The Art of Translation

Translated by Allie Marini Batts

What do these words mean?
How is poetry born—in one language,
the lines ignite into meaning,
their consonance and assonance
the friction, the sound of a striking match;
their intention as silent as the flame that touches the wick.

My grasp of these foreign words narrows, sometimes:
Shouts, frustration.
My reach widens to divine the meaning of the words; still falls short.
Lamentations, then, as the poetry disappears and the alchemy
reveals itself on the page
as nothing more than mist,
damp condensation on the windowpanes
of a darkened house.

I want to harness the trick of translating
the intention of those who wrote these words.
It is useless, I am alone, surrounded by the void of meaning
cast out from heaven and understanding
hopeless as hitching a ride on a falling star
the beauty of meaning like a lost soul
swallowed up into a black hole.

The tears I cry in trying to fit this first key
into the door to a cavern of someone else’s language
are like so many rocks, impeding my path.
I complain about the words, yet add more of them,
babbling at Babel, cursed never to understand this tongue.

The empty page is silently alive
like the yeast that raises bread—it is there,
I see the effects, but I cannot pinpoint the magic of its source.

Original by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, from the sequence “Les mots”, first published in the book Compassion des pierres, 2001

Allie Marini Batts is an MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles. She is the author of You Might Curse Before You Bless (ELJ Publications, 2013) and Unmade & Other Poems (Beautysleep Press, 2013).

Vénus Khoury-Ghata is a Lebanese poet and novelist who lives in France. She received the Prix Mallarmé in 1987 for Monologue du mort, the Prix Apollinaire in 1980 for Les Ombres et leurs cris, and the Grand Prix de la Société des gens de lettres for Fables pour un people d’argile in 1992. Her most recent collection, Quelle est la nuit parmi les nuits, was published by Mercure de France in 2004. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Dutch, German, Italian and Russian, and she was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2000.