May 10, 2006: Features
By David Marcus ’92
After a session of a Princeton course on translation in the spring of 2003, Ivan Eubanks *05 made an ambitious proposal to a fellow student, Kareem Abu-Zeid ’03. For several weeks Abu-Zeid had been presenting selections from Songs of Mihyar the Damascene, a 1961 collection of poems by the Syrian poet Adonis. Eubanks liked what he’d heard. Abu-Zeid had chosen a bold book: Adonis has called himself a Nietzsche for the Arab world. Like the 19th-century German philosopher, Adonis proclaims that God is dead and challenges his readers to consider the consequences. That message has led several Arab countries to ban his work, which includes passages such as: “A god has died/ He dropped from over there/ From heaven’s skull” — a sentiment Abu-Zeid calls “treason in today’s Arab world.”
No English translation of Songs of Mihyar has been published, even though the work has been described as one of the most important pieces of Arabic poetry in the last 50 years, and Adonis has been mentioned as a potential Nobel laureate. Eubanks, unfazed by his ignorance of Arabic, proposed that he and Abu-Zeid, an Egyptian-American who grew up in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, work on a translation together. “Ivan was doing the best translations in the class, hands down,” Abu-Zeid says, which was enough of a justification for the two to team up.
When they told their professor, C.K. Williams, about their plan, he suggested that they ask for Adonis’ blessing. Williams had met Adonis several times in Paris, where Williams spends about half the year and the Syrian has lived since 1980, when he fled Beirut to escape the Lebanese civil war. With Abu-Zeid and Eubanks sitting in his Princeton office, Williams rang Adonis in Paris and handed the receiver to Abu-Zeid. The two spoke briefly, and Adonis approved of the project. Abu-Zeid and Eubanks began work that summer.
fter decades of neglect in academia, translation is growing in prominence and respectability. Esther Allen, co-director of World Voices, a New York festival of international literature put on by the literary organization PEN, notes that translators were widely recognized in the 1950s and 1960s, but then the focus shifted to original work. That’s changing. “People in the academy are more willing to accept that works of translation are of enormous value,” she says. Three years ago, PEN created an endowment to support translation; in 2005, Karen Emmerich ’00 won a grant through the program to translate a collection of poems from Greek.
Each year, Princeton offers a few courses on translation, and the Adonis episode illustrates the difficulty of the task the students take on. Adonis’ poems contradict a view of the Arab world as monolithically fundamentalist, and are therefore a critical message for the West to hear. But if Songs of Mihyar were easy to render in English, someone would have published a translation long ago — indeed, several people have attempted the task and failed. To understand the challenges Abu-Zeid and Eubanks faced, and how someone illiterate in Arabic could help translate a work written in the language, it helps to start where they did: in the classroom.
“We’re not necessarily in the business of turning out translators,” says Paul Muldoon, who like Williams is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor in the creative writing program who teaches a course in translation. “The goal is to allow students to make the closest possible reading of whatever text they might be translating. It’s the most in-depth form of criticism there is.” The reading occurs in a broad swath of languages; students in Muldoon’s course last fall translated work from Old English, Gaelic, Portuguese, Italian, French, Polish, German, and Spanish.
That range isn’t a problem, says Williams, who has translated works from French, Japanese, and ancient Greek, even though he’s fluent in only the first of those. When working in languages he doesn’t know, Williams has someone do a literal translation, which he then shapes into a literary one. “It isn’t necessary to have the language to translate,” he says. “Poetry is translated into poetry. I can generally tell from knowing poetry when something isn’t quite right.”
Eubanks agrees. In class, he says, “Professor Williams could look at someone’s work and tell you where you weren’t faithful to the original. I guess he just knows how poetry works so well that he can somehow tap into the essence of the poem and figure out what’s not fitting.”
The close focus creates a remarkably intense class in which a student can expect to be quizzed by both professor and classmates about any aspect of a translation, from its overall tone to a specific phrase. “It’s exhausting in a good way, sort of like when you exercise and you’re tired afterward, but you get stronger as the weeks go by,” Eubanks says.
In a session of Muldoon’s class, for example, Alistair Boettiger ’06, a physics major who worked on Gaelic poetry, asks Anna Lineback ’06 about the colloquial style in which she rendered Pinocchio, the 19th-century novel by Carlo Collodi made famous in the United States by Walt Disney. “I picture Pinocchio as a bad little boy, so I don’t picture him speaking perfect English,” she answers, perhaps recalling the wooden puppet’s avowed ambition of “eating, drinking, sleeping, having fun, and from morning to night living the life of a bum,” as she translated it.
