[Interview] A Word From the Translator

State of Emergency by Soleïman Adel Guémar

Translated by Tom Cheesman and John Goodby

Tom Cheesman lectures in German at Swansea University. In 2003 he founded non-profit Hafan Books to publish writing by refugees and asylum seekers, alongside work by other writers in Wales. His poetry translations include Manfred Peter Hein’s Between Winter and Winter.

John Goodby lectures in English at Swansea University, specializing in Irish and Welsh writing in English. His poetry publications include A Birmingham Yank and an experimental translation of Heinrich Heine’s Germany: A Winter’s Tale.

We asked Tom Cheesman about the challenges of translating poetry; we also discussed collaborative translation:

Would you say that more attention to detail is required when translating poetry? Can you outline some specific challenges?

I think a translator should pay as much attention to detail as the original writer did. There are sloppy poets and rigorous prose writers. Adel uses words very precisely indeed. He rarely revises – the poems are born fully formed – but we did. Some parts of some poems we went over dozens of times. For example, in the third section of ‘Illusions’, a ‘straight’ translation didn’t work – we needed to reverse the phrase order: ‘whole columns / of others / were pouring…’ The word “pouring” probably goes too far. The metaphor ties in with the previous lines (‘watered’) but not in a good way, I now think. That illustrates the need to exercise restraint in translation – often that’s the hardest discipline.

You collaborated on this translation with John Goodby. Did it help having two minds to approach this text? Did you co-translate individual poems?

Collaboration helps a lot, I find. Another ear for the translation, as well as eye; critical perspective, discussion partner. Generally I made first drafts, John suggested amendments, and often he’d change just a word or two and it would make all the difference. We also sat with Adel and all worked together. Adel’s input was often vital to avoid errors due to our limited background knowledge. I think ‘Illusions’ is all mine – it was translated for a previous publication. But most of the poems in the book have some of John’s phrasings in them and many owe something to our discussions with Adel.

Did you immediately identify with the poet’s voice? Was this a difficult voice to access?

Adel’s voice is wonderfully clear – he’s speaking to a universal audience in terms of class and geography and culture. It’s political poetry, and as such it begs to be read aloud, read out to people, and also translated and passed on. His work seems beautifully simple. The basic sense of it is pretty much on the surface. But there’s a lot of art in the way the language is crafted, and achieving similar effects in translation is not easy. But the attempt is a pleasure.

What would you say, if any, is the overriding theme in this collection of poetry? Are we held in a constant ‘state of emergency’?

The poems are about the collision between the joys of being alive and deadly political realities. They were written in Algeria, mainly in the 1990s, but the conditions they describe are – not least thanks to the ‘war on terror’ – universal. The Algerian regime was waging war on democratic opposition, under the pretext of ‘terror’, when Adel wrote ‘Illusions’. The ‘land of asylum’ is Algeria as it should have been, if the popular revolution of 1962 had fulfilled its promises. Now the UK is literally his land of asylum. He had been investigating military-financial mafia corruption. There were death threats, knife attacks, his office was trashed and so on. The UK is far freer of course. This poem may speak more directly to people whose rights and liberties are more directly under attack than ours seem to be. But we shouldn’t be under any illusions in the UK. A state of emergency is always useful to the powerful. Our rights can always be suspended. The jackboot hovers over every face.

Why should we go on to read the collection in full?

Well, if you like this poem, I hope you will.


This interview was originally commissioned in 2010 to celebrate 5 years of the Writers in Translation programme. 

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