The Toll of War

A recent M.F.A. graduate translates the poetry of an Iraqi woman in exile.

By Mary Jo Patterson

It’s hard to imagine a greater  challenge for a writer than translating a poem, but there is one: translating a poem from a language in which you are not fluent into your own.

Rebecca Gayle Howell, who received her M.F.A. degree in poetry and poetry translation from the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies in 2010, has done that with an entire collection of poetry. Working with a native Arabic speaker, she produced the first English translation of a book by Amal al-Jubouri, an Iraqi woman living in exile. The book, Hagar before the Occupation/Hagar after the Occupation, will be published in November by Alice James Books.

Howell undertook the project for personal reasons. “My oldest friend in the world is Palestinian-American, and she and her family were very kind to me,” she says. “I wanted to find a way to express gratitude, and translating a contemporary Arab woman was one way to do that.” While researching the field, Howell came across a translation of one of al-Jubouri’s poems. She was struck by its power and contacted the author.

Her collaborator was Husam Qaisi, a Palestinian-American who is married to her old friend. “He’s not a poet, but he devoted himself to this project,” says Howell. They talked evenings on Skype, reading Howell’s work and comparing notes. “He’d say, ‘This isn’t close enough,’ and I’d go back and redraft,” adds Howell, a faculty member at Morehead State University in Kentucky.

“Turning those early drafts into living English poetry took a year. Arabic has a quality of music that English doesn’t have,” says Howell, who has a master’s degree in linguistics. Al-Jubouri’s themes are also complex, examining the toll of war on people’s personal lives. The poet has lived in Germany since 1997, but returned to Baghdad shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein and remained for an extended period.

“After the long song of grief that is the larger collection, [al-Jubouri] arrives in the end at the idea that the Americans’ fate and the Iraqis’ fate are now inextricably bound,” Howell says. “We are, for better or worse, in this together.”

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