Tahir Hamut

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From the description on the website:

Tahir Hamut was born in 1969 in a small town near Kashgar, in the southwest of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. He published his first poem in 1986, and has since been recognized as one of the foremost modernist poets writing in Uyghur. His poetry has appeared in translation in Crazy HorseBerkeley Poetry Review, and Off the Coast. Since the late ‘90s he has worked as a film director, and has founded his own production company Izgil, which specializes in documentaries, advertisements and music videos. He lives in Ürümchi, Xinjiang’s capital with his wife and two daughters.

I found more translations of Uyghur modernist poetry, this time translated by Darren Byler and Dilmurat Mutellip (bios in link). Again, fascinating to read and I wish there were more.


A city.
Inside the dead ice
its significance removed
by a cold wind that remains from long ago.
Soaked to the bone
a reflection of stars on the water;
I saw sobbing in broad daylight
where steam seeped out from underground.

A city—
A repeated, chaotic story,
but, I am removed from it.
on a sunny day long years ago,
when a frail girl disappeared from this city,
fearing love.
She didn’t want to understand
the Uyghur words “I love you!”

A city,
as exhausted as I am;
A city,
which abandoned the spring and autumn;
A city,
Fading away in the fog.
March 2007


.بىر شەھەر
ئۆلۈك مۇزلار ئىچىدە
ئېلىپ كەتكەن قەدرىنى ئۇنىڭ
.ئۇزاق زامانلاردىن قالغان سوغ شامال
چىلىق-چىلىق ھۆل بولۇپ كەتكەن
يۇلتۇزلارنىڭ سۇدىكى ئەكسى؛
يەر تېگىدىن ھور چىققان يەردە
.ئېسەدەشنى كۆردۈم كۈندۈزى

–بىر شەھەر
،تەكرار سۆزلەنگەن قالايمىقان بىر ھېكايە
.لېكىن، بۇ ھېكايىنىڭ ئىچىدە مەن يوق
،ئۇزۇن يىل بۇرۇنقى ئاپتاپلىق كۈنى
مۇھەببەتتىن قورققان پېتى
،بۇ شەھەردىن يوقاپ كەتكەن كېسەلمەن بىر قىز
چۈشىنەلگىلى زادى ئۇنىماي
.سىزنى سۆيىمەن!” دېگەن ئۇيغۇرچە گەپنى”

،بىر شەھەر
ماڭا ئوخشاش ھارغىنلىق يەتكەن؛
،بىر شەھەر
باھار ۋە كۈزنى تەرك ئەتكەن؛
،بىر شەھەر
.تۇمان ئىچىدە يىراقلاپ كەتكەن

يىل مارت

City Night

From the airport to the train station and bus station
Myriad people emerge
Crazily they throw themselves at the city
Seeping with anger into the ground like dirty water, splattered
But I enter its night, walking

Glimmering in front of my eyes
Stubborn streets, angry cars, humpbacked buildings, glaring lamps, immoral
Roads, lonely trash, beautiful dungeons, naked concrete
I have come again, as I often come
Yet it is as if I have never been here before
The prowess of the city, the gift of the night
To become a black cat, a white goat
Crossing in front of me on and on
This is all I can do:
The mountain and I hold the two hands of the city
And pull it in opposite directions
I am not interested in anything about this city
I don’t even think of it as a proper place to die
It is just that its night is crazy about me
Out of pity I stroke its head1 and look into its shifty eyes
Grasp its hand and pull it down
Wearing its fog, I lie with it

In this city I am the enemy that fights my self
February 2, 2015

شەھەر كېچىسى

ئايرپوتتىن، ۋوگزالدىن، پاساژىر بېكىتىدىن
چىققان سانسىز ئادەم
ئەسەبىيلەرچە ئۆزىنى ئاتار بۇ شەھەرگە
سىڭىپ كېتەر غەزەپ بىلەن يەرگە چېچىلغان پاسكىنا سۇدەك
لېكىن مەن پىيادە كىرىمەن ئۇنىڭ كېچىسىگە