A third student suggests using “from dawn to dusk” instead of “from morning to night.” Comments Muldoon: “It’s just the tiniest little tweak. It’s very good as it is, but we’re talking about making it extraordinarily good.”
In the last paragraph of her chosen passage, Lineback writes that Pinocchio strikes his sidekick the Talking Cricket “dead as a doornail,” a phrase she used to retain some of the energy of the Italian “stecchito e appiccicato alle parete,” which literally means “dead and stuck to the walls.” (Il Grillo-parlante suffers a far crueler fate than Jiminy Cricket does in the movie.) Muldoon agrees with her choice of words: “It’s an example of language being so fixed that it’s a cliché. But it’s in the right place at the right time. Clichés have their uses.” The class’s rigor derives from its close attention to even minute details, Muldoon says: “There’s a general regard for having the very best piece of writing come into the world. All the intensity and worrying away at a word are in the service of that.”
hy would a writer worry away at words written by someone else in a foreign language? Muldoon began when one of his teachers at St. Patrick’s College in Armagh, Northern Ireland, encouraged students to submit their translations of Irish poems written in Gaelic to The Irish Times, a Dublin newspaper that ran a weekly column of such work. Muldoon has gone on to publish translations of contemporary Irish poems and Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy The Birds, the latter with the classicist Richard Martin.
More commonly, students translate a work to learn the language in which it’s written. Karen Emmerich ’00 began learning modern Greek during a high school semester in Crete. She continued to study the language at Princeton, where she wrote two senior theses, one a collection of poems entitled Go Children Slow and the other a translation of Margarita Karapanou’s Greek novel Rien Ne Va Plus, a French phrase uttered by spinners of roulette wheels to cut off betting.
After college, Emmerich went to a university in Thessaloniki for a master’s degree and sent Rien Ne Va Plus around to publishers. Though she has yet to see her thesis in print — she’s still shopping it around — she did get her name in circulation. When Seven Stories Press was looking for a translator for The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis, a novel by Vassilis Vassilikos, a prolific writer and long-time figure in Greek politics, the prominent translator Peter Constantine recommended Emmerich. “My spoken Greek was pretty atrocious, so it was a chance to get my language up to par,” she says. She had an impressive tutor in the author himself: Vassilikos was the Greek ambassador to UNESCO when Emmerich was working on the translation. Collaborating, they cut about half of the book, which was published last year. Vassilikos read the translation carefully and approved the changes to the text. “He understood that he couldn’t be the sole arbiter on things,” says Emmerich, now a graduate student at Columbia.
She was also motivated by her older brother Michael’s fascination with foreign languages. As children, according to Michael Emmerich ’98, “We had a dream that one day we would be able to speak seven different languages, so that we could use a different one every day of the week. But then we realized that once we had adopted that policy, we would only be able to speak to our parents one day a week. So we dropped that plan and remained monolingual until college.” At Princeton, Michael took up Japanese and became proficient enough to propose a translation of First Snow on Fuji, a collection by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, as his senior thesis. Counterpoint Press published Emmerich’s work in 1999, the year after he graduated from Princeton, and he has since produced numerous other translations, including five novels by Banana Yoshimoto, a best-selling Japanese author. Emmerich’s favorite of the works he has translated is Sayonara, Gangsters by Genichiro Takahashi, which Emmerich calls “one of the best works to appear in Japan, or anywhere else, in the second half of the 20th century.”
Despite his success, Michael Emmerich hasn’t abandoned his career as a graduate student; now living in Japan, he’s finishing his dissertation for a doctorate in East Asian studies from Columbia. “If you want a steady source of income, translation is not a career to choose,” Karen Emmerich says. “You’ll have a hard time finding a professional translator who doesn’t have a backup job.” She says translators can expect about 12 cents a word. Her Princeton classmate Ezra Fitz ’00, who has published translations of about seven books from Spanish, says pay can range from $1,500 to $10,000 per book, with very few translators getting royalties on their work.
