A Trip to Translate Poetry | The American University of Iraq Sulaimani

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A Trip to Translate Poetry

Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - 17:15


Student blog by Shene Mohammed who visited former AUIS professor Marie Labrosse in Virginia, USA, on a project to translate classical Kurdish poetry into English. 

We started our poetry-reading event with a big pot of Kurdish tea that was served in little Kurdish teacups and served to our audience in Virginia (United States) where we were all guests of Marie LaBrosse, a former professor at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) and a current PhD candidate at The University of Exeter. The cups were emptying up and getting refilled at a rapid pace. This was the first time we were publicly presenting the translations that we have been working so hard on for the past year. The night before the event, we practiced how to recite poetry while Marie was cooking dinner. She was telling us how the emphasis on one word alone can change the meaning of the verse, and how our decision about what to emphasize needs to be clear for the audience.

Sitting down on a rug, with books of the poets we translated beside us, we felt close to our audience. Every time we read a poem, questions were asked and discussions started about poems, meaning, literature, and culture. We realized that Kurdish poetry was open to many different interpretations just like other works of world literature, but our audience felt the world was deprived of it, and that they were missing out on Kurdish literature. This amazing visit to America, and reading Kurdish poetry in such an event, was made possible for us because of  Marie.

The first time I saw Marie was in a workshop about 'heroines' at AUIS. The discussions were about our own heroines and what characteristics set them apart to make them heroines to us. While talking about the distinction between “unique” and “different”, I got to know a unique woman, Marie, whom I have learned tremendous things from. We later talked about the beautiful work she does with translating classical poetry, and I knew I wanted to work with her on translations. I joined fellow students Mohammed Fatih and Srusht Barzan to form our first team of translators. We selected the poems we wanted to translate; we then made our own catalogs, and started literal translations of the poems. We enjoyed reading poetry together, and talking about all the possible meanings; we also laughed together about some of the mistakes we made, especially after checking each other’s work. What made the project a great experience for us was that we started out with one poet and then decided to expand and do more. This gave us a chance to study more of the great masters in classical poetry.  

We first started translating Sheikh Raza Talabni’s poems, and translated a great part of the Kurdish catalog of his divan. Sheikh Raza was our poet. We wanted to get to know him more, so we decided to go to Kirkuk where he lived with his family in their main takya*. The Talabani Takya to this day is the greatest takya in Iraqi Kurdistan, and has branches all around Kurdistan. We were very interested to know how in this holy place, and amongst such a religious family, a poet known for his insolence came to be. How was he able to curse anyone he did not agree with or liked, and yet live and be part of a family that spiritually guided people? How did others view this man in such a family? To answer these questions we made trips to Kirkuk to see the takya, Talabani family, those scholars who have been studying his work, and Raza’s old house. One of the scholars who helped us significantly in Kirkuk was Amin Shwan, who has been studying Raza’s work for 20 years. With him, we talked about stories behind Raza’s poems, his choice of words and his unique language of cursing people without using any bad words, praising people with using curse words, or writing Sufi poems to God. The different parts of his character raised a lot of questions for us, and every time we visited Kirkuk, there was more to learn about. Amongst the members of the Talabani family that we talked to, was Sheikh Pirot, who runs the family house; Sheikh Nuri, who supervises a team that studies Raza; and Sheikh Usif, who runs the takya.  

Another question that crossed Marie’s mind while we were translating Sheikh Raza’s work, was the literature during Raza’s time: whom did he look up to as a poet, and with whom he corresponded? We then started to read the poets who wrote in the 1800s. From each poet we chose 10 to 15 poems to translate. This was to explore language and poetry in the 1800s. When we started this and as the work was adding up, Lana Khalid, a graduate of AUIS, and Savan Ako, a student in Slemani University, joined us. We chose to translate Nali, Salm, Kurdi, Mahwi, Bekhod, Hamdi, Wafa’I, Jamil Zahawi, and Piramerd. When we added all these poets, we realized the amount of work we have put on our shoulders, that we needed to finish in a short time.

This summer, for full time translation of these poets, Marie hosted Savan and I in her house in Virginia, in the beautiful small town of Crozet. We spent three weeks translating these poems in Marie’s library among her books. The house was full of books, records, and musical instruments of Marie and her husband, Sam, who is a professional singer and songwriter. We also watched sunsets from their living room, ate delicious dinners, listened to Marie and Sam’s favorite songs and exchanged our favorites, which we called 'The Game of Hits'. We enjoyed getting to know their friends, seeing this whole other part of the world, learning about American culture, and seeing Virginia’s beautiful old handmade things. Despite the hard work of getting all the poems done in such a short time, we enjoyed every bit of it. Reading the masterpieces on a clear early morning, on Marie’s porch that faces her colorful garden, while drinking Kurdish tea made the trip feel more like a vacation rather than a working trip. 

*Takya is an Islamic shrine in which religious ceremonies are performed and food is offered for free. Usually, it is built upon graves of Sufi figures and it includes mosques and lodges for Ziyaret, religious pilgrimages. It is supervised by a Sheikh and his wife, and inside this place Murids, disciples, seek spiritual purification.

"My Room" - Read one of the students' translations of a poem by Nali