The Untranslatables: Addie Leak

The following contribution is from Addie Leak, a freelance editor and translator based in Iowa City, IA, where she is also a Provost’s Postgraduate Visiting Writer in the creative writing track of the English department. She translates primarily from French and Spanish, and her work has been published in the Huffington Post, The Postcolonialist, and the Buenos Aires Review, and is forthcoming in 91st Meridian and Drunken Boat.  The poem discussed below is from the collection La Mille et deuxième nuit [The Thousand and Second Night] (1975) by Moroccan poet Mostafa Nissabouri. This is a book that played an important role in the creation of a postcolonial Moroccan literary identity; its poems provide an often-surreal vision of the tension in Morocco after its 1956 independence from France.

 

 

The Moroccan poet Mostafa Nissabouri relishes playing with and subverting the norms of the French language. Unsurprisingly, translating his 1975 collection La Mille et deuxième nuit has been both incredibly rewarding and incredibly tricky. The challenges often boil down to the level of the word. In a dreamlike, dystopian poem that is very much about a sense of place that has been compromised by decades of colonization, Nissabouri writes:

 

je me suis surpris à psalmodier
                                    le rêve écarlate des grenades
mais aucune grenade n’arrivait à éclore
                                                     sans engendrer
des nœuds gordiens des vautours pommes d’or et
des mers d’indicible amertume

 

Literally:

I caught myself chanting
                                 the scarlet dream of pomegranates
but no pomegranate managed to bloom
                                           without begetting
Gordian knots vultures apples of gold and
seas of unspeakable bitterness

 

The rub: “grenade,” or pomegranate is, yes, also the French word for the handheld explosive device that Anglophones will recognize in the French word. It’s an intentional double meaning. Nissabouri’s “scarlet dream of pomegranates” is not a leisurely daydream in a beautifully tiled villa. The red of pomegranate juice mixes with the red of blood spilled; the apple of discord causes strife within a newly independent Morocco; the seas between Morocco and its former “protectors” are bitter.

 

The first two lines presented here are repeated at the end of the poem. It’s vital that the double meaning be made clear to allow the eeriness of the image to stick with the reader. What to do…?

 

The solution that I came up with (and here, dear readers, I humbly submit to a vote, if you are willing) is this:

 

I caught myself chanting
                                 the scarlet dream of pomegranates
but no pomegranate managed to explode
                                    without begetting
Gordian knots vultures apples of gold and seas of
                                                     unspeakable bitterness

 

Option Two, which is more subtle:

 

I caught myself chanting
                                 the scarlet dream of pomegranates
but no pomegranate managed to burst
                                    without begetting
Gordian knots vultures apples of gold and seas of
                                                     unspeakable bitterness

 

I like the sounds in the second option but fear losing the violence of the former. Do grenades burst? They are thrown, detonated, they explode, they kill, they maim. Burst sounds too much like an overripe fruit—no?

 


 

 

“The Untranslatables” is a series on M-Blog about those words or phrases that give us pause as translators, that stump us and then, sometimes, enlighten us. In other words, those fragments of a text that can be so hard to translate but also so utterly satisfying when and if we finally find a way to say in our language close to what they mean in another one. If you would like to contribute an “Untranslatable” story to M-Blog, write to us at mdash.ahb@gmail.com.

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