The merits and challenges of translation according to Adonis

Adonis said fragmentation of identity in the Arab-Islamic world was turning into “devastation that is almost total.”
Sunday 25/11/2018
Syrian-born poet, philosopher and critic Adonis during the third Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize Lecture, on  November 9. (Susannah Tarbush)
Passionate words. Syrian-born poet, philosopher and critic Adonis during the third Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize Lecture, on November 9. (Susannah Tarbush)

LONDON - “Is this the time for translation and is translation a second act of creation?” That was the challenging title of the third Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize Lecture, delivered by the renowned Syrian-born poet, philosopher and critic Adonis to a packed auditorium in the British Library on November 9.

The 88-year-old writer held the audience spellbound in a 45-minute presentation that reflected his famous gifts as a pioneering poet, translator and author. He has written more than 50 collections of poetry, criticism and essays, has been translated into many languages and has translated various poets into Arabic. He has won numerous awards and has regularly been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

While Adonis delivered his lecture in Arabic, Jonathan Wright read his translation of it over a headsets system for Anglophone audience members. Adonis’s powerful oratory and remarkably youthful spirit belied his years.

Adonis reminded us that “translation lay at the foundations of the European Renaissance and was the first building block in the open-mindedness of that age.” The translators in Baghdad “paved the way for that age through their translations of Greek philosophy into Arabic, especially the works of Plato and Aristotle,” Adonis said.

He argued passionately and persuasively for the importance of translation in a modern age where “despite everything that technology — the technology of things and the technologies of globalisation — has done in the way of bringing people together, the differences remain extensive and profound.”

Human identity is a “vertical existential dimension” but for one reason or another, technology has helped to obscure this, Adonis said. “Humans now know how to use the horizon, but they are more ignorant about finding out how to open the human horizon that goes hand in hand with the depth.”

Translation creates “a universal cultural time in which people come to know each other and in which each language discovers its creative presence in other languages.” It is “another form of creation, and so it is inescapably a cultural act. People understand themselves well only to the extent that they understand others well, so translating other people is an ideal way to discover one’s self… The Other is no longer simply someone to converse, interact and reciprocate with. It goes beyond that, to become one of the elements that make up one’s self.”

Adonis was characteristically damning in his criticisms of the current state of Arab culture and politics. He said fragmentation of identity in the Arab-Islamic world was turning into “devastation that is almost total, with neighbours killing their neighbours, friends turning into enemies and some people imploring their foreign friends to occupy and dominate their countries and submitting to their will.”

In the second part of his lecture, Adonis focused on “the form of translation that is most difficult, most intricate and on which tastes and opinions might vary most, and also the form that I think I know most about — I mean the translation of poetry, especially as, to say the least, poetry is the high point in the Arab cultural heritage.”

Adonis declared that a translated poem is the result of linguistic destruction. “So the question in the translation of poetry is this: can we give meaning to this destruction? The answer is yes, and that is the task of translators. They are the other creative artists who breathe life into this ruin and give it flesh and blood, a soul, a heart, and life.”

He described his translations of other poets as being “another way of writing poetry in Arabic I prefer to say that I did not translate this poetry so much as I welcomed it into my home, opening the arms of the Arabic language to it.” A challenge is that “in translation, Arabic poetry loses the music of the language and its associations and the images it evokes. It loses the unique rhythms, which cannot be replicated by the rhythms of any other language.”

During the lively question and answer session that followed his lecture, Adonis was joined on stage by Emeritus Professor Paul Starkey, chair of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature, and by Wen-chin Ouyang, professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, who acted as interpreter. Adonis was a warm and witty presence as he responded to questions, and there was often laughter from delighted audience members.

Interest in Adonis’s poetry in English translation remains high and his Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize Lecture may well have boosted it further. Last year saw the publication by Yale University Press of his 2012 work “Concerto al-Quds” in translation by Khaled Mattawa. Ihe interest is not confined to Adonis’s relatively recent works. A new translation, by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, of Adonis’s 1961 third poetry collection “Songs of Mihyar the Damascene” is due out in the first half of next year from New York publisher New Directions.