چاقناپ ئۆتەر كۆز ئالدىمدىن
جاھىل كوچىلار، سەپرا ئاپتوموبىللار، مۈكچەيگەن بىنالار، چەكچەيگەن چىراقلار، قىلىقسىز
يوللار، غېرىب ئەخلەتلەر، چىرايلىق زىندانلار، يالىڭاچ بىتونلار
مەن يەنە كەلدىم، دائىم كېلىمەن
خۇددى ھېچقاچان كېتىپ باقمىغاندەك
بۇ شەھەرنىڭ ئىقتىدارى ۋە بۇ كېچىنىڭ ماھارىتى
بىر قارا مۈشۈك ۋە بىر ئاق ئۆچكە بولۇپ
كېسىپ ئۆتىدۇ ئالدىمدىن ھەر قېتىم
:مېنىڭ قولۇمدىن كېلىدىغىنى شۇ
تاغ بىلەن ئىككىمىز بۇ شەھەرنىڭ ئىككى قولىدىن تۇتۇپ
ئىككى تەرەپكە سوزىمىز
مەن بۇ شەھەرنىڭ ھېچنېمىسىگە قىزىقمايمەن
ئۇنى ھەتتا ئۆلۈشكە مۇۋاپىق جاي دەپمۇ قارىمايمەن
ماڭا چاپلاشقىنى ئۇنىڭ كېچىسى
ئۇنىڭ بېشىنى سىلاپ قويىمەن، ئوغرى كۆزىگە قاراپ قويىمەن
قولىنى تۇتۇپ پەسكە تارتىمەن
تۇماننى يېپىنىپ، ئۇنىڭ بىلەن بىللە ياتىمەن

بۇ شەھەردە مەن بىر دۈشمەن ئۆزۈمگە قارشى

يىل 2-فېۋرال

My Habitat

This place – slightly to the east of the city
A name remembered by many
Lulling them to sleep

I swear
Fish couldn’t dream that a place like this exists
And the nest of the horned wind is also here

I don’t threaten anything here
Yet if my name was not properly connected to my father’s
I would be worth less than a stone

This neighborhood with twenty-six buildings, is where my house is lofted
I, my wife, and my two girls
Floating like four balloons

The meditating walls will never hear
The way the neighbor girl mimics a dog’s barking

Like indecent viewers, countless windows
Gaze steadily at the naked mysteries within

A door with three locks which I have to open everyday
A pair of red eyes which I have to close everyday
A four-room house where I put on and take off my skin everyday

This is my habitat
I am a captive here
It is as clear as my five fingers who has captured me
April 21, 2015

مېنىڭ ماكانىم

بۇ – شەھەرنىڭ قىيپاش شەرقىدىكى
ئىسمى نۇرغۇن ئادەملەرنىڭ ئېسىگە يېپىشقان
ئۇيقۇ كەلتۈرىدىغان بىر جاي

ئىمانىم كامىلكى
دۇنيادا بۇنداق يەرنىڭ بارلىقىنى بېلىقلار بىلمەيدۇ
بۇ يەر ھەم مۈڭگۈزلۈك شامالنىڭ ئۇۋىسى

مەن بۇ يەردە ھېچقانداق نەرسىگە تەھدىت سالمايمەن
مېنىڭ ئىسمىمغا دادامنىڭ ئىسمى قېتىلمىسا
بىر تال تاشچىلىكمۇ ئەتىۋارىم بولمايدۇ

بۇ – يىگىرمە ئالتە بىنا بار قورۇ، مېنىڭ ئۆيۈم مۇئەللەقتە
مەن، ئايالىم ۋە ئىككى قىزىم
تۆت تال شاردەك لەيلەپ تۇرىمىز

بۇ يەردە
قوشنا قىزنىڭ ئىتنىڭ قاۋىشىنى دورىغان ئاۋازىنى
خىيالغا چۆمگەن تاملار ھەرگىز ئاڭلىمايدۇ

بۇ يەردە
رەزىل تاماشاچىلاردەك سانسىز دەرىزىلەر
يالىڭاچلانغان سىرلار ئىچىدە تەمكىن قاراپ تۇرىدۇ

مەن كۈندە ئېچىشقا مەجبۇر ئۈچ قۇلۇپلۇق ئىشىك
مەن كۈندە يۇمۇشقا مەجبۇر بىر جۈپ قىزىل كۆز
مەن كۈندە تېرەمنى سېلىپ كېيىدىغان تۆت ئېغىز ئۆي

