Last night I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by Iraqi novelist and translator Sinan Antoon on his work translating the Iraqi poet Sangor Boulous, as part of the American University in Cairo’s ongoing In Translation series. Antoon, a professor at New York University who has translated Mahmoud Darwish, Saad Youssef and Boulous, talked about translation “as mourning.” He himself left Iraq in the early 90s and he shared poems by Boulous that engaged in the “mourning of individual and collective lives and of a lost homeland.” But he pointed out that Bolous resists easy nationalism and nostalgia even as he chronicles the staggering loss that Iraq has suffered.
Here is Antoon's translation of "A Portrait of an Iraqi Person at the End of Time," originally published in Jadaliyya.
I see him here, or there:
his eye wandering in the river of catastrophes
his nostrils rooted in the soil of massacres
his belly which grinded the wheat of madness
in Babylon’s mills
for ten thousand years
I see his portrait, which has lost its frame
in history’s repeated explosions
retrieving its features like a mirror
to surprise us every time
with its gratuitous ability to lavish
In his clear forehead you can see
as if on the pages of a book
a column of invaders passing through
just as in a black and white film:
give him any prison or graveyard!
give him any exile
any “here” or “there”
we can see the catapults
pounding the walls
so that once again,
Uruk rises high
* Uruk: the ancient city of Sumer and then Babylonia, became an important cultural and political center. It is believed that the modern name of “Iraq” might have been derived from it.
* The poem was published in Boulus’ last collection, published posthumously: Azma ukhra li-kalb al-Qabilah (Another Bone for the Tribe’s Dog) (Beirut & Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2008).
Here is Bolous himself reading, In Arabic, “I Came From There,” which Antoon said pays dues to “the dead who do not demand to be spoken for, but spoken to.” Here is the text side-by-side in Arabic and English.