Oser un pas dehors, deux pas. Se frotter le visage avec les mains. Respirer un bon coup. Se redresser, de toute la taille dont on dispose. Le soleil est revenu.

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A handful of writers would loom unduly large on this world map, dwarfing their arguably greater, but less anthologized compatriots. Every port, peak and tributary in Europe would be lovingly charted, though elsewhere major landmarks would go missing. Just as Jerusalem sat squarely at the center of the world on those early maps, so the English-speaking author would dominate this one, leaving other languages to throng the margins with their babble. Instead, we have its anamorphic shadow: a top-heavy world with a bulging center and many unexplored peripheries.

A map of inconstancy, then: like the stock exchange, like clouds. The gatekeepers here, of course, are translators. On our notional map, well-feted writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Alaa al-Aswany would certainly make the cut, but neither would enjoy such widespread popularity without the efforts and artistry of Maureen Freely or Humphrey Davies in adapting their works for the anglophone palate.

And then there are writers who, like the modernist Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab , are revered by their colinguals yet remain virtually unknown outside their own language for lack of decent translations. This is not always the case: Naffis-Sahely, for example, translates directly from the French. If his name was unfamiliar to the audience in London, it was perhaps, his translator suggested, because anglophone poetry tends to shy away from politics.

In Morocco, in , he helped found the iconic magazine Souffles, an explosive blend of poetic experimentalism, political militancy and s counterculture.

Released in , he fled to France where he continues to live. Beyond these deft shifts of register, however, the poems all share an essential preoccupation with language, its ambiguities and the possibility of its failure.

More, they betray a paradoxical anxiety: beneath their lyrical, richly woven exterior, they are miniature meditations on the limits of poetic expression — indeed, on the ultimate poverty and helplessness of language itself. Even when they are grave, these poems tread lightly, weightlessly, haunted perhaps by the idea that language, poetic or otherwise, can obstruct as much as it elucidates, or can become a burden to those who receive it.

In reality it means both: the dream of a poetry delivered of its snags and of its liabilities. Like death, the poem promises a general unburdening.

Its wild hope is the absolution of language from politics. This is darkly funny — the devil is a poet, too! It is a fine poem, light-footed and faintly surreal, but much of the comedy and underlying unease are lost in the English version. And yet when, on that recent evening in London, Laabi was asked to explain himself for not writing in Arabic, he smiled patiently and sighed.

To live in one culture, to speak only one language, is to live in a prison. Naffis-Sahely is that rare thing: a polyglot poet, and undoubtedly a gifted translator. Yasmine Seale is a writer and translator living in London. Share this:.


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