This issue of the UK’s Banipal: Magazine of Modern Arab Literature features Lebanese poetry. The five prose selections are all novel excerpts – some contemporary, some from decades ago. Both poetry and prose are Arabic translations. This may be one reason why it took me so long to get through the journal. Another may be the very reason why I reviewed it: to relieve my ignorance to a culture’s literature.
There was a distracting sense of infidelity in some of the translations. In Fadhil Al-Azzawi’s excerpt from his 1972 novel, Cell Block 5, the narrator asserts that he was mistakenly detained in a raid. “One of the five other men arrested laughed scornfully and asked: ‘If they’re going to release you, why are they sending you, with us, to a penitentiary where prisoners are kept for long periods?’” It feels stilted, forced, ‘penitentiary’ seems so generic. Still, the Kafka-esque search for justice intrigued me.
Translated poetry ups the already-high demand for the poetry reader; the language must at once capture and transcend its native tongue and place. Many of the Lebanese poets featured in this issue acknowledged – whether to Allah or reason – that the body is nothing more than a vessel. Paul Chaoul’s fifteen brief prose poems infused ironic humor into the journal. Curiously, it was translated by Al-Azzawi, the aforementioned novelist, whose Cell Block 5 excerpt was translated by someone else.
Banipal indeed represents Modern Arab Literature; although, despite the illumination, there is more to be desired in the translations.