John Berger, David Constantine and Rema Hammami: Two Perspectives

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Two perspectives from Gists & Piths contributors

Untranslatable
by Holly Hopkins

I want to say it was the idea of translation as a utopian act that will stick most in my mind. It might make me feel learnéd. Or the description of how a literal word for word translation will kill a poem and one must go back to the “pre-verbal” on the way to a new poem (how I wish Richard Lattimore had been forced to study that idea before I had been forced to study Richard Lattimore). Or perhaps my favourite John Berger moment was,

“Lyric poems are always a last resort, if there was a more direct way it would be done, it is an appeal to the sky and you only appeal to the sky when you’ve done everything else.”

These ideas interested me, but are not the strongest taste in the mouth.

That was a new realisation of something I am sure should have been obvious, which came from watching a video of Mahmoud Darwish’s last reading in Palestine, in June this year. I was not aware of just how much a poem’s meaning and worth derived from its sound. I know that statement is ridiculous, indeed if you think about it literally, it’s nonsense. I have never met anyone who enjoyed poetry who didn’t sound the words in their heads when they read. Indeed I have often wondered if this was a fundamental distinction between those who enjoy poetry and do not. But it never occurred to me how much I would enjoy listening to a man reading his poem in a language of which I do not understand a single words.

I feel rather guilty about writing about an event I found engaging from Modern Poetry in Translation and then saying how much I enjoyed the un-translated poem. It is perverse. But that can’t be helped.

Some thoughts about asylum seekers interspersed with notes verbatim from the event
George Ttoouli

The English language marching towards hegemony
Martin Colthorpe

About five years ago I worked with some refugees and asylum seekers at a night shelter. I ran a few creative writing workshops. In one, a Congolese journalist brought in a story about becoming un fantôme. His story was based on the idea that, when you are displaced, no one will recognise you on the street, no one would smile at you and, by doing so, register your humanity. You became ‘a ghost waiting for a smile.’

The discussion moved on to cultural ghosts. I had been researching ‘vrikolakas’ at the time, a very particular Greek folkloric spirit. During the conversation the Kurdish-Iraqi journalist in the group had to leave the room. He had heard the footsteps of his dead friends walking on the floor above us.

Your rapidly moving lips
time rotating with the rotors of the plane’s engine
abandoning this prison Gaza
existing in a trough of misery
a small oyster lost in oppresive loneliness
a spewed out combat with time
Gaza more cramped than the mind of a sleeper
in the throes of a fearful nightmare
a happy life as a social deviation

(Misremembered from a 1955 short story by Ghassan Khanafani, read by John Berger, in which Nadia loses a leg protecting her brothers and sisters from Israeli bombs; a demonstration of love. There was no applause after Berger finished reading the story and at the end of the film he held his head in his hands.)

Working at the night shelter we would have to arrive at 20.30. The doors opened at 21.00. We prepared the food, ate dinner with whoever had showed up for the night and then put the lights out by 23.00. Breakfast was early, 07.00. everyone had to leave by 08.00

Some of the ‘guests’ (I am equivocal about what to call the shelter users, but that seems accurate) were so used to sleeping on the streets in winter they had to have all the windows open, even when it was below freezing. This was fine when we only had three or four guests. Some weeks, when there were new or temporary arrivals from a particular country, the shelter might have a dozen or more people, and because the men and women had to be separated we would need every room. The only couple we had to let sleep together was a Congolese husband and wife, in their late sixties. Many had trouble sleeping with the lights off, others with the lights on. Another needed the radio on, he couldn’t stand silence. We bought him earphones, but there were arguments still. Some never slept.

Normally the women would sleep in front room, so if any of the men turned nasty in the night they would be able to escape out onto the street. There was never a problem while I was there, many looked out for each other. I vaguely recall some flirting between one of the Kosovan farmhands and an Eritrean woman, both in their early twenties. It gave the guests and staff something to gossip about when they weren’t around.

Elementary justice.
John Berger

thoughts the Sword and Book can dispatch to the wasteland
the only flower we know is the red anemone

And I have of her…

Arguing with the herald of the invisible
[meeting the godhead, who is Death]

I am not mine,

I am not mine,

I am not mine.

