Arabic. The audio is very brief, but it still offers a glimpse of Adonis’s incantatory cadence. Here’s the English version:
Mihyar Is King
Mihyar is king,
A king who dreams of a palace and gardens of fire.
Today a voice deceased
Challenged him before the word.
Mihyar is king,
He dwells in the realm of wind
And rules the land of mysteries.
Reading this translation, I’m struck by the rhythm, which adheres at times to the iambs underpinning so much of the English poetic tradition (“Mihyar is king / A king who dreams…”; “Today a voice deceased…”) and then slips confidently out of them again. I’m struck, too, by the sonic interplay (the consonance of all words that begin or end with the heavy “d,” the assonance of the “e” and “i” sounds) that tightens the poem, makes it feel somehow both declarative and oblique in its brevity.
Here’s another poem from the same volume:
I Create a Land
I create a land that revolts with me and betrays,
I create a land I spied out with my veins.
I drew its skies with my thunder,
Adorned it with my lightning.
Lightning and waves are its borders,
Its banners eyelids.
Betrays, veins, spied, skied. Thunder, borders, banners, adorned. Lightning, eyelids.
I wish, of course, that I were able to read the original text and learn more about what exactly Kareem and Ivan have done, word by word, to transform Adonis’s sonic intonations into these rich English lines. But the richness is clear from the English alone: the poem unfurls with gestures both glancing and assertive, commanding and slight. I love how gracefully the translation entwines the speaker’s body with his surrounding landscape, defying limitation by either nation or flesh. My ear confirms that the translators have, in Kareem’s words, “[created] a poem in English that resounds as poetry in English, that has a similar force and impact as the source text”: sonorous and enigmatically contemporary.
Kareem and Ivan’s decision to let go of end-rhyme and focus on other sonic resources is an eloquent example of how translators “compensate,” trading some sonic devices for others. Not simply because different languages offer different tools, but because those tools help insinuate a particular time, a particular tone.
Sound, not just meaning, gives us context: it helps our ear figure out what kind of world it’s listening to.
Part of what I find most exciting about translation as a practice—and about reading literature translated from languages I don’t speak—is the chance to learn more about how I have learned to read. To rap at the glass of my own habits and assumptions, to peer inside.
First, I need to see that my habits and assumptions are learned. My context, my culture, has suggested to me that rhyming poetry sounds antiquated. In music, it has pushed the idea that major keys = happy and minor keys = sad. In prose, it has promoted the notion that a so-called narrative arc—beginning, middle, end—is the “natural” way to tell a story.
This is what culture does: it acculturates us. There’s no magic wand that can scrub the dye out of the wool, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. But translation, among other art forms, gives us a way to consider how we process information and emotion, then practice reading deeper. To listen to the key change, then keep listening.
Kareem James Abu-Zeid is a translator, editor, writer, and scholar who works across multiple languages. Abu-Zeid has received numerous awards, fellowships, honors, and residencies for his work as a translator from Arabic and as a scholar, including the PEN Center USA 2017 Translation Prize and a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts translation grant. His most recent translation is the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish’s Exhausted on the Cross (NYRB Poets, 2021, foreword by Raúl Zurita). He is also the author of the book The Poetics of Adonis and Yves Bonnefoy: Poetry as Spiritual Practice (Lockwood Press, 2021). He lives in the countryside just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico.