Yesterday in New York City, the group “United States Artists” announced their list of 50 fellows for 2010. Each fellow receives $50,000.
Among them was poet/translator/professor Khaled Mattawa.
As noted in the Detroit Free-Press, this has been a pretty big year for Mattawa:
The 46-year-old Libyan-born poet and University of Michigan professor has celebrated the publication of two important books — a volume of his own poetry [Tocqueville] and a landmark translation of the works by the Syrian poet Adonis [Adonis: Selected Poems] — and he won a prestigious fellowship from the Academy of American Poets.
Now, on top of all that, you can pile a prestigious fellowship from USA Artists and $50,000.
Mattawa told the newspaper:
It will make life a little easier, but above all the prestige and recognition is very important at this level. To know you’re just one of 50 artists is like winning a small lottery by itself.
Mattawa, who moved to the U.S. at age 15 and crafts his poetry in English, is the author of four books of poetry: Tocqueville (New Issues Press, 2010) Amorisco (Ausable Press, 2008), Zodiac of Echoes (Ausable Press, 2003) and Ismailia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow Press, 1996). He’s also translated nine books of poetry: by Adonis, Saadi Youssef, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, Hatif Janabi, Maram Al-Massri, Joumana Haddad, Amjad Nasser, and Iman Mersal. In his introduction to Adonis: Selected Poems, he noted that the last one was the hardest.
In a very interesting interview with Blackbird, the interviewers quote Mattawa back to himself:
…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.
And he responds (to his own quote):
You’re true to poetry, you’re not true to the literal meaning, you’re true to poetry, which means you’re true to rhythm, you’re true to complexity and simplicity of language. And you’re true in the aggregate. If you are literal all the time, you will be true, but also you can take a poem from poetry by being true. So you’re true in the aggregate in that the over all poem has a strong feel about it. It may be different, slightly different from the original, in the way that Yo-Yo Ma is allowed to play a composition by Rachmaninoff, for example, differently from [how] Rachmaninoff played it. But you see, that’s the aspect, in that you can add greater intensity to a certain bit, more than maybe was necessarily intended, but all of it has to make sense as a whole.
Further down, he touches on one of my flash points with Arabic-English translations, the contraction(!):
And sometimes it’s a matter of contractions. Like when do you say, “I did not,” or “I didn’t”? In Arabic, you don’t have contractions. When do you do it in a translation? When does it seem right in a translation? It’s just a matter of the kind of feel you have for how the poet is saying, or your feel of how you think it should be said.
I am not a fan of every single one of Mattawa’s poems (although it’s difficult to name poets where I’m a fan of every single one of their works); of course I do find gems, and—although I’m not qualified to judge his translation per se—he has created a really, really gorgeous artifact with Adonis: Selected Poems.
Here’s the opening of a narrative-ish poem of Mattawa’s that I enjoy, from Web Del Sol:
Joke used to be:
if you don’t like it,
drink from the sea. Now
drink from the Nile.
Year 2030 all the fish will die
before reaching Dimietta.
Sometimes the world breaks
into shards aiming for your face.
Before they reach you
they turn into bubbles
and what joy to see them burst!
I’m talking about Lethe,
not the neighborhood in Benghazi,
five kilometers from the airport
where my father is building a house–
no architect, no map,
no contractor, no frills.
My mother says too big;
my brother, just
like the old house;
my sister, too far.
My father tells them:
Go drink from the sea.