Butterflies in abundance


In the third and last of our workshops at the International Agatha Christie Festival we looked at a
poem by Ameer Hussein, a Syrian-born poet currently living in Iraqi Kurdistan. We could tell from
the literal that we were in for a challenge and our translator, Alice Guthrie, had to admit that this
was a very oblique poem even in the original. Still, we were all instantly intrigued by this enigmatic
piece. It was obvious that Hussein is playing with the inherited meanings of the language he uses;
butterflies, roses, birds, are all as familiar and freighted in Arabic as they are in English.

One immediate issue was the gender of pronouns. The ambiguity possible in Arabic could not be
carried over into English. It was painful to lose such subtlety but we chose to underline the
suggestion of gender power dynamics rather than risk losing it altogether. Perhaps we tried too
hard to tighten the linguistic knots, but they gave us a framework. The other thing we could hook
onto was the precision and clarity of the directions, the repeated ‘There’. The objects – the tree, the
man, the unspecified ‘her’ in his hands – may shift and escape us, seeming to slide between
multiple symbolisms, but we know their relation to each other. We retained this as it is in the Arabic
to give the structure to our translation and tried to carry over the simplicity of verbs such as ‘say’
and ‘see’ to allow the strangeness of what is seen and said to speak for itself.

-Emily Hasler, Poet Facilitator