Found in Translation
An interview with poet and translator Khaled Mattawa
BY FARID MATUK
haled Mattawa’s new book, Zodiac of Echoes, has recently been published by Ausable Press. Born in Libya, Mattawa came to the United States as an exile at the age of 15. Until recently an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin, this month he begins teaching at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The author of Ismalia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow Press), he has translated three books of contemporary Arabic poetry and co-edited Post Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing. He has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for his poetry and translation. Last year Mattawa received the PEN International award for Poetry in Translation for his translation of Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems of Saadi Youssef (Graywolf). The following is an excerpt of a conversation that took place in an Austin café last fall: Farid Matuk: When did you begin writing and translating? Were they in relation to each other? Khaled Mattawa: In December 1988 I’d gone to New York and taken Lorca’s Poet in New York with me. I don’t think I was that narcissistic but it just so happened I’d taken it with me. Or maybe I bought it there—I can’t remember. Also, going through Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, which has an Arab section, I found some books of Mahmoud Darwish. I had a greater hesitance about writing in English than I’d ever had before, particularly coming into poetry. I remember a few evenings where I would read a little bit of Lorca and put that aside and read some Darwish and translate it into English and then go back to Lorca. Between those sorts of interactions I would write my own work. FM: Were you reading the Lorca in Spanish? KM: No, in English and translating Mahmoud Darwish into English. So really there was a tri-lingual thing. I didn’t know Spanish but the Spanish was present in translation, there was Darwish’s Arabic and then my own work in English. I had two floods of translation coming at me and I don’t know if my poetry joined them or split off from them. There is an easy explanation for this: Your head is filled with language and you produce more language. FM: Why these two poets in particular? KM: First of all I came to the United States fully grown—or at least very aware of who I am in a cultural sense. Obviously I am from another place. And that feeling was there with me nine years after coming here, which is this moment of writing in New York. I was a foreigner. I had tried to read Whitman before that and I just couldn’t get it, I didn’t feel he was speaking to me at the time. In translating Darwish I was creating an English equivalent for some of the things that I wanted to express. Of course Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry has a great deal to do with exile, the sense of homelessness. At that moment I hadn’t decided whether I wanted to go back home to Libya or not. The other aspect was the fact that there were certain symbols in places—the oranges, the smell of the coffee, and things that are cultural artifacts—that I didn’t know how to make a place for in English. Having them through translation was almost a way to smuggle goods into the language. FM: It’s also finding your English by giving English to Darwish. KM: That’s it. That’s it exactly. Some people write imitation as a beginning; for me translation was a kind of imitation. I would translate a poet and I would try to imitate that poet through translation. What Darwish was rendering was a sense of dispossession that I felt because I was a political refugee at the time. I could not go home; it was not safe for me to go home. I was also very uncertain about the place I was living in. People now are aware of how difficult it is for people of Arab descent to live in this country but it was never easy, you know. And I went to high school here, which was not an easy experience, in Louisiana. FM: And Lorca? KM: What was really interesting about Lorca was the anger—the anger and the rage Lorca felt about “the machine.” He came from Andalusia, from a kind of rural society and was so enraptured and frightened by the energy of New York City. He made New York into a real cross between an ancient nightmarish vision of Dante’s Inferno and surrealism. But you can sense that his surrealism was kind of medieval, almost kind of mythological; you can feel this underworld creeping up into the skyscrapers. That anger and that rich mythological or pseudo-mythological language appealed to me. It still very much appeals to me. As much as one appreciates being here, the privileges of being here, and the ability to contribute to the intellectual life of the United States, there’s still a great deal of anger that I feel at what the country has done—not just to me but what the country was doing to El Salvador, that whole sort of bloodiness that never stopped.
FM: And doesn’t stop. KM: And doesn’t stop. And you see Lorca responding to the 1930s, which were semi-benign compared to what the U.S. has done since. FM: It’s the difference, isn’t it, between surrealism as a kind of intellectual parlor game—“this not a pipe” as in the Magritte painting—and surrealism as a tool to confront something that you can’t intellectualize. KM: An unconventional language for an unconventional experience. That’s also what Marquez said about Magic Realism, that you could find a language that portrays the experience of turbulence like that. Ultimately it really is about living in fear. You can say that Lorca, this Andalusian, rural young man, found himself in a frightening place and yet he was willing to embrace his fears and name them, bring the nightmarish vision forth. This issue of a historical grievance, the anger, and a desire to preserve something which was about to be lost is what I had brought with me here. Even though I was writing in English, my sensibility is a different vision of the world. So I found in the international poets an affinity. FM: Did any American poets catch your attention at the time? KM: Phillip Levine’s poetry has that anger. I’m almost certain that had to do with Levine’s reading of Neruda and some of the other Latin American poets, so in a sense, even when I latched on to an American poet I found one whose poetry is influenced by translation.
