Poems

“Breaking news: mass grave discovered nearby . . .”

Notes

Setting out to translate this poem, we knew that the harrowing
experience it narrates is one which Kadhem Khanjar has himself gone
through. From the first reading of the literal, even covered in notes and
comments and possible substitutes, it was powerful and intensely
moving.

The detached voice
The steady, almost drawn out rhythm.

The list of bones, for instance, uses for the most part the Latinate, medical
terminology – the equivalents of clavicle rather than collarbone. These formal,
distancing words seemed a huge part of the poem’s powerful play with language,
so we attempted to retain them as much as possible. However, we kept skull
(rather than cranium) with holes (rather than perforations) because it seemed
important to retain the momentum of the dreadful list.

The odd similes – ‘turn like an orange on the knife of hope’ and ‘as
unyielding as a bone’ immediately leapt out, and discussing them with
Alice, our Arabic translator, it seemed they were just as odd and striking
in the original.

We thought about whom the poem addresses. On the one hand, it
directly speaks to the ‘brother’. On the other, its exacting recounting
(echoing the re-counting of the bones) recalls an internal retelling, a
desire to deal with the experience by asserting chronology on actions:
‘Yesterday I went’, ‘Now I am at home’. In other places the sense is less
obvious, with some initially perplexing uses of ‘him’, ‘them’ and ‘we’. This
is something that after discussion we decided should remain part of the
translation.

I think it is fair to say that we were all moved by this poem and felt privileged to
spend time with it so closely. It’s immediacy and plain-speaking belie the artfulness
of its construction. It both shocked and surprised us. For instance, while discussing
the names of the bones had to look up ‘cervical ribs’; these are extra ribs which not
everyone has that grow across the back, just below the neck. Some people have
none, some one or two. No one has three cervical ribs. The indication is that there
are the remains of another victim mixed in. I like to think I might have interrogated
this to uncover this ingenuity, but the great thing about workshop translation is that
it naturally leads you to such insights.

Emily Hasler, Poet facilitator

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