‘Loss Sings’: Translating Grief

On the face of it, Loss Sings claims to be fifteen translations of al-Khansā, a much celebrated Arabian poet of the seventh century whose threnodic poems commemorate the loss of her two brothers in battle. Prof. James E Montgomery has translated the fifteen poems elegantly in this brief thirty-seven-page booklet.

I confess, I approached this work with a certain indebtedness to the professor.  His work on two figures, Ibn Fadlān and Jahiz, the former a traveller to what is now Russia and the latter a polymath bibliophile, have directly influenced my own book, The Travels of Ibn Fudayl. In fact, the protagonist Ibn Fudayl is a play on Ibn Fadlan and is also a traveller and bibliophile. The novella itself is presented as a translation of a manuscript found in the Assad library in the same way Velidi Togan found Ibn Fadlān’s manuscript in Iran. And so for me, Montgomery’s scholarship and ability have never been in doubt.  And anyone reading these renditions of al-Khansā will find the quality clearly evident.

The poems remind you of Homeric or Norse poems of valor, courage, and loss. In and of themselves, the fifteen poems express the grief of a sister for her two brothers lost in war, Muawiyah and Sakhr.  She celebrates their valor, their generosity, and their wisdom. In some ways, her loss should transcend time, and we should be able to feel her pain even now, for all of us will at some point lose a loved one. But as Montgomery admits, even though he taught her poetry, the poems have been difficult to connect with. They are filled with tropes and literary conventions which to the modern reader, in the Occident at least, appear melodramatic. Even though we understand the emotion, we find it hard to connect with; men in Western culture do not weep, for instance. If we do, we do it alone. Our way of expressing and talking about grief and loss is different from that of the ancients. Had these poems stood alone without the commentary by Montgomery, I suspect they would have been confined to the specialist.

Montgomery’s commentary elevates the work. A reminder of what the act of translation is, the work lives up to the claim that the Cahiers series “makes available new explorations in writing, in translating, and in the areas linking these two activities.” These are activities with which I am personally involved. The fact that Montgomery’s voice, his vulnerabilities, and his life are presented alongside the poet makes this thirty-seven-page booklet profound and enjoyable. In fact, I wish there were more. Had these fifteen poems been presented alone, we would never have noticed what an effort they have been for the translator, how taxing the act of translation is, and how they can offer respite from an unsympathetic world. It is no wonder that Penrice, Arberry, and other Orientalists found solace in translating. I can just see Montgomery wrestling with difficult lines, how he tries to make them malleable enough to live within another language; to convey not only its meaning but spirit.

If one can forgive another digression, being married to a professional translator, one witnesses this struggle first hand. My wife is an excellent translator, and yet is often torn by the act, especially by poems I would dare not go near. She asks me repeatedly if she has been true, not to merely to the meaning of the words, but to the spirit of what was intended, and when she thinks she has failed, you see its devastating impact in her being. It doesn’t matter if you tell her that the translations in and of themselves are beautiful, that they are stand-alone pieces, she is almost traumatized by the experience. Montgomery hits the nail on the head when he says:

“Experienced translators know that for literary translations to be possible they must decide what they are prepared to leave out as much as what they have to retain…literary translation is thus more akin to trauma than it is to memory.”

Translation is a lonely journey, with little in glory or financial gains to be had at the end. But most of us never see the effort that goes into them. Montgomery’s commentary and meditation on this act gives the reader a glimpse into those struggles.
But recently, translation became a bit personal for me, and so Loss Sings has had a very cathartic effect. I never appreciated the art of translation because most translations I have done have been news or academic texts. These require minimal literary flair, only accuracy. But recently writing To the Mountain, the story of an Afghan Arab, Abdullah Anas, fighting the Soviets, presented me with problems that I feel Montgomery captures. How does one convey the personality, the tone, the character of the man in the English language when he switches from classical Arabic, throwing in smatterings of English and colloquial Arabic? Have I captured him as he is? Have I been true? There is constant assessment and hand wringing over the process. Loss Singstouched a very personal chord with those struggles.

Montgomery has shown how personal translation can become. For he weaves al-Khansā’s poems of loss with his own. At the beginning, Montgomery tells us that his son experienced a life-changing car accident that made him, for the first time, taste al-Khansā’s poems. Her poems took on an altogether different meaning which I hope, as a father, I never have to taste. Even if one cannot feel the pain of al-Khansā one can feel his and that bridge of pain enables us to understand her loss from many many centuries ago in Arabia. It is as if Montgomery has become essential to understanding her. Not only is he a translator of words, but a translator of grief. One cannot but admire the courage it takes for someone to write about such a personal event. I felt almost like an intruder, embarrassed as Montgomery stoically wrote about his son’s treatment, date by date. As he does, so he draws on Ben Johnson and 9/11 and scenes from other times.

And there too I could relate to just how translation can impact one’s life. For the two years I have been working on To the Mountain, I have walked with Anas, listening to his memories, of friends made and friends lost; he had his Sakhrs and Muawiyahs too. In particular, one man, the charismatic leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, made a lasting impression on him and, through the act of translating, me. Beginning my journey with Anas initially, I thought that my subject had a weak character to be so smitten by Massoud. But Anas’ character is far from weak. As he took me along the Hindu Kush, Panshir, and Kabul, and shared with me his anecdotes, and I delved into other accounts of the Afghan commander both in Arabic and Western sources, I too understood how one could be entranced by him. Everyone who met him was. But even more so in translating Anas’ words, Massoud had become flesh to me, someone I felt I knew. I travelled to Iran to understand the culture he came from, read the books he was into. And so Anas told me of the day he was killed, two days before nine eleven. It was as if I had personally lost the man. I understood his profound anger against the men who had assassinated him and at the world that did nothing to prevent it. I understood Anas’ grief as he sat alone in his room in London, devastated and not quite comprehending why the world didn’t sense the loss of this great commander and friend, and concerned itself only with the loss of the twin towers in New York. At that moment, to Anas, the world had been shattered by the loss of one friend, whilst the world as we knew it was in the birth throes of the War on Terror. Why did they not understand Anas’ loss? Chieftains die. And so the words of al-Khansā resonated with me too when she said:

Why? Why this reign of terror?
            Why does Death
demand a hero each day?
            Death fixates our chiefs,
chooses our best.
            If the world were just,
Fate wouldn’t take
            only our heroes.

Not only do I have to convey that sense to an audience that has never met him, but translating has become a sort of Stockholm syndrome. And yet I have never met those characters that fought against the Soviets! At the time, I was but a nipper running around in the suburbs of Stockholm. Translation does that to you. As a journalist, I had to consciously extract myself from the subject. If Loss Singsis a reflection of the quality of the rest of the series, then I am keen to read more of it. I am sure I will return to Montgomery’s ruminations again, and I hope that he continues to write.

This book review was first published in ArabLit.