Translation is something I encounter on a daily basis. As soon as I say my name I’ve put myself outside the border; I have to crawl back into the center. When a stranger asks me my name—and they ask maybe four or five times—every time they ask they’re telling me “I don’t know this name.” Then I have to find a way to translate or legitimate the existence of my name in this world. That is where translation becomes almost a kind of existential state.
Even though the lyric moment is really much more about private feelings, I have tried to not make it be about that, or have tried to make my private feelings much more inclusive—to have private feelings, if you will, about larger issues. Poetry was a place to bring forth all of these kinds of concerns. When you begin a poem you really do begin with a point of helplessness, or a point of isolation. The poem becomes a reaching out to break the isolation. I really am still a poet of exile. And my book tried to deal with those issues as well—explain what baggage I brought with me here. FM: Ismailia Eclipse? KM: Yeah. I found that the book now is recommended by Lonely Planet as one of the books to read about Libya. [laughter]. So in a sense, I’m kind of a translator in that regard. I love the fact that Lonely Planet is recommending it and I love the words “lonely” and “planet.” Maybe there’s an element of a native informant. A native informant can be a good thing, can be a good person; it does not have to mean you are an “Uncle Tom.” FM: Is the role of “native informant” part of a set of assumptions placed on a foreign-born writer in this country? KM: There is a kind of curiosity about that, but I think even the most sophisticated liberal audiences in America have in their minds a heavily ingrained notion of the immigrant rags-to-riches kind of story. In a sense that’s what they want you to settle for. If you’re an immigrant poet or an ethnic American poet—and more of the ethnic American poets are liable to do this than the exiled ones—you’re going to sit there and scream at the white audience. I don’t want to do that precisely because that robs me of my sense of agency. My sense of agency is larger than to scream. It’s to be cunning, at least. To actually try to create coalitions, be affirmative, not to be so meek and whiny. I don’t really tell the story of the happy immigrant. I would like to challenge the audience as to their privilege and mine. Also I don’t present the picture of a beautiful homeland that was lost to me. I don’t have that nostalgia for home. I missed my family, I didn’t miss a great nation whose people were all sweet. If someone wants to get a picture of what Libya is like from my book, it’s a human place, a place that has generosity and kindness and women who are oppressed and children who were abused.
Nor am I willing to just settle for being an exile in this country. Sometimes when you hear exiles talk they have nothing to say about what’s happening in America and that, I feel, is the central compromise: Okay, you came from a shitty country, great; you are not so happy here, great; you miss your country, great. You as an exile and even as an ethnic American poet are allowed to complain about the problems of your ethnicity, but you are not allowed to complain at large. This is the problem with a lot of ethnic American poets—they’re very provincial, they can only speak the sufferings of one community at the ignorance of others. As a conscientious human being I can’t do that.
I don’t know where translation plays into all this but what translation teaches you is that there is something before you that is whole, that needs to be conveyed. It teaches you to try to perfect the poem at the cost of yourself. The work is deeply impersonal—you are in the service of this poem and not of your ego. If you treat your own poetry in this sense, you’re going to work at the poem because of what the text demands. And the text demands more than your emotional concerns or your ego can offer. This issue of a greater impartiality helps us get into the nuances of the truth, an artistic truth. FM: It seems like the perfect antidote to the Romantic notion that the lyric moment is the private moment, which makes so much poetry in the States seem provincial. KM: It is provincial because the self is small. That’s the problem. The great poets are the ones who have a wider sense of what they can see, of what they allow themselves to see, let alone what they allow themselves to feel or empathize with. Somebody like Adrienne Rich, to me, is a great poet because of what she has gone to see. Even Robert Hass, in some ways, is great in that regard. He’s willing to see the whole nation, and that becomes part of his subject matter—not just what happened to him. Maybe translation hones our ability to be sometimes less personal, more technical, more focused on the work of art and its possibilities rather than what it can do for the poet as a person. FM: Are you more concerned with remaining faithful to the original document by crafting a more literal translation for it or with making a new product beautiful in English, in the new language? KM: My aesthetic is really to sustain both. I don’t compromise on the metaphors. I don’t replace a metaphor for another. The idea is to create poems in translation that widen the expanse of the language. Sometimes when we say beautiful we really just mean familiar, meaning echoing something that has already been thought of as beautiful. Precisely because the poets I’ve translated are 20th-century people and they’ve read world poets and have been influenced by them, there is that possibility that much of what I translate may be familiar to begin with. The cultures of people with high literacy are not that separate because they have access to each other. So, I really try to make the strange or unfamiliar beautiful. I would pursue the literal until I exhaust it and see if my pursuit of the strange utterance can render something that is interesting and surprising. FM: And in the service of the new language. KM: In the service