بۇ يەر مېنىڭ ماكانىم
مەن بۇ يەرگە بەند قىلىنغۇچى
مېنى كىمنىڭ بەند قىلغانلىقى ماڭا بەش قولدەك ئايان

يىل 21-ئاپرىل


1. In Uyghur this refers to the actions of friends and relatives toward someone in pain. 

Living Otherwise with Uyghur Poetry

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Untitled by Carolyn Drake, from Wild Pigeon project

This is a little article I found on Uyghur modernist poetry. Here is a description provided:

We recently released Issue 11 of Banango Street, which included Uyghur translations of the modernist poet Tahir Hamut by Darren Byler and Dilmurat Mutellip. Below, Darren describes the development of Tahir’s work in the context of Uyghur poetry.

And here is the beginning of said article:

Beginning in the early 1990s Tahir Hamut brought newness to the world of Uyghur poetics by shattering traditional imagery and forms of feeling and pulling the shards of what remained together in new ways. Like other members of his modernist cohort he used language to reinvent what it meant to be a Turkic Muslim Uyghur in Northwest China. That is to say, among Uyghurs, poetry is one of the most dominant forms of cultural expression. Thousands of Uyghurs self-identify as poets; hundreds of thousands regard themselves as poetry critics. It was no small feat to radically transform the genre, yet that is precisely what Tahir and others in his group of avant-garde poets have done. They have taken the Sufi imagery that suffused conventional poetics out of formal rhythm and given the quotidian and mundane its place on the page. In doing so they are staking a claim to the modern human experience, pulling traditional knowledge forward, and demanding a space in world literature.

Like elsewhere in the world, the life of a modernist poet is a struggle. For the past 20 years Tahir has been balancing his passion project with his job as media producer. Many times the busyness of work and fatherhood has taken center stage, yet around the end of 2014 a flurry of new poems began to appear; fragments written on an iPhone began to coalesce into fully-formed thoughts. By early 2015 he began to talk about a collection of 60 poems that brought together dozens of new poems and with an assortment of poems from the 90s and early 2000s. A fellow translator, Dilmurat Mutellip, joined in these conversations and over endless cups of coffee we talked out the lore, the friendships, the longings these poems evoke. Plans are in the works to submit this trilingual collection for publication sometime in the near future.

Click here to read more

Yet another fascinating review of Uyghur poetry and modernist writings within the community! I wonder where one can read these poems as they are released, in the original Uyghur?

Introduction to Uyghur Poetry

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Two Lines 17: Some Kind of Beautiful Signal

The Center for the Art of Translation produces translated collections of poetry and prose from all over the world through “Two Lines Press”, with notes and comments from the translators. In its 17th issue, the central theme was Uyghur poetry. The book includes a long foreword from its editors on Uyghur people and their history, then Dolkun Kamberi and Jeffrey Yang take the reigns in introducing, explaining, and translating Uyghur poems from various authors. I included their translation of “Oyghan” in my post about the poem, which seems like a simple poem but the more you read it the more difficult it becomes. The other translations are really fascinating to read, as they introduce old works from the Diwan Lughat al-Turk, medieval Uyghur Buddhist work from the Turpan Basin, as well as contemporary works from writers such as Dilber Keyim Kizi, Abdurehim Ötkür and Abduhalik Uyghur. A look online finds an “Introduction to Uyghur Poetry” by Kamberi and Yang:

The Uyghurs are an ancient people whose forebears are thought to be Turk-Tocharian, and have lived in Central Asia since the first millennium BCE. This area has played an important role since early times because of its favorable geographic location on the ancient trade routes between the East and the West, connecting Greco-Roman civilization with Indian Buddhist culture and Central and East Asian traditions. Burgeoning commerce and cultural exchange brought a cosmopolitan character to the region, marked by linguistic, racial, and religious tolerance.

Over hundreds of years, the Uyghurs have developed a unique culture and have made significant contributions in the history, literature, sciences, architecture, music, song, dance, crafts, and fine arts of Central Eurasian civilization. Most of the ten million Uyghurs today live in the Uyghur Autonomous Region that comprises roughly one-sixth of China’s territory, though diasporic Uyghur communities have settled all around the world. Uyghur religious beliefs are a mix of Shamanism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, and Islam, which was adopted as the official religion in 960 CE, during the rule of King Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan.

