<em>DoubleSpeak</em> Staff on translating Amina Saïd

DoubleSpeak Staff

on translating Amina Saïd

This year, we include a chain translation done by the DoubleSpeak staff to demonstrate how many people can contribute to one translation. Each staff member translated about five lines, then we translated the last stanza together. We found it fascinating to watch the translation develop as each individual put in their own piece — aligning our own perception of the poem to the spirit of the poem itself and to others’ perceptions was challenging, but it allowed us to explore the boundaries of the self and others. We asked ourselves: How can we translate the poem’s focus on physicality? How can we capture the spirit of the language without any familiarity of its spirit? How would that spirit change our own expression?

The first line of the poem was difficult to translate. What exactly does it mean for one’s head to be “full of sky”? Is it whimsy at the nature of the world? A means of distraction? A reference to imagination and fleeting youth? Portrayals of nature’s beauty follow this “head in the sky,” with references to “wings of the sun,” “two rivers,” and “towers of sand,” alluding to nature’s magnificent power instead of the hands of humankind.

We also struggled with “I hid in the shade of day,” as the literal translation was “I was the color of day.” The sky is blue or white during the daytime but day seems like a colorless thing. So, we translated it as “I hid in the shade of day” because being the color of something colorless is the same as being invisible. Later in the stanza, the narrator mentions masks, so our translation makes the stanza more cohesive, even though the poem as a whole feels a bit fragmented.

Throughout the poem, the narrator grapples with her relation to the world around her. This is why we translated “j’étais dans la pensée du vent” — literally “I was in the thought of the wind” — as “the wind thought of me.” This decision places the narrator in a position of power: instead of being consumed by the wind, the wind makes the vulnerable decision to think of her.

Ultimately, through this process, we found ourselves each becoming a scrap of the translation and the poem becoming us.

about the author

Amina Saïd, born in Tunis in 1953, was raised by a Tunisian father and a French mother and grew up speaking both Arabic and French. A voracious reader of novels, Saïd began seriously writing after her middle school French teacher persuaded her to write poetry. She wrote poems throughout the remainder of her schooling and obtained her baccalaureate degree in Paris after moving to France with her family at the age of sixteen. Saïd continued to delve into the world of language during university, deciding to study English literature instead of forcing herself to choose between the literatures of her native languages. However, she still draws inspiration from both French and Arabic works. She started publishing her own poetry in her twenties and has translated novels by Francisco Sionil José. Her published works include collections of Tunisian folk tales and eight volumes of poetry which have been translated into Arabic, German, Italian, Spanish, and English. Honored in France with the Jean Malrieu Prize in 1989 and the Charles Vildrac Prize in 1994, Saïd has lived in Paris since 1978. She continues to write poetry and currently works as a journalist, often visiting her homeland of Tunis.

about the translator

DoubleSpeak’s editorial staff is a combination of strong individuals. We love translating and writing and eating cheese and desserts and fava beans and being with other strong language enthusiasts who translate and write and love. We come from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida; Lubbock, Texas; Dublin, California; Tampa, Florida; and Hangzhou, China; Bergenfield, New Jersey; Cortlandt Manor, New York; and Philadelphia. Between us, we speak Gujarati, Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, French, Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Italian, and German. And we are forevermore mesmerized by the wonders of language, exploration, and discovery.

photo by a DoubleSpeak staffer