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Adaptation or recreation? The art of translating poetry into another language

TORONTO — Among the five works nominated for this year's Griffin Poetry Prize is a collection from Iman Mersal, whose unflinching poems put in stark terms the realities of everyday life.
Iman Mersal is shown in a handout photo. Among the five works nominated for this year's Griffin Poetry Prize is a collection from Mersal, whose unflinching poems put in stark terms the realities of everyday life. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Griffin Poetry Prize **MANDATORY CREDIT**

TORONTO — Among the five works nominated for this year's Griffin Poetry Prize is a collection from Iman Mersal, whose unflinching poems put in stark terms the realities of everyday life.

But Mersal's name is not alone on the cover of her collection, nor on the Griffin short list.

If "The Threshold" wins the $130,000 prize, the Egypt-born, Edmonton-based professor will get only 40 per cent of it. The rest will go to Robyn Creswell, the American critic who translated the poems from their original Arabic and compiled them into the collection.

The oft-overlooked art of poetry translation is not so simple as taking a sentence in one language and putting it in another, writers say. Poems are rich with double meaning, with esthetic choices that influence the feeling they're meant to evoke, all of which a good translation will capture.

"Words have history, right? The poems are universal — you can relate to a story of love or death — but sometimes the geography, the images, and some words are so difficult to translate," Mersal said from New York City.

The translator must consider whether a word or image has a certain connotation in one part of the world, but evokes something different — or evokes nothing at all — in the English-speaking world.

"Sometimes in the early poems, I used sacred words — words that were connected to the Qur'an, but in an image about everyday life. This would cause some tension in Arabic," Mersal said.

Those words' closest English translations didn't have that same history, Mersal said, so without careful consideration, that contrast could be lost.

"The Threshold" is a corpus of Mersal's work, a selection of poems from across her four Arabic collections. The poems, some in prose and some in verse, serve to trace Mersal's personal history and shifting perspective as a writer.

She can't say if the translations of her work into languages other than English are any good. She doesn't understand them.

It wasn't until she started working with Creswell that she became involved in the translation process. Their initial collaboration was on individual poems that were published in The Paris Review, where Creswell was poetry editor, and eventually they decided to work on a book together.

At first, she and Creswell would exchange emails, but as their working relationship went on they started having longer conversations about the poetry. Creswell would present her with a translation, and Mersal would point out the things that didn't quite work.

"She could put her finger on those places and explain to me why it wasn't quite right. But she never imposed solutions on me as a translator," Creswell said in a separate interview from New York. "She would just say, 'You figure it out. You're the translator. You're the expert in English.'"

That, Creswell said, was ideal: "working with a poet who's really interested in what you're doing, and can tell you where things have gone wrong, but also doesn't tell you how to make them right."

Translation from Arabic is particularly difficult, he said, because of the nature of the language. It's diglossic, meaning there are two versions of it. The written language is quite formal and consistent across the Arabic-speaking world, whereas the less formal spoken version varies by region.

"Arabic poets have this resource of a very old, very rich and very literary language," Creswell said. "You can do literary things in Arabic, especially if you are a skilled poet, that are kind of hard to imagine even trying to do in English."

Some translators try to replicate that by imitating the style of John Keats or Alfred Tennyson, Creswell said. They think about when poetry was as influential in the English-speaking world as it is among many Arabic speakers, and aim for those heights.

"But practically speaking, what that means is that a lot of translation of Arabic into English ends up sounding vacuous and stilted and pompous and silly because they're trying to sound very, very literate and literary," he said.

Creswell took a different tack with Mersal's poetry.

"One of the things I really like about Iman's poetry and I've tried to bring out is a certain kind of prosaicness, a certain kind of intimacy. A certain kind of heightened but ordinary language that makes esthetic sense in English," Creswell said.

"I don't think Iman tries to reach for those rhetorical heights all the time. A little bit goes a long way."

The intimacy of her poems also gives the reader access to what might be a new perspective: that of a young woman in Cairo's literary scene in the 1990s, and later that of a new immigrant to Canada.

That is one of the best parts about translated poetry, said Manolis Aligizakis, a Vancouver-based writer and translator who made the Griffin's long list this year for "Tasos Livaditis – Poems, Volume II."

Livaditis was a prolific Greek poet who lived from 1922 to 1988, but whose works were not widely known by English-speakers until almost the end of his life. Aligizakis's translations have raised Livaditis's profile outside of Greece.

"The benefit of them is that the English-speaking person has available to them poetry or literature from another language, from another culture, from other parts of the globe, which they can enjoy and learn from," he said.

In translating Livaditis's work, Aligizakis sought to share a very particular perspective: that of a leftist writer who was jailed multiple times in his efforts to fight authoritarianism.

But the process isn't easy. Unlike Creswell, Aligizakis didn't have a living poet to consult. All he had to work with was his understanding of Livaditis -- his histories, both personal and cultural.

"It is more difficult to translate a text that you see in front of you into another language, rather than write a new poem of your own from scratch. Because once you perceive an image in your mind, you can describe it in the best way you can as an original poet," Aligizakis said.

But if you're translating someone else's work, you need to use their image to express the idea -- or the closest approximation to their image that works in the language you're translating to.

Scott Griffin, benefactor of the Griffin Poetry Prize, said he's long loved poetry in translation, and he wanted to codify that appreciation in the terms of the award.

"Books, whether they were poetry or novels or fiction or non-fiction, the translator's name would never be on the cover. It was buried somewhere," he said. "It seemed to me they got short shrift."

He sought to remedy that, opting to give translators 60 per cent of the prize money.

Poetry, he said, is "the essence of language and the art of language," and a good translation has to capture that essence, that art.

"Translation is really the wrong word here," Griffin said. "You almost can't translate poetry. Something like 'recreations' is more suitable, because a really good interpretation of a poet's work in another language has to be by a poet who takes the inspiration of the original poet and writes it in (another) language."

"That's not a straight translation."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2023.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press