David Nettleingham speaks to Iraqi poet, translator and scholar Worod Al Musawi about her work, attempts to introduce Iraqi poetry to the UK, and understanding the dialogue between the Arabic and English languages.
What was it that drew you towards becoming a translator?
The fact is, translation drew me toward its edge. Translation was a sacred thing that I never considered, because of my understanding of this type of literature. What must the translator know? It is also the most exhausting form of creativity one can do.
But the story began when I attended the first Arabic workshop with the Poetry Translation Centre in London, and I found people from different ages and backgrounds trying to capture the real meaning of the poem through literal translation. The poem was written by an Arab poet. However the attempt at literal translation was made by one of the team who studied Arabic as a second language. Here they were working on the poetic translation from different angles! It is not an easy job but I was amazed by this will to reach the real meaning and to add to it, not to take from it as we have often experienced with translation, especially in terms of poetry.
As a native speaker and poet I found myself drawn to this group and I tried to help them in forming meanings, to make the poem more acceptable to English audiences. Hence, I decided to introduce Iraqi poetry to English readers, with new poets unknown in the UK or in the rest of the world. For me it’s hard to present myself as a translator but rather as a poet experienced in both languages and cultures trying to reveal the new face of Arabic / Iraqi poetry.
Is it difficult to retain the nuances of Arabic in translation into English?
We might take the definition of translation to be: an activity comprising the interpretation of the meaning of the text from one language into the other by taking into account the constraints such as the context, the grammar and the idioms.
But is this the real function of translation? Of course not. Language will be the main ground on which to build your translation pyramid, but the real player on this ground is the culture in each context. This is crucially important to both works.
Translation is a bridge between two civilizations and between two nations. We expect from the translator an understanding of both cultures, folklores and even ignorance of the some details. Through this we will have a real piece of art.
Yet, the Arabic language is one of the richest languages in the world, and this richness reshapes the metaphors, synonymies, linguistics as well as traditions and cultures. All these elements alongside other concepts are remarkable in the transfer of deep, meaningful poems in all perspectives and spheres.
Hence, Arabic poetry becomes one of the hardest to translate, and I’ll give an example to make this point clear. With a comparison between both languages (Arabic and English) we will consider the term ‘wideness’: the flexibility in Arabic language which prepares the stage and the plot for the poet, providing the solid ground to free him; to let fly or clamp the imagination with little effort and to receive the meaning that he or she wishes! Whereas in the English language we have a very narrow stage and plot, because English is an accurate language, and even if you have some freedom in poetry, compared to Arabic language it will be very limited.
From this, difficulties will appear that make reaching the highest level of translation a nightmare. I have faced lots of words in Arabic that don’t have an English equivalent.
Is there anything that could be said to be unique about Iraqi poetry?
Iraq or Mesopotamia has been the land of poets since Gilgamesh and his epic: the first literary text in the world. Iraq was the first civilisation to create human rights and an idea of humanity, and this fact is hard to deny or erase. Nevertheless, the epic of Gilgamesh later on became the door for all the Greek epics written a hundred years later: the Iliad and the Odyssey. So, yes Iraq has had very unique poetry compared to other countries, not only Arab countries but the rest of the world.
However this uniqueness comes from the deep sorrow that we’ve felt during all the years since the birth of the earth and the air. The Gods have been leading our land (in mythology), since when Tammuz “the God of love and fertility” captured by earthly guards and the Goddess Ishtar or Inana “Goddess of Love” was wailing for his freedom. Since Imam Husain the son of Imam Ali and Fatima the daughter of prophet Muhammed suffered and were killed in the battle of Karbala against the devil Yazied ibn Mu’awyya, seeking the freedom of humanity and the world from all fetters. Since all of the pain that all mothers faced and felt in first Gulf War and the second; since all the palm trees were destroyed by Saddam Hussein in 1991 after our real revolution and rebellion against his dictatorship. Since the beautiful marshes were dried by that same person!
So yes we have a very deep and unique history to make our poems different from others. We held pain and sadness in one hand and the beauty of the green of palm trees in the other.
Palm trees were planted by Gilgamesh, the fifth King of Uruk. Palm trees are a symbol of life, beauty and giving, and if you visit Iraq you will see in every single house at least one palm tree!