The word Uyghur (also transliterated as Uighur or Uygur) means “unity” with undercurrents of “union,” “coalition,” and “federation.” The name’s earliest known appearance can be traced to the Orkhon Göktürk inscriptions carved on stone monuments in Central Mongolia, and can be found in medieval Uyghur, Manichaean, and Sogdian scripts, as well as Arabic-Persian scripts. Apart from these Inner/Central Asian designations, the name appears in diverse Chinese manuscripts throughout history, where it has been transliterated into more than one hundred forms: Die, Chidie, Hu, Saka/Scythian, Hun, Uysun, Dingling, Qangqil, Sogdian, Tokharian, Hugu, Huihe, Yuanhe, and on.

Click here to keep reading – I really recommend it!


Poetry Translations

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While searching for examples of Uyghur-English translations, I came across Joshua L. Freeman’s many publications of his translations of Uyghur poetry. He seems to focus on modernist writings, and this was fascinating firstly because I was brand new to the Uyghur literary scene and had no idea there was an entire modernist movement, and secondly because the translations felt like poems, too, which I had not seen in translations I had read before. This is not to say that I had been keeping a close watch on the poetry-translating side of the internet, but I had attempted to find translations of Uyghur poems back when I was an avid amateur writer myself – but the only translations then were the ones on the London Uyghur Ensemble website, which, although better than nothing, were far from the sort of literary translations I was looking for. So here are a list of Freeman’s publications, and I will also link to his Academia website for more of his writings/background.

Three Poems by Exmetjan Osman Sinoturcica
Two Poems by Perhat Tursun Morning Feeling, Elegy 
Two Poems by Tahir Hamut Journey to the South, Eve of Qurban Eid, ’93 
Returning to Kashgar by Tahir Hamut
The Nights Passing Endlessly through Scheherazade’s Mouth by Exmetjan Osman. Words Without Borders
Summer is a Conspiracy by Tahir Hamut. Berkely Poetry Review
Common Night by Merdan Ehet’éli. Asymptote Journal
The Past by Tahir Hamut. Words Without Borders
Chronicle of an Execution by Ghojimehummed Muhemmed. Words Without Borders
Against Tradition by Osmanjan Muhemmed Pas’an. Words Without Borders
The Old Era and the Wolf Girl by Abduweli Ershidin Bozlan. The Harvard Advocate
Burning Wheat by Perhat Tursun. The Harvard Advocate
I Opened My Door by Ghojimuhemmed Muhemmed. FWJ Plus
Three Poems by Tahir Hamut Road, The Border, The Distance. Asymptote Journal
All Colors Extinguish Without Trace History and Colorful Words by Ghojimuhemmed Muhemmed, Only When We Start Moving Apart and No One by Osmanjan Muhemmed Pas’an. Harvard Review

Zunun Kadir’s Ambiguity: The dilemma of a Uyghur writer under Chinese rule

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Thwaites, D. (2011). Zunun Kadir’s Ambiguity: The dilemma of a Uyghur writer under Chinese rule. [Link] [PDF]


This thesis considers the work of the influential Uyghur writer Zunun Kadir (1912-1989), and through it charts some aspects of Uyghur identity and aspiration, while explaining the background of his work in relation to the culture and history of the Uyghur people of East Turkistan (Xinjiang). Growing up in a poor and conservative family under Chinese rule, Zunun developed a commitment to nationalism and socialism in the belief that these would serve as the best basis for the advancement of the Uyghur people. In middle age he witnessed the absorption of the East Turkistan Republic into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) established by the Chinese Communist Party, and he adapted himself to work under that government. This involved accepting a political agenda that called upon him to support a unified greater China to the detriment of Uyghur national interests. This situation presented Zunun Kadir with an enduring dilemma: how to resist the cultural domination of the Han Chinese and maintain the distinct cultural identity of the Uyghur people, while ensuring his freedom to write and publish in an environment controlled by the CCP. In the volatile political environment of the PRC, this balance could not be maintained indefinitely and Zunun was eventually subjected to official criticism and sent to the Tarim desert to undergo labour reform. After 17 years of exile he was rehabilitated in the Deng Xiaoping era, and he returned to Urumqi to resume his career as a Uyghur writer. His later work indicates a degree of disillusionment and caution, but also shows how he reconciled his choices by balancing his idealism with the reality of his environment. The use of ambiguous language and imagery allowed Zunun Kadir to pass the political scrutiny required of a publishing author in the PRC, and at the same time to offer different layers of meaning to his Uyghur-reading audience through cultural and historical references to Uyghur life.


