I’m slowly working my way through Ammiel Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs, and I’ve run across a couple of quotations that not only rhyme with each other but enter into a useful dialog with the recent controversy over translation, in which the complete review raised hackles by objecting to the whole concept. I’ve tried to make the case that they were simply pointing out the fallacy of thinking you’ve made real contact with a work of literature by reading a translation, but these quotations put the issue in a larger context.
The first is from David Antin‘s 1984 book-length poem tuning (a long excerpt of which is online here). Antin (who was studying Arabic) had gotten into a conversation in French with an Egyptian who had just seen the same Egyptian movie that he had, and then had to translate for a third party who joined the conversation and spoke neither French nor Arabic; Antin reflects on the fact that although he’d understood all the words that had been spoken to him, “i also knew i was not even close to an understanding of what he meant by ‘england’ or ‘france’ as he was not even close to what the american had understood as the ‘united states’ and ‘russia’.” Then comes the following passage:
beginning to arrive at a notion of how far we might be from
each other and what sort of distance we might have to travel
like to contribute to human not understanding i would like
to slow down the fantasy and illusion of understanding so
that we could inspect the way and the pace at which we are
approaching or leaving other people and see how far away
they are and whether there is any reason or prospect for
reaching them because one thing that’s been promoted
endlessly in this world is the fantasy of understanding the
notion that it is always possible desirable and costs
A view from the other side of the barrier is provided by Jean Said Makdisi in her Beirut Fragments, in which she describes what it was like for those who stayed in Beirut during the civil war of the ’70s and ’80s, when most sensible people had fled:
Those who are outside looking in see only the war. For us, there are people, friends, life, activity, production, commitments, a profound intensity of meaning. It is these things that have given us the strength to coninue, even when we are filled with doubt, for they reassert themselves during and after every battle….
We have paid a heavy price for this community. Let those who would comment lightly on us beware: We are unforgiving judges of those who have not shared our experiences. We are like a secret society. We have our own language; we recognize signs that no one else does…
This brings to mind Anna Akhmatova’s famous poem, written towards the end of the terrible Russian Civil War, which begins (in Hemschemeyer’s translation):
I am not with those who abandoned their land
To the lacerations of the enemy.
I am deaf to their coarse flattery,
I won’t give them my songs.
I want to listen to the words of people who have had very different experiences, I want very much to understand what they have to say… but not quickly. You’re fooling yourself if you think you can understand too quickly, or too well.