I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
Since it has been one of the consuming passions of the last eighteen months of my life, it seems about time that I post something on here about A Bird is Not a Stone. It’s one of those occasions on which one gets to burble on about one’s own project, without feeling too guilty because actually I’m only a tiny piece of the whole and therefore I can talk about other people’s achievements in the style of a proud relative rather than an egotistical blogger.
A Bird is Not a Stone is a collection of Palestinian poetry translated into the ‘languages of Scotland’ – English, Gaelic, Scots and Shetlandic. The Palestinian poems were chosen by Murad al-Sudani and his colleagues at the House of Poetry in Al-Bireh, with the main criterion being that their authors be poets who have never, or rarely, appeared in translation. The full list of poets can be seen here.
The Palestinian poems were then ‘bridge’ translated by a team of volunteers, co-ordinated by yours truly and largely comprising current and former students and staff at the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. Bridge translation, for the unfamiliar, is a process by which a very literal, un-artistic version of the original is created, including footnotes to explain issues such as rhythm or cultural references, and potentially also thesaurus-like lists of alternative words where there is ambiguity or double meaning.
Those ‘bridges’ were then passed to a team of 25 or so Scots poets (you can see them here), including some seriously impressive names – the Makar Liz Lochhead and the multi-talented Alasdair Gray – as well as personal favourites of mine such as Kathleen Jamie and John Glenday. Working with the bridge translators, the Palestinian poets and sometimes Arabic-speaking friends, they turned the raw, literal translations into target-language versions which work on their own terms as pieces of art.
That rather bald description by no means captures the complexity, intensity, joy and frustration of the past year and a half. Working with something in the region of 50 poets is the perfect situation for the cliché of herding cats – but cats with, in certain cases, hair-trigger egos and no sense of deadlines. On the other hand, finding in Henry Bell a supremely patient and cool-headed co-editor and general partner in crime was an extraordinary blessing. And having this ridiculously ambitious project simmering away has also let me discover how supremely lucky I am in my somewhat accidental choice of PhD supervisor. Some might have been annoyed or discouraging; mine has been not only patient, but unconditionally supportive and helpful. Another blessing.
Claiming to be the ‘editor’ of a book like this feels rather odd, though. It doesn’t really capture the strange combination of deep satisfaction and mild disconnection I feel towards it; the nearest simile I can come up with is that it’s perhaps like being a matchmaker, standing at the back of the crowd whilst a couple they’ve introduced celebrate their golden wedding, blissfully happy and surrounded by healthy, well-adjusted children and grandchildren. ‘Editing’ seems to imply a more interventionist role; I feel like my activity has been more in the order of creating an environment in which things which were always meant to be together have been able to meet, and in which those new combinations could go out into the world and find new ways to be.
Now, we’re almost at that ‘going out into the world’ stage; the book should (fingers crossed!) be out in about ten days’ time. We have ‘soft’ launches in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but the big events will be in August when (fingers crossed again!) two of the Palestinian poets – Maya Abu al-Hayyat and Tareq al-Karmy – will be coming to the UK for events alongside some of the Scots poets. But it’s the prospect of actually holding the book – with its gorgeous cover design – which is sending tingles of anticipation into my fingertips. I’ve done it three time already, but the last few days before a new book comes out is an experience I’ll never get used to! Counting, counting…