Translating Palestine’s poetry into Scotland’s tongues

A Bird is Not a Stone - cover

A print volume of Palestinian poetry which will be hitting the shelves in the coming weeks is one with which I’ve been closely involved — as co-editor and translation co-ordinator — and about which I’d like to share a few thoughts.

A Bird is Not a Stone is a collection of poems by 25 contemporary Palestinian poets, translated into a selection of the languages of Scotland — English, Gaelic, Scots and Shetlandic. The idea for the collection was first mooted at a meeting which took place in 2012, when Scottish writers met with Murad al-Sudani and his colleagues at the House of Poetry in al-Bireh in Palestine.

One of the topics which was raised at that meeting was the fact that beyond a cluster of big names — Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, Taha Mohammed, Ibrahim Nasrallah — few Palestinian poets are translated into English. An increasing number — such as Mazen Maarouf — are taking modern, entrepreneurial routes to getting their work out into the world, mainly through blogging, but others have found getting exposure difficult.

The result was a planned collection from the “anti-canon.” Some (such as Zakaria Mohammed and Maya Abu al-Hayyat) are well-known and well-respected Arabic writers, while others are fairly new even within this field.

“Bridge” translation

With an ethos of allowing creative independence on both sides of the project, the House of Poetry picked the Palestinian poems and agreed jointly with the Scottish team a methodology of “bridge translation” or “versioning.” This is a means of translation in which the original texts are translated by people who have technical knowledge of that language, but are not themselves creative writers in a conventional sense.

Those literal “bridge” translations (which may include thesaurus-like lists of alternative words where there is ambiguity or multiple meanings) are then passed onto poets who normally work in the target language, but may well have no knowledge at all of the original tongue. They then work with those literal versions to create poetry which — hopefully — conveys the sense and meaning of the original, in the target language.

Some of the complexity and excitement of translation was highlighted by poets such as Christine de Luca and Harry Giles who work in more than one target language. De Luca commented soon after starting to work on her “versions” that her plans to work in English had quickly changed after encountering Maya Abu al-Hayyat’s poems, the grounded earthiness of which she felt resonated strongly with Shetlandic.

And performances of work from A Bird is Not a Stone by Harry Giles and translations editor Abla Oudeh rapidly demonstrated the common elements of formal Arabic and old-fashioned literary Scots. Rather than read one poem in Arabic and the next in Scots, Giles and Oudeh chose to perform a long poem by Faisal Qarqati in a much more blended way, alternating the two languages verse by verse. Many of those in the audience understood little or nothing of either tongue, but were still swept away by the powerfully rhythmic, almost incantational style of the reading.

Independence struggles?

The bridge translators for A Bird is Not a Stone have — like the versioning poets — largely come from Scotland, and particularly the University of Edinburgh. The Electronic Intifada has reported before on the strong support within Scotland for Palestinian rights, and the rising interest in self-determination struggles which has been roused by Scotland’s impending referendum on independence from London. The project has also benefitted from Palestine twinning links; the city of Glasgow is one of four British cities which are officially twinned at municipal level with Palestinian towns — in this case Bethlehem — and initial funding for the book came from the Provost of Glasgow.

Co-editor Henry Bell, who co-ordinated much of the Scottish side of the process, has commented that not a single poet turned down his invitation to be involved. The list includes the Scots Makar (roughly equivalent to a poet laureate), Liz Lochhead, as well as other well-known figures such as Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay, John Glenday, Alasdair Gray and Billy Letford. And Freight Books, a Scottish independent publisher known for its literature and non-fiction ranges, has been unfailingly supportive and enthusiastic about the book.

Going mainstream?

A Bird is Not a Stone will be published in early June, and alongside the usual launch events several of the Scottish poets and — finances and visas permitting — several of the Palestinian poets will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, one of the UK’s biggest literature events.

So, what are the lessons that might, perhaps, be learned from A Bird is Not a Stone (so far)? Firstly, I would flag up the potential role of twinning relationships in supporting bigger projects. Glasgow’s support for the book was invaluable early on in the project, and goes far beyond the usual twinning activities of mutual visits and cultural-awareness events.

Secondly, A Bird is Not a Stone shows, I think, that creative arts can be a means of communication and awareness-raising without also having to be depoliticized. And thirdly, that working with Palestinian writers to create versions of their work for English-speaking audiences doesn’t have to be a matter of simply trying to recreate the Arabic in English, but can be a process of genuine creativity on both sides.

And fourthly, in the UK, if not in other parts of the world, public opinion in Palestine has shifted to the extent that a book like this can be created by “mainstream” writers and publishers. It’s an exciting — and encouraging — development.


Sarah Irving

Sarah Irving's picture

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor, author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone (a volume of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland), and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked and traveled in Palestine since 2001.