Eventually, we had the greatest poetry hailed in the Arab world. Iraq was the first country to pull up Arabic poetry from the classical form into the neoclassic movement through the greatest Arab poet Muhammed Mahdi Al Jawaheri (1900-1997) around 1918 and beyond. Later on in the same period, in the 1920s and after, it spread from Iraq to Egypt and Levant.
Not far from the neoclassic form, in 1946 Iraq invented a new form and movement through Iraqi poet Badr Shakir Assayyab (1926-1964) by introducing the biggest ever change in Arabic poetry – the jump from the neoclassic form into free verse.
Assayyab side by side with Iraqi (female) poet and critic Nazik Al-Mala’ika (1923-2007), reshaped the new face of Arabic poetry. Al-Mala’ika through her critical essays and book fairs all about the free verse poem, her intelligent studies, suggestions and critical views, became a grounding for all poets and critics who have an interest in the free verse movement, and Assayyab is an example for all other poets even today.
How do you think Iraqi poetry has been affected by the events of the past decade?
Nothing can kill the poet more than their ties. The real effect on all our innovative activities began when the Baath party ruled Iraq, I would say in late 1977. Iraqi innovation was attacked by the Baathists and since that time we have faced a new language, new perspectives, new ideology, new praise, a new face of poetry full of blood and martyrs, dust and militaries. Of course not all poets participated in this bloody carnival, many of them fled from Iraq, seeking breathing space for their poems. That’s why there are 4 million Iraqis out of their country and most of them are intellectuals in their fields.
But now, I can say that Iraqi poetry has turned again.
How has Iraqi/Arabic poetry been received in other countries?
I think the Arabic language is the fourth or fifth most spoken language in the world, so it’s been received in stages compared to other languages, but this is not enough. We must call all the translation centres in Arab countries to work hard if we want to go the distance. But so far Arabic literature and poetry I think is known as one of the most important forms of poetry in the world and, because of the history of Arabic poetry, as one of oldest poetry forms in the world going back thousands of the years. For that, I ask all literature foundations and centres to give more attention to translating our literary works into English and other languages.
Are there any major themes that run through your own poetry?
My work focuses on two major themes:
1 – Souls in all creatures, the human with all his inner feelings and sensations, strength and weakness, nostalgia and tendency, and with that our feeling toward death and poverty. I can say that in both my collections death and poverty were dual heroes.
In the case of death, because it’s the only fact in the world one can be sure of! No creature can flee his grip!
Death for me is a door I can open on my inner self and take from (him) for Worod! Death is a creature with his own function for this life!
Some critics have noted that my poems introduce philosophical questions about cosmic forces, humanity, politics, emotions and homelands. Those are all the themes and doors I use to find myself as a human and poet.
However, as far as I am searching for myself, so I need to come closer to the world and think deeply on each creature, act, relationship, love, political corruption, poverty (and this word does not always refer to life’s expenses, rather one can be poor-minded or have poor feelings, or poverty in an understanding of the soul that is invented in us! So it can be anything), emotions, and death of course. It might be that those essential elements or aspects can open the door for me in understanding my soul more and more.
I believe that the poet is the soul of the cosmic.
2 – Homeland, has a wide range of meanings, consequently I never specify the land in my poems and leave it as the symbol of a journey on which you never reach the distance and never find your treasures. It has been left unknown, to be anywhere in the world, however through this particular theme I deal with politics, injustice in the world, and poverty.
Worod Al Musawi, was born in Babylon, south of Baghdad in 1981. At the age of ten she began writing poetry. That same year, she left Iraq with her family for Iran where she studied at Almustafa University in the School of Arabic and Islamic law until 1997. She spent the following year as a teacher. In 1998 she was forced to leave Iran for political reasons; she went first to Syria and then to the UK. She continued her education at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, obtaining an MA in Arabic Literature in 2007.
Worod has published two collections of poems, Washmu A’aqarib (Scorpion’s Tattoo) in 2007 and Hal Ataa (It Has Come!) in 2010; and a volume of her short stories, What the Bullet Whispered to the Head, is forthcoming. She has also published a number of critical essays on Arabic poetics. Both her collections have been translated into various languages. She is a member of the Poetry Society as well as the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). She worked for several Iraqi Satellite channels as producer, programme maker and presenter between 2006 and 2008. She spent 2008-2009 teaching Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and is now busy with her translation project from Arabic into English, and from Farsi into English, with the Poetry Translation Centre.