- Of Cedars Across the Sea
Huda Fakhreddine & Jayson Iwen, trans.
BOA Editions, Ltd.
128 Pages; Print, $16.00
Translation is a daunting task, and translation of poetry is even more difficult due to its inherent precision, and the risk of cultural nuances getting lost in translation. Despite this, Huda Fakhreddine and Jayson Iwen were more than ready to undertake the herculean endeavor of translating the poetry of Jawdat Fakhreddine—Huda's father—from Arabic into English. Huda Fakhreddine and Iwen note in the introduction the hardships that they grappled with over the course of the translation process wherein important choices had to be made regarding words with multiple meanings and potential translations. Huda Fakhreddine and Iwen made deliberate decisions to stay as true to the original as possible, ensuring that the meaning and intent of the poems were not lost, while also expertly adding more subtext through wordplay. After reading the poems in both English and Arabic, I found myself stunned at how Huda Fakhreddine and Iwen have managed to accomplish this delicate juggling act.
The introduction provides historical context for the reader as to how Lighthouse for the Drowning and its translation came to be: it was written during a time of political upheaval and eventual civil war within Lebanon which forced Jawdat Fakhreddine into a temporary exile to America. Jawdat Fakhreddine's feelings of isolation and banishment to a foreign land are at the forefront of his poems, which are saturated with the strong desire for remembrance and returning, a return to youth and childhood, a return to an energetic and carefree life, a return to something forgotten and the desire to never forget, a return home to one's roots. There is a yearning for something more that is so visceral and captivating it makes the reader feel every melancholic, depressed, and excited emotion that gripped Fakhreddine at the time of writing.
The form of the collection stands as metaphor, with English text on the left and Arabic on the right, and can easily be interpreted as representing the West and the Middle East, respectively. The negative space between the text and translation is significant, and reading the book from beginning to end—left to right—has the reader metaphorically journeying from a foreign Western country, travelling over the bodies of water (negative space) that separate them from their destination in the east, guided home by the beacon of a lighthouse of words. Lighthouse for the Drowning encapsulates the feelings of melancholy and isolation that affects any member of a diaspora and evokes a desire to return home even in those who have never set foot ashore the land of their ancestors.
Despite the nuances found in the English and Arabic languages, there is an opportunity for a play on words through translation—in one poem, the word "bahr" is translated as "sea," but can also mean a "meter" in Arabic poetry, as the translators note. In the same poem, "waves" stand in for the names of the Arabic poetic meters. Together, this translation creates a beautiful interplay of imagery where the author likens his spirit to the seas before being overtaken by the waves, like words that overwhelm but are the only thing that can convey the poetry of his spirit. In the second stanza, Fakhreddine states outright that "Poetry is the deepest sea, / distant yet more urgent than surf breaking on rocks." The sea, or meter, of poetry is a raucous entity with powerful meanings that rise and fall in waves that ebb and flow on the shores of a reader's mind.
Fakhreddine's poems are an intimate offering of the author's deepest fears, desires, and longings, a retrospective reflection to his roots and a yearning to return to the land of his childhood. Water plays a large role in his collection, a renewing and rejuvenating force, showcasing the power of the sea whose waves climb high to batter at the Ancient Phoenician Wall in Batroun, insisting to be seen, to be read, to be heard. Fakhreddine enshrines his words in the dynamic Lebanese landscape: in the...