of the new language. FM: Something that will broaden, rejuvenate, expand, English, in this case. KM: I don’t throw out lines, I don’t throw adjectives out. I would use the thesaurus a lot to see what one language offers that can bear what the other language has. FM: Jorie Graham [Pulitzer Prize winning poet] has said that English is one of the richest languages in the world—if not the richest—because it’s such an amalgam of languages, including Arabic. But its use is poor; it doesn’t know its own power. KM: Because that’s the level of interaction that English has wanted to have with the world. Look at how much the French language is in our world and even in our literature—genre, enjambment. Which realms of world culture has your language penetrated—these are things you’re talking to people about. If everybody knows the words “check” and “visa,” then that’s what you’re talking to people about. FM: And your own people? KM: And your own people as well. But that’s the conversation that you’re having with the world. And the Arabic words that have come into the English language in the last ten years, what are they? “Hamas,” “intifada,” “Al Qaeda.” Can you think of anything else? “Imam.” I don’t think that’s what the Arab world or the Islamic world has been trying to tell the rest of the world, but this is what came through. But also you can say the Islamic world is talking about jihad in many ways. You know in the ’70s Salamu-alaikam was a popular phrase. FM: Peace onto you my brother. KM: Yeah, but now I think the Arab world is kind of feeling caged, scared, and very feisty. And I would say rightfully scared during a tenacious moment. I can understand almost anything that happens over there. Understand it, not abide by it. Understand that people have been pushed to the limits. FM: Given your interest in translating the work of poets linked to Iraq, to what extent are you motivated by a kind of humanist translation—translation as a way to increase knowledge about an “other” in the hope this would lead toward greater empathy? KM: I first want to say something about increasing knowledge. You know that now there’s greater interest in Arabic translation than ever before, and Arab culture. Much of the interest in translation is really a matter of spying. The U.S. government is finding that local translators are somewhat bi
sed, as they wou
d naturally be, I imagine, and try not to incriminate their own people. So the government wants to have American citizen translators, preferably people who have nothing to do with Arab culture, or are not of Arab or Muslim descent. The other thing they’re trying to do is enhance machine translation technology to better help them tap people’s phones and bug their homes. And of course, there’s Orientalism, and as Said has informed us, you can have fields of knowledge that are geared directly toward helping or theorizing imperial projects, justifying them and helping using elements of local cultures to promote. The old alibi for colonialism in the 19th century was civilization, i.e. Christianity, and the new one is Democracy. It’s not all that different. The idea is to create in the Arab territories regimes that are completely collaborative and a population whose fate is directly influenced by American market policies—to streamline the whole culture. To do that you need translation, you need even to reshape the region’s language to make a place for your ideas. Luckily poetry is not read much by intelligence people; they don’t have the patience. And because poetry appeals to our better selves, they have no appetite for it.
If I see any direct links between my translation of Arabic poetry and creating or making knowledge available, I’d have to go to certain poems that are relevant to the current political situations. Poems like “America, America” by Saadi Youssef and “Elegy for the Living” by Fadhil Al-Azzawi directly address American involvement in Iraq and are powerful anti-war, anti-imperialist statements. Youssef’s poem was printed in The Guardian before the war and was read at several anti-war rallies. Al-Azzawi’s poem has the same potential. They are great poems, not simply because of their contemporaneousness, but because both poets were able to see through the cycle of violence. Al-Azzawi’s poem was written on the eve of the first Iraq war. What these two poems told the American policy makers is “Leave us alone. Let us deal with our suffering.” They also suggested that there might be other ways to help the Iraqi people than war. And they also suggested that the situation could be a quagmire for the U.S. Unfortunately the intelligence people did not read the poems, and if they did, they did not heed them.
Most poets, most real poets, have a complicated relationship with their subject, be it a lover or a political issue. Poetry is still perfectly suited for this complication, for instilling in its readers a sense of the complexity of the world, that one can—in fact one needs to—develop a negative capability, as Keats defined it. To live the grayness of uncertainty and to live with ambivalence. Until, I have to add, a really creative and good solution is found, or a strategy or approach to effect change.
Reading Iraqi poetry has the effect of first of all creating a kind of acknowledgement of the people. I can bet that anyone, any American, who has read a literary work by an Iraqi, would necessarily have second thoughts about sending soldiers to kill the 40 or so thousands we’ve killed this time around. Literature has a way of not letting such decisions come easy; it creates an interior life. My job has been to introduce Iraqi echoes into the interior lives of American readers. We in America are a mighty people, and we can be a mighty stupid people. Lately we have placed a group of people in power who are both stupid and vengeful. Yet we also have a great many chances to let our consciences speak. I’d like to think that the poets I’ve translated have helped us shape conscientious decisions. Farid Matuk is a poet and freelance writer living in Austin.