A mingling of cultures

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It is always a pleasure to see cultures exchanging material, and things being flipped upside-down. Saturday 11 October was the latest stop on the A Bird is Not a Stone tour – the name both of a continuing dialogue between contemporary Palestinian and Scottish writers (and their ‘bridge translators’), and the anthology that has come out of it.

The anthology contains the work of 25 contemporary Palestinian poets, reinterpreted by 29 Scottish writers, via bridge translation. Where bridge translations are concerned, issues such as faith and faithfulness must be multiplied and weighed. Harry Giles, one of the contributing poets present at this reading (run by StAnza, a Scottish poetry festival, in collaboration with the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival) described his personal process of translating as ‘straining.’ This emotion is present across this compact and compassionate anthology: in the burning search for names, for meanings, for mothers, for lovers and for the liberation of minds from history and circumstance.

This compassion is further reinforced when hearing the poets delivering the words they had written with other people. Giles and Christine de Luca, reading in Scottish dialects and English, seemed with their brightness and humour to embody the vitality of the project. The intrinsic music of Arabic (read by Abla Oudeh) met and combined happily with Shetlandic, English and Scots to create an atmosphere of longing; when the event was over, ordinary speech came like an outburst.

I must admit that the first time I read the anthology, I didn’t have patience to sift through the non-English translations (the final other tongue being Gaelic). Yet, Christine read so beautifully that it was immediately necessary to go back and reverse that mistake -with the rhythms I had just heard serving as new reference points, the poems in Shetlandic did work much easier.

Other spaces for new openness and new alienation (to borrow a phrase from Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, one of the anthologisedpoets) kept emerging. Henry Bell, one of the project co-editors, spoke about the lack of opportunities to hear Palestinian voices in Britain – meaning conversation is needed about Palestine’s place in modern Western cultural consciousness, as much as its place on the world map.

This was driven home in the closing remarks by StAnza’s festival director, Eleanor Livingstone. This year was the first time STEPS (St Andrews Education for Palestinian Students, a charity programme) managed to raise enough funds to support two postgraduates for study at the school. Unfortunately, neither could take their place due to the ongoing conflict.

Talk also turned towards the end to marginalised and over-represented languages in the anthology. Problematically, out of almost 90 poems in A Bird is Not a Stone, 72 are in English (some poems even have two English versions). However- as this project well demonstrates- increased exposure opens pathways. Furthermore, translation is a process we carry out all the time. In its passage from page to audience, poetry is a gift; a gift to and of language. Not only that, it represents the universal right of all voices to be heard. As Zakaria Mohammed writes in The Plate Breaker, “Poetry flips things upside-down. It grants failure a wing and throws it into the sky.”

To learn more about the project, visit: abirdisnotastone.wordpress.com

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