This paper includes the English translations of many songs and poems, and the appendices has the translations of Ghunchem (play), Gherip & Senem (opera), Hessen (story), On the Journey (story), The Road in Quest of Knowledge (story), The Bahkshi Woman (story), folktales “Hizir Peygamber” and “Buhem” from the story “Grandma Perizhan” and “Leelshah”, and two of Zunun’s Fables (The Chick and the Magpie, The Drain and the Nightingale). There are also some translations of Zunun’s poetry as the author analyses his poetic forms and styles.

Mother Tongues

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Víctor Terán and David Shook’s Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry and Ahmatjan Osman’s Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile.


(The section below on Uyghurland is preceded by Like a New Sun and it’s really good! Click the link above to read)

If at least some of the blame for linguistic extinction can be placed at the feet of international media outlets, then Jeffrey Yang’s account of how he first chanced upon the work of the Uyghur poet Ahmatjan Osman is an exception that proves that rule. While researching a folio on Uyghur poetry for Two Lines, the annual anthology of world literature, Yang learned that his coeditor Dolkun Kamberi, the director of Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service, not only knew Osman but had helped him find asylum in Canada. This connection led to years of collaboration between Osman and Yang, the fruits of which have now been published in what is the first collection of Uyghur poetry to ever appear in English.

Osman was born in 1964, into a Muslim Uyghur family in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, China’s largest autonomous region, in the country’s Northwest. He was raised in a housing complex owned by the coal mine where his father worked. As he later recalled:

These housings were neither urban nor rural — they were in the middle of nowhere. The only things that connected me to the outside world were the Sun, Moon and stars in the sky. You could say that the Sun, Moon, and stars comprised my dream world.

Like many of his generation, Osman’s father was a victim of the Cultural Revolution and was dispatched to a labor camp for “re-education,” only to succumb to lung disease a few years later. As a result, Osman’s mother became the family’s sole provider. That time in Osman’s life clearly left its mark, as evidenced by these lines, excerpted from “As One Who Walks in a Dream”:

To this day
your sad lullaby, Mama,
echoes in my ears
like caravan bells
To this day
the taste of your bitter labor
is still under my ungracious tongue
I was born into this world
bearing your wishes on my shoulders
Did I feel this way in the cradle
as my mouth tightened around your nipple?
I am your son, Mama, your son
who grew up counting the stars.

Osman achieves a delicate balance between naked sentiment and self-pity, never allowing his lyrics to spill into outright laments. The poem is charged with an acute sense of responsibility — “I was born into this world / bearing your wishes on my shoulders” — while simultaneously infusing a great deal of humility and gratitude into his lines by declaring himself the unworthy recipient of his mother’s “bitter labor,” which his “ungracious tongue” is unfit to praise. At his most confessional, Osman’s language is both tender and exacting, aspiring to a sensual directness that borders on the erotic.

In the early eighties, Osman was one of the first Uyghur students after the Cultural Revolution to attend a university abroad, and he elected to study Arabic at the University of Damascus. In Syria, as Yang tells it, he “became one of the central figures of what came to be known as the new poetry movement, or gungga,” roughly the Uyghur equivalent of the “Misty Poets” group centered around such figures as Shu Ting and Yang Lian, among others. Osman began immersing himself in international literature, which led to translations of Celan and Pessoa; he was also introduced to Adonis, who seems to have had a marked influence on Osman’s work. Like Adonis’s, many of Osman’s poems marry lyrical descriptions of the natural world with the human need to ask metaphysical questions. There is no better example of this than “Nights that Pass from Scheherazade’s Mouth,” where the poet sits in a park in Ankara thinking about “the possibility of committing murder” until a fortune-teller appears and just as quickly vanishes, leaving Osman to muse:

What I wanted to know
was if she could really determine
the unknown, a human’s will
that which is impossible for even gods and demons
to discern, as we wander leisurely in public parks.

