On Saying and Meaningness

‘al-bidāyaẗu-l-mafqūdaẗu, The Lost Beginning

I painted it all tried to paint my thoughts / And caught so little / The world still grows it grows relentlessly / And yet there is always less of it
(From “The Old Painter on a Walk” by Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, The New Yorker, 11-21-22)

Poetry! How do you translate it? I don’t know a word of Polish, but surely translator Clare Cavanagh has tapped transmissible gold from Adam Zagajewski’s poem? Look alone at how the transgressive run-on sentences evoke a perception of headlong welter!

Does winkeling out what a poem says shed light on what it’s “about”? A poet may say, “You’re asking the wrong question; the poem is about what it says. Just feel the burn, revel in the mystery!” Perhaps followed by tips on “how to read poetry.” My dinghy sails past these rodomontades with me lashed to the mast. Words that aren’t more than the sum of themselves are forgettable, and my project is to remember them.

Part 2 of Gilgamesh’s Snake (1) is titled ‘al-bidāyaẗu-l-mafqūdaẗu: “the beginning the lost,” i.e., The Lost Beginning.

(1) O master,
(2) don’t write history for nothing(ness).
lā tū’arriẖ li-l-^adami
Don’t write histories for no reason.
(3) Don’t say came who came
lā taqul jā’a man jā’a
Don’t talk about someone arriving
(4) and left who left.
wa ḏahaba man ḏahaba 
and someone else going away.
(5) Don’t draw back from eternity
lā takšif ^ani-l-ẖulūdi
Don’t let anyone glimpse that white shadow
(6) your pale essence.
called Eternity, which you cast.

Verses 5 and 6 say, “Don’t draw back from eternity / your pale essence.” Verb kašafa with preposition ^an means to draw back something like a curtain or veil, thus laying bare what it conceals, which in this case is “eternity” — ‘al-ẖulūd. The “curtain” sought by the speaker not to be drawn back is the apostrophized master’s “pale essence.” He’s a historian. In the Glenday-Iskander version (italicized), the historian’s pallor colors eternity, which is the shadow he casts. This gussies up an obscure conceit with razzmatazz, which may fit Borges’ notion that “a translator should seek not to copy a text but to transform and enrich it.” (2) But it’s also Transgressive. (3)

Postscript: I can’t stop fidgeting over that odd comma casting its shadow in verse 6.

Post-Postscript: I need a good calligraphy brush. The paintbrushes I improvise with splay and fudge the script hideously. I’m discovering that a brush is like string: you can pull, but not push it.

(1) Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, Ghareeb Iskander, Bilingual Edition, Translated from the Arabic by John Glenday and Ghareeb Iskander, Syracuse University Press, 2015. In text citations, the published translation is in italics beneath my literal rendering and transliteration.
(2) Jiayang Fan, “Han Kang and the Complexity of Translation,” The New Yorker, 1-8-18.
(3) My invented labels are Congruent (matches the source text fairly closely, with minimal liberties taken for readability); Omissive (suppresses elements of the source text without obvious justification); Expansive (adds interpretive structure or content not discernible in the source text but plausibly deriving from it); Inventive (carries the “expansive” element to a level not obviously supported by the source text); Transgressive (departs from the source text in a way that seems to betray the poem’s letter or spirit).

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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