The art of making a more direct connection with another culture and vision
Dr. Michael Beard lives in a bifurcated world, where English meets Persian, writer meets translator, East meets West. He considers himself a modernist in European and English traditions, and he teaches both in UND’s Department of English, but he is also a specialist in Middle Eastern literature. His most prominent calling, for more than a quarter century, has been to translate Persian and Arabic poetry into English. It is a calling for which he has earned some acclaim, including the prestigious title of Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, the highest honor the University of North Dakota bestows on its faculty. His work is well known among translators and other scholars. UND Discovery asked him about the challenges of this specialty.
How did you get started as a translator of Persian and Arabic?
Victoria [Dr. Victoria Beard, associate provost] and I went into the Peace Corps shortly after we got married in 1968. From 1968 to 1970, we lived in a small town on the Iranian Central Plateau. And it really changed us. We just found it was a very receptive little community where we felt profoundly at home, and I just got fascinated by the language. So when we got back to the States in 1970, I decided to continue studying literature, but comparative literature.
In Iran, the language spoken is very, very close to the literate language; so, what you speak is very much what you read in the newspapers. When you study Persian, you have to study Arabic. Arabic helped to shape Persian historically. Although I worked in Persian, the first teaching job I took after my degree in 1974 was at the American University in Cairo, and we lived there until 1979.
Adnan Haydar and I became friends in 1979 when I got back from Egypt. I was spending the year on a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was teaching at that time. And we talked a lot about contemporary Arabic poetry. He had some projects that we would talk about together, and finally we ended up publishing translations together. I would normally not have worked on Arabic translations on my own, but when we worked together, we just found that we got along well. He and I ended up collaborating on a lot of translation projects.
This year, Adnan and I worked together on Mihyar of Damascus (1961), by Ali Ahmad Said, who writes under the pen name of Adonis.
There was a fascination in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s in the Arab world with the mythologies of the Mediterranean. Egyptian, Lebanese, Palestinian poets, Syrians as well, got very interested in the idea that there was an indigenous style that was both Christian and Islamic. In what was called the Tammuzi School, Adonis became the representative of the new style of poetry. His poetry was just beginning to be translated when I was a graduate student in Indiana, and I remember this book was very influential for me. It was Samuel Hazo’s translation, The Blood of Adonis. Hazo is a very, very adept translator who Adnan and I admire very much; however, we are always very anxious to say that we are not competing with Samuel Hazo. We like his translations, but we are trying to refract them into English in a different way. Ours actually sounds quite different than his.
So how does that work, the translating?
One of the first things you run into when you think about translations is how many things you have to leave behind, how many things just don’t carry over. Very often, a person who is a native speaker of the language will go to you and say, “You are always going to miss something.” And I say, “Well, yeah, for sure.” But I think in terms of percentages. There are some poets you know you are not going to get more than 60 percent. You can’t quantify these things, but you’re saying to yourself, as you are looking it over, “I can get this effect, I can get that effect, but maybe I’ll have to abandon this one.” It’s always like triage.
I teach translation theory from time to time, and I have to say there are moments in which I’m really impressed by a translation; I can point at it, I can say look how this reproduces something that was in the original, but I can’t find rules for it. It almost seems to be a kind of creation, except there’s something weirdly selfless in it because you are just a translator, you’re just transposing someone else’s terms into another language.
What other projects do you and Adnan work on together?
Adnan and I work as co-editors on other people’s translations. He and I edit a series for Syracuse University Press of translations from the Middle East. I’m very proud of this series, because we’ve come to feel that there’s a kind of importance in translation. Although I think research about another culture (criticism, commentary, history) is very useful, there’s something about a translation that brings you closer to hearing the voice of the other culture. When I teach, for instance, about the Middle East, reading the textbook or any book of scholarship has real value, but please understand that’s somebody from our culture describing it from outside. The moment you are reading a poem or a novel, you are reading a voice from inside that culture. And I feel very strongly about that, that there is some importance in translation that the other modes of vision of another culture don’t offer. Translation gives you a direct perception. I feel very strongly this obligation to make things visible, and so we are very anxious to represent as many countries as possible.