Like the Emmeriches, Fitz got his start with a thesis — in his case, the translation of 10 short stories by 20th-century Mexican writers. In his first job after college, he worked as an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press. Fitz wanted to continue translating, an ambition fueled by his bosses’ giving him books in Spanish to review for possible publication in English. He particularly liked a novel by Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and the book ultimately landed at St. Martin’s, which assigned him to translate it. Fitz particularly enjoys working with Mexican writer Eloy Urroz and Chilean novelist Alberto Fuguet, friendships that help Fitz render their prose in English. “You kind of get into their skin,” Fitz says. “You take the reins from them for a little while and become the co-author in English. Alberto knows me very well. He’ll change things, but by and large, he can give me something and I can take it and run with it.”
Eubanks’ first foray into translation was a more unusual academic exercise. While studying in Moscow during his senior year at the University of Florida, he wrote an essay about Boris Pasternak’s 1940 translation of Hamlet into Russian. Eubanks wanted to show that Pasternak, the author of the novel Dr. Zhivago, was critiquing Stalinist Russia by subtly reworking Shakespeare’s play about the murder of a king — the only way Pasternak could safely do so. “I was trying to read it as almost an original work by Pasternak,” Eubanks says. To do so, he translated about half of Pasternak’s Hamlet back into English that he “was trying to make sound like Shakespeare” without consulting the original until he was finished.
“I learned how hard it is to capture rhetorical devices,” Eubanks says. He recalls one short passage where Shakespeare uses the word “tender” with three or four different meanings. “Pasternak captures that device with one word in Russian,” Eubanks says. As a graduate student in comparative literature at Princeton, Eubanks translated a narrative poem by the 19th-century Russian Aleksander Pushkin at the behest of Professor Caryl Emerson, who wanted the work for an undergraduate class she was teaching. Eubanks enjoyed the process enough to enroll in C.K. Williams’ course, where he continued to work on Pushkin’s poems.
ubanks has studied Russian since high school, has visited the country numerous times, and is steeped in its literature — all advantages he wouldn’t have in working on Adonis with Abu-Zeid, who is studying at the American University in Cairo. Williams notes that the students chose a very difficult writer. “Certain things just don’t translate well,” he says. “Arabic poetry in general is very difficult to translate. It depends on various conventions, and Adonis works against those conventions. If you don’t know them, it makes it hard to read, and if it’s filtered through another language, that makes it even more difficult.”
Abu-Zeid began the collaboration by making what he calls a thick translation of Adonis’ poems (see sidebar). “The idea is that you’re not trying to come up with anything that approximates the Arabic, but trying to write line by line everything that could be going on on the page,” he says. Eubanks then shaped Abu-Zeid’s work into a gloss, “a rendition of the original meaning into grammatically correct English,” as Eubanks defines it. “The gloss will tell you what a sentence means as a literal utterance. That doesn’t give it any context or aesthetic importance.”
The two men tried to incorporate those aspects of the poetry in subsequent drafts. Part of the challenge was finding models for Adonis’ work. To approximate his use of vocabulary from the Quran, the holy book of Islam, they occasionally chose words that have the resonance of the King James Bible, with which both are familiar. Adonis’ style has some resemblance to 20th-century French poetry, and he had translated into Arabic some work by Yves Bonnefoy, so that poetry became another model, as did a host of other writers including Homer, Ovid, and Nietzsche. Eubanks and Abu-Zeid also consulted the French, German, and Spanish translations of Songs of Mihyar.
Some problems still proved insoluble. The title of one poem, “Madinat al-ansar,” was one such instance. “Madina” means “city” in Arabic but is also the name of one of the holiest sites in Islam, the city of Medina in which Muhammad sought refuge after he was driven from Mecca. In the Islamic tradition, the people who took Muhammed in are called ansâr, “the helpers.” But Adonis doesn’t treat the episode in the body of his poem, leaving open the relationship between title and text. The Arabic captures this ambiguity; the English, French, and German translations cannot, says Abu-Zeid, who has written an extensive commentary to provide readers with such religious and cultural context. (The two collaborators intend to start shopping the book in earnest this summer.)
Even so, Abu-Zeid says, “There’s no way one translation can solve all these problems. We’ve gotten it to the point where it’s very good in English, but at some point, you’re going to get an academic to read it and say, wow, you’re losing all of the stuff that’s in the Arabic.” Eubanks says his ignorance of Arabic makes it impossible for him to judge the accuracy of the translation, a labor he has found unexpectedly challenging. “It’s harder than I thought it would be, for sure,” he says, adding: “I just want it to sound good in English.” π
David Marcus ’92 is a frequent PAW contributor.