(Misremembered from ‘The Mule’ by Mahmoud Darwish, read by John Berger and Rema Hammami.)

A former Iraqi PE teacher was at the shelter for a very long time. Months and months. He somehow managed to retain a degree of dignity throughout the time I knew him, simply by his ongoing demonstration of intelligence and compassion. He had spent some time in Crete, where my family is from, picking oranges and helping with farmwork while he traveled north through Europe. We would speak in our very basic Greek and laugh lots.

His case was desperate though, continually rejected. He was on the edge of deportation for years, some kind of invisible bureaucratic precipice, like the cliffs at Dover, which the Home Office was trying to push him off. A week before the (third?) anniversary of his arrival in the UK, something broke for him. He announced he would be killing himself on the day of the anniversary. He would go to Birmingham and climb up one of the giant cranes where they were constructing the Bullring, set himself on fire, and jump into the huge hole they had dug there.

The shelter manager argued with him all week. She didn’t sleep for the last 48 hours, staying on suicide watch. Eventually he backed down. Something changed. I later heard he found a woman who wanted to marry him, moved to live with her. I didn’t see him much after that.

Timeless and prophetic.
Rema Hammami, describing two short poems she read, by Mahmoud Darwish.

Translation is an emblemmatic act.
David Constantine

you say I don’t belong in this country
this country does not belong to you
and neither of us belong to this country
these weapons do not belong in any country
and these words, well, think about them
and you’ll see – now we’re out of coffee,
I’m going to the shop, I won’t be long.

Others weren’t so strong. One tried to electrocute himself by climbing on the table in the dining room after everyone had gone to sleep, smashing the lightbulb and putting his fingers in the socket. They got to him, but not before he had cut himself. He put blood all over the floor and walls as he struggled.

Translation is triangular, penetrating to what is behind screen of one language, taking the unnameable behind it and taking it across to the unnameable, the pre-verbal, behind the other language; bringing the poem forwards from the pre-verbal.

The translation of poetry is important now because of the history we are living in. Poetry has a greater significance in darker ages… Poetry was globalised before the traders got there. This is important given the catastrophe the traders have brought us to.
(paraphrased from John Berger)

There is no Iron Curtain, but there are more people than ever on the move from places they don’t want to to be on the move from… [Modern Poetry in Translation] receives Iraqi poetry from New Zealand, Somalian poetry from Canada…
David Constantine

Violence was common, though rarely escalated too far, except with the one or two that were either heavy drinkers, or had severe trauma and stress. One man broke his hand punching the wall.

Another, who hated the shelter manager for no reason he could ever explain – When I see her, I just see red, I don’t know why, but this sheet of red comes down over my eyes, he said to me once – he found her in the street an hour before the shelter opened, wheeling the food donated by the local Gurdwara down the road in a trolley. In his rage he hit her, knocked her to the floor and threw the trolley into the road, tipping out the food.

He was arrested, and instead the shelter staff cooked a vegetable rice dish. It was one of the happier meals they had together. Some of the shelter users couldn’t stomach the spices in the Sikh food every night.

One man hung himself with his belt. A guest found him before the shelter staff did.

Capitalism has no sense of place, no loyalty to place; poetry only works when it is rooted. Poetry becomes necessary in the face of this; it has autonomy against rootlessness, it defines the place it comes from.
John Berger

I entered the event with a false preconception about the festival: that I would be examining the aesthetic dimensions of translated poetry – the differences in syntax that arise that make the familiar seem less so. Instead the event brought out the political dimension, a discussion of the social significance of being exposed to poetry beyond our cultural expectations, limits. As Berger put it, the effect is “immeasurable”; it can’t and shouldn’t be measured, but we must all accept that the exposure is positive, benevolent.

Lyric poems are in effect a last resort; if ther was something quicker that could be done, it would be done. It is an appeal to the sky, a last resort… but it is listened to by other people, not the sky… it becomes shared, it increases endurance and strength in others.
John Berger

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One Response to “John Berger, David Constantine and Rema Hammami: Two Perspectives”

  1. Barbara S Says:

    I enjoyed the way this post is knitted together, it’s very well done. In fact the variety of input and viewpoint on the whole blog is terrific: a real multitude of voices. Keep it up!

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