On Translating Habib Tengour

Translator’s Note

Habib Tengour, August 2009

Habib Tengour and I first met when we were both teaching at the University of Constantine, Algeria, in the late seventies. We exchanged copies of our first books, talked endlessly about poetry and politics in the Maghreb, America and Europe, became friends and have remained close ever since. Sometimes years go by between face to face meetings (the triangulation between three continents isn’t always easy), but — besides mail and e-mail — we have our books to keep us informed about what we are up to, and we have that closest possible form of silent dialogue: translation. Tengour has translated a range of my works (poems and essays) into French, while since the eighties and despite long fallow periods, I have translated a spectrum of his works into English. The sum of which, augmented by new translations — such as this one — will come out in early 2011 from Black Widow Press as Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader.

At times I feel that such familiarity with a poet and his or her work may not be the best approach to translation. Indeed, the thought may arise, why translate what I am totally familiar with? Why would I have a need for this translation as I know and understand the texts in the original and/or can ask the author, who is a friend, for any needed éclaircissements? And I could push this thought further, link it to a suggestion I recently came across, namely that one should translate what one does not understand, translate (from) languages one does not know — and, to stay in that logic, authors one is therefore not familiar with. The proposition has something attractive, indeed, in that the work would then become a true voyage of discovery, a foray into unknown, uncharted — at least for that specific translator — territories. I can even imagine the wonderful endless hours of familiarizing oneself with a new language, of dictionaries to be dug through, websites to be googled, alphabets to be learned, strange new sounds to be shaped for the first time in one’s throat. Besides the slightly dubious romantic underbelly of this suggestion, there is of course the realist limits to a given man or woman’s time investments for these matters. I do confess, however, that I am proceeding with such an approach in relation to a language I know a/too little of, have a great love and interest for, but have not had the time to study in detail: the Arabic.

…translation is the closest reading one can give a poem — and this applies even if one thinks one knows the language under hand perfectly. In the act of translation I become aware
of tectonic depths, linguistic layers that any ever so ‘close’ reading does not permit…

There are however two reasons — one personal, one public — why this does not apply, and certainly not in this case. As I have said elsewhere, translation is the closest reading one can give a poem — and this applies even if one thinks one knows the language under hand perfectly. In the act of translation I become aware of tectonic depths, linguistic layers that any ever so “close” reading does not permit — in fact it helps one, as reader, to bypass all the traditional critical manners of reading (such as “close reading”). And this is even more true in the case of a poet whose work one is so familiar with in its rhythms, particularities of syntax or vocabulary, that reading it one may all too easily slide over it. It is exactly here — and for me the work of Habib Tengour’s is very much such an occasion — that one can use translation as a way to interrupt that surface slide and force one to drill down into the text. Further, translating the French of an author who is culturally bi-lingual — Arabic as first language, mother-tongue, but also as the language of the oral literature of his youth, with French as the colonial and post-colonial imposition, even when chosen as medium for poems and novels — means always already translating the unknown, trying to hear or fathom the ghost of Arabic underlying, under-towing the surface French. (I have explored this in more detail in the essay “On the Nomadic Circulation of Contemporary Poetics” in my recent collection Justifying the Margins, Salt Publishing, 2009)

The second reason why I believe in the need for these translations even though the work is very familiar to me, is a public reason: this work is not familiar to the English-speaking world. There is very little francophone (not to mention arabo-phone or berbero-phone) literature from the Maghreb translated at this point — and the only books from that area likely to find a translator, publisher and distributor, are novels that have shown commercial viability in France. It is therefore important — essential, really — to translate what is the major experimental, innovative work coming from that —or any other hitherto untranslated — part of the world. And Tengour is, as I have said elsewhere, “one of the Maghreb’s most forceful and visionary poetic voices of the post-colonial era,” a writer who has been and continues to define what Maghrebian literature can and will be. To understand how profoundly his outlook revisions the landscape of our so-called “avant-garde” literature by giving its long-effaced due to the Maghreb, we need only read into one of his manifesto pieces, “Maghrebian Surrealism,” that situates the tradition of French Surrealism as a late local variation of a much older and wider practice:

Who is this Maghrebian? How to define him?

“The woods are white or black” despite the hidden presence of nuances.
Today definition fascinates because of its implications. A domain that misleads. Political jealousy far from the exploded sense of the real.

Indeed there exists a divided space called the Maghreb but the Maghrebian is always elsewhere. And that’s where he makes himself come true.

Jugurtha lacked money to buy Rome.
Tariq gave his name to a Spanish mountain.

Ibn Khaldûn found himself obliged to give his steed to Tamerlaine.

Abd El Krim corresponded with the Third International…

The successful relay between modernist Euro-American experiments and local traditions of sociopolitical and spiritual narrative explorations are the core achievement of the poetics: “It is, finally, in Maghrebian Sufism that surrealist subversion inserts itself: ‘pure psychic automatism,’ ‘amour fou,’ revolt, unexpected encounters, etc… There always resides a spark of un(?) conscious Sufism in those Maghrebian writers who are not simply smart operators — go reread Kateb or Khair-Eddine.”

And so I keep translating Si Habib, for the pleasure and the friendship and the gestures and acts of hospitality this entails — and for the incredible education in poetics and cultural insight I get from doing the work.

— Bay Ridge, 16 February 2010

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