Two Lines Spotlight: Yardenne Greenspan on “Wolves, Also” by Ghassan Zaqtan

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This post comes to us from Yardenne Greenspan, whose translation of Kobi Ovadia’s “The Kid that Liked Dynasty and Wrote a Soap” is in the current issue of Two Lines, Issue 25. To read Yardenne’s translation and tons more, look over here.


When it was close and had found its way . . .

the sound of its breathing
and the scent by the door told of it.

Someone’s footsteps walked by
before it lunged . . .

 

We translators like to think of literature as something international, borderless. And as readers we’re taught to be wary of biographies. But certain pieces of translated writing acquire deeper meaning when read in juxtaposition with their author’s and translator’s biography.

Wolves, Also,” from Issue 16, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, written by Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan and translated by Fady Joudah from the Arabic, is beautiful by itself, evoking violent and mesmerizing images and an underlying sense of menace (“the sound of its breathing / and the scent by the door told of it”). Reading this poem as an Israeli, understanding it as an Israeli, I am naturally filled with mixed emotions: guilt and indignation; anger and insult. But if I am baffled by the complexity of our conflict, I am clear on the message of dread and discomfort.

Perhaps it was this discomfort that inspired me to look into translator Fady Joudah’s biography, who grew up in America and was introduced to classic Arabic poetry by his Palestinian father. “Wolves, Also” meant so much to me when I read it not only as Zaqtan’s imagery of life under occupation and the constant threat of nightly raids (“the enemy comes to drink our tea at night”), but also as Joudah’s journey into his family’s lost history (“and everything here has disappeared / you and the others”). As Zaqtan tries to remember (“In a jazz club whose name is no longer clear”), Joudah tries to learn what is in his blood.

And I can only imagine how surreal it must have felt for Joudah, a translator of Mahmoud Darwish, to channel Zaqtan as he wonders aloud, “The poem / was it Darwish’s / did he say: submachine or rifle?” Not only did Joudah know which it was, but he himself might have been the translator of the referenced Darwish poem, making him effectively the one who had made the choice between “submachine” and “rifle.” In researching the source of this reference—the poem “Rita and the Rifle”—I could not ascertain the identity of its translator. I did, however, find out that it was written about an Israeli girlfriend of Darwish’s but is often misunderstood as a patriotic poem. Perhaps this Israeli girlfriend is the one Zaqtan pictured when he described “the enemy’s daughter.” Perhaps I am not the only one with mixed emotions.

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