Gaza Under Siege


I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘the colonial phenomenon of rendition as translation’, as Mona Kareem puts it in a recent Poetry Birmingham article – in other words, the ways in which some Western poets ‘interpret’ non-Western texts loosely, with little regard for linguistic nuance or context. So it was satisfying in many ways that this season’s first session almost felt more like a reading group than a translation workshop, with our lead translator Atef Alshaer working through the implication of each word in this poem with us.

We debated every possible decision in this short poem and, in the end, we agreed with almost all of Atef’s decisions. He had changed the lineation from three-line stanzas to four lines, which we agreed helped with pacing and avoided associating this poem with the very different haiku form in English. Our biggest dilemma was whether to render it ‘is fish’ and ‘is a sniper’ or omit ‘is’ entirely, as there is no word in Arabic for ‘to be’, but we wanted the meaning to be clear. Given the asymmetry of being ‘in a boat’ and later being ‘a jungle’ in the original, we kept one ‘is’ and not the other, which we felt flowed well. Our other main change was to take out all the punctuation, as there isn’t any in the Arabic.

Atef also shared his reading of why the world in this poem ‘is fish’: unlike those trapped in the boat – and in besieged Gaza – the fish are free to swim where they please, but threateningly surround the boat. The world is also a singular sniper, deadly, and viewing Gaza as an untameable ‘jungle’ – recalling for English readers the colonial perspective of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

Helen Bowell, Poet