Khaled Mattawa on Adonis
Our new issue includes Khaled Mattawa’s translation of “A Bridge to Job” by leading Syrian poet Adonis. We asked Mattawa to talk with us a little about Adonis’s work, the challenges of translation from Arabic, and what poetry in translation can uniquely offer us. This project is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
First of all, can you tell us a little about Adonis, for those who don’t know his work?
Adonis is one of the most important poets of the Arabic language. His early writings helped bring modernist and French symbolist techniques to Arabic poetry, and he is now a postmodern cosmopolitan poet whose innovations are in step with the developments of poetry around the world. His effort in renewing Arabic poetry was matched by his rigorous examination of and expounding upon its deep roots. His poetry is thoroughly modern but also deeply informed by Arab poetics, philosophy, and theology.
“A Bridge to Job” has a sense of layeredness—in the geography of Jerusalem it describes, and also in the layers of text: sacred text and commentary and folk adages all jostling together and building on each other. What do you make of the way he divides the poems into sections with names like “News,” “Reflections,” “Song,” and so on? What’s he up to there?
Adonis began to challenge linearity early on in his career. His earlier short poems were mainly qit‘a (poetic fragments), and then he eventually began to string the fragments into larger and larger wholes. Collage is a useful term to describe his work. Working in sections allows him to defy temporality, to let the past impinge on the present, to show how at times the past was more modern and progressive and tolerant. This is one of his main themes. These cuts and swerves in time and tonality destabilize any certainties about the present moment.
This continuous presence of the past is not always positive, of course. Adonis portrays Jerusalem’s role as the focal point of monotheism as a force of intolerance—whether it be in the Book of Job, which does not account for the Other, or Muslim fundamentalism, or the Israeli state and its repressive and violent policies. You see him, for example, conflate a scene in a modern restaurant with the remains of Job’s feast to evoke the original crime and the perpetual desire for revenge against the Other.
What are some things about the poem that a reader who isn’t familiar with the tradition of Arabic poetry might miss?
As a translation, and with many footnotes provided, it seems to me that all the elements of a full reception are there. The poem provides ample hints of the speaker’s sadness, confusion, and vast knowledge—but there’s a tonal element that is very difficult to replicate. Once, after a reading where Adonis read the Arabic originals and I read the English translations, the poet Jorie Graham asked me, “How come he takes much longer than you to read the same passage?” I explained that I thought it was because Adonis elongates his vowels and sort of chants his poems, which is typical of how poetry is recited in Arabic. That quality of song, which shows Adonis to be part of an old tradition even as he revamps it, is perhaps not suitable to English. One should perhaps try to read the translation with some dramatic flair to supply that missing element.
Could you tell us a little about what you’re working on right now—in poetry and in life?
I’m working on a collection of poems and have just finished up a collection of essays called How Long Have You Been with Us? which will be out from the University of Michigan Press as part of their Poets and Poetry Series. I am now translating quite a bit to Arabic and am working on completing two anthologies of international poetry. I’m in Cairo now and I plan to stay on for another year or so. That’s probably what’s causing the turn to translating to Arabic.
Reading translated poetry can be challenging. What do you think we stand to gain from the effort?
I think reading this poem, even if it were written in English, would indeed be a challenge. It’s a modern poem and difficulty is part of the experience. As to translation, I think we turn to translated poetry for that challenge, for the comfort the foreign poem has with itself even as it defies our expectations. Translated poetry opens up the possibility of our language by virtue of its unfamiliar allusions, images, and ideas, and in that sense we see our language tested and expanded by the effort to render them. Testing and expanding the language is part of writing poetry and poetic renewal, and in all the history of poetry, as far as I know, there’s never been a poetic revolution that was purely indigenous, that was not touched by translation or multilingualism. Translation is what keeps language fresh; it’s necessary for the making of new meanings.