Thursday, March 24, 2011

Poem of the Day: Another Foreman Translation (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 15)

In an earlier installment in Attempts' Accidental Poetry Month™, I extolled the virtues of linguist A. Z. Foreman's site Poems Found in Translation, and included his version of a poem by Classical Chinese poet Li Bai, "Thoughts on a Quiet Night". Here's another translation of his, this time from the Arabic, by a Syrian poet named Nizar Qabbani (of whom I'd not previously heard). Here's the translation; click through to his site for the original (both written and in an audio file, read by Foreman himself).
Less Beautiful

When I see you, I despair of poetry
As only you can make me.
You are beautiful
And if I ponder your beauty
My breath is choked up
My language choked off
My words choked out.
Save me from this. Be less beautiful
And let me find my inspiration.
Be a woman of make-up, perfume, pregnancy and childbirth
Be like other women.
Reconcile me with language
And give me words again.

-- Nizar Qabbani; translated by A.Z. Foreman.
I think you could make a decent case for this poem's being misogynistic -- or, if not that, then at least presenting a very undesirable politics. (I'm thinking primarily of line 10 here.) But it's also, to my ears, a great poem -- a poems' politics having little to do with a poems' quality -- alas, and thank God.


A.Z. Foreman said...

Qabbani was complex in his feelings about women, but I think you do him a disservice in your reading ot this poem. Which may be my fault, as I am the translator. Yeah, I think it's my fault. Man alive did I fuck this one up when I translated it two years ago. ONe more I need to revise. My rendering was, in retrospect, too free and for no good enough reason. And a worse poem than the original.

Example, the first lines of the Arabic:

كلما رأيتك...أيأس من قصائدي.
إنني لا أيأس من قصائدي
إلا حين اكون معك...

Literally mean:

Whenever I see you...I despair of my poems
(For) I do not despair of my poems
Save when I am with you.
The last two lines would more naturally be phrased as "I only despair of my poems when with you." Literary or Standard Arabic (though not colloquial Arabic) tends to make heavy usestylistically of constructions using (not, no) to begin one phrase followed by another beginning with illā ("except"), yielding formulations like "we cannot do X save via Y" or "I love nobody but X" or "I go nowhere but Paris" where English more normally prefers "We can only do X via Y" or "I love X alone" or "I only go to Paris." Whoopsie I seem to have gone off on a tangent.

I think the liberties (which I thought acceptable at the time but no longer do) taken in my rendering on my blog obscure a lot of what Qabbani's getting at, probably because I didn't understand the poem then as well as I (think I) do now.

To get to my point. The poem's not misogynistic. Rather the opposite. What Qabbani is saying essentially is that a woman who is "like other women" and, as Judith Butler would put it, performs her gender is less appealing than one who will not be cookie-cuttered and fully realizes her humanity.

Yet this beauty, the beauty of a woman transcending gender-prescriptions, is hard for Qabbani to express. Only such a beauty, makes Qabbani "despair of poetry," (as I render it, unsatisfactorily) is ineffable.

Qabbani, in context, is probably alluding to the fact that the way the Arabic poetic tradition requires feminine beauty to be construed also requires adherence to commonplace ideas about what is feminine and what is womanly. How in such a tradition, in such a linguistic frame, can Qabbani convey the beauty of NOT being merely what society says such a woman can be? As Qabbani would have it in this poem, one cannot - though he suggests otherwise in other poems. The latter point leads me to think Qabbani is not being fully sincere in the ending, but rather giving a stylized plea saying "I can't express things unless you go back to being what I'm used to talking about, so please stop being more than a stereotype!" A sentiment which, if any poet actually meant it, would suggest a very limited talent or limited view of one's talent indeed. Rather Qabbani is probably saying the opposite via litotic rhetoric. Her tongue-stopping beauty of being herself has, after all, given him inspiration to write this poem. So clearly he does not need her self-effacement to as I render it "let me find my inspiration"

Oh hell let me take a bit of time right now and do a better (still non-literal translation) right away, cause I want to fix my fuckup. Will continue in a second comment.

A.Z. Foreman said...

Wow, my comment Part 1 didn't post before. Just reposted it, thank god for textedit. Anyway, I'll start part II with a better rendering:

Whenever I see you, I despair of my poems
I only despair of my poems
When I am with you.
Beautiful you much
So that when I think about what awe you strike... I gasp for breath.
As my language gasps
And my lexicon gasps
For breath.
Deliver me from these problematics!
Be less beautiful
So I can recover my poetics.
Be a normal woman
Of kohl, perfume, pregnancy and childbirth.
A woman like any other
Reconcile me with my language
And my tongue.

Okay, back to my rant.

Qabbani though his views would not sit well with most modern american feminists, is anything but misogynistic. He was one of a very few and among the earliest to write poetry in a female voice. Sexual liberation (particularly though not exclusively of women) I think, was his main focus above all else. In an interview with Mounir Al-Akash which was edited and published with the title "On Poetry....and Sex and Revolution" ("ˁan al-jins...wal-šiˁr wal-thawra") he said

"I have no hope for any revolution that relegates sex to the margins of its call to action, no hope for any progressive system that leaves the Arab body seminating repression, furtively copulating with the covers of Playboy magazines"
انا يائس من كل ثورية تجعل الجنس على هامش دعوتها، ويائس من كل نظام تقدمي، يترك جسد الإنسان العربي في بذر الكبت ومضاجعة غلافات مجلات البلايبوي في الخفاء

I have written elsewhere about how he railed against the "martial law imposed on the Arab woman's body" by a society "not man enough treat women as equals." He went so far as to say that "sexual repression is the Arab World's biggest problem," asking how a society that marginalized half of its population could ever hope to compete with the West. He addressed all manner of taboo gender topics, from the frustration of a woman whose husband won't satisfy her sexual needs, to the anguish of a mistress literally tossed out to the street by a man all for becoming pregnant with his child and then refusing to get an abortion.

In fact, here's a link to my translation of the latter:

(I checked it just now, this one I still am okay with and don't feel needs fixing.)

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