Osman also seems to have adopted Adonis’s use of the qit’a (or fragment) as one of the primary vessels for his poetics, juxtaposing images to create a vortex of sights, sounds, and ideas that always circle back to raw emotion. Take the brief ten-section sequence “Strange Sense of Familiar Things,” which takes everyday objects or activities — such as “Tobacco,” “Hat,” “Book,” “Dance,” and “Song” — and drains them of their mundanity to restore the link between perception and emotion. “Guitar” is a case in point:

Nostalgia wears a crown of thorns
and leads a convoy of camels
through the desert of the body …
I am its homeless string.

Osman didn’t linger in Syria and chose to return to Ürümqi. However, it didn’t take him long to realize that his growing literary reputation would present him with considerable obstacles, not least of which was finding steady employment. He spent years juggling various jobs, during which time his poetry increasingly attracted the censors’ ire, as “the Chinese authorities intensified their cycle of harassment, arrest, imprisonment, and release,” as Yang puts it. Thus, Osman decided to move back to Syria in 1994, at which point he began publishing his work in Arabic, at first translating it himself from his native Uyghur, but as a result of the near impossibility of seeing his work published in Uyghur, he began to write directly in Arabic — bringing the pain of his geographical and linguistic dislocation to bear on lines like: “My faraway home / is surrounded by a fence of words.” After a decade in Syria, Osman was forced to exile himself even further, this time to Canada, but it was halfway through his second stay in Damascus that Osman penned the title poem of this selected, Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile. While many of Osman’s poems can seem dominated by a passive sort of nostalgia, this one brims with hope:

In my early isolation, I’d often withdraw
homeward into my heart. Then, as my grief
subsided, my eyes would quickly close
not giving me a chance
to say, “I am alone … ”

After days of staring
at lit candles (the flame
no longer burns in the corner
of the old house in the land of memory)
a strange feeling woke me up
to the time of searching
for the birds
who pronounced the words of the Wandering Angel
between lines of buried books,
the farthest exile!”

Now I wish to forget
what emerged from the tongues of birds
and accept a land of darkness
where my feet bleed. To stop
thinking of the ancient things I’ve heard
for the voices have shifted direction in me
so that am I indeed what the birds pronounced?
Here, the mysterious moon
falls, heavy twilight on my shut eyes
as if embracing a stray thought
in the springtime of reincarnation
“Come toward me,” the candle beckons,
“you must leave this extinguished land
to shout freely with a vital voice,

In answer to an interviewer’s question about whether Uyghurland suggests “an imagined landscape much broader that Xinjiang or Ürümqi,” Osman answered:

It refers to a place (East Turkestan) where I belong to as an Uyghur but at the same time refers to an imagined place where I belong to as a poet. This makes East Turkestan, the country I belong to, a place of exile for me whereas the Uyghur language is my real homeland as a poet…. The Uyghur language is under threat of becoming extinct; this is the biggest pain I have to suffer as an Uyghur poet.

Like the Tibetans, the Uyghurs — a Turkic ethnic group that has far more in common with the peoples of the Central Asian “stans” than with China’s Han majority — have watched their region undergo radical economic changes over the past couple of decades, while being increasingly shunted to the sidelines and forced to endure a great deal of discrimination. As a news report in September 2015 noted, an official from the Political and Law Enforcement Office of the Township Party Committee — a Kafkaesque mouthful if ever there was one — informed local parents that they would henceforth be forbidden to give their children certain names — even going so far as to provide them with a list, which despite including such bizarre choices as Bin Laden and Saddam, mostly featured fairly common names, such as Abdul’aziz, Asadulla, Hussein, Aishe, and Fatima. What’s in a name? Everything, it seems.

Yang concedes that because he speaks neither Uyghur nor Arabic, he was able to translate these poems largely thanks to Osman, who sent him “a kind of skeleton key in English” and also answered all of his questions. Yang makes a good point about the need for such an approach in certain circumstances:

It should go without saying that a translator’s base-level responsibility is to know the language of the original. However, as we weren’t able to find someone who knew not only Uyghur and Arabic but also American poetry, and as there is some remarkable historical precedence for good, if not exceptional, translations rendered under the guidance of a knowledgeable 
informant, we pressed on.

We should feel lucky that they did; translations produced from cribs are better than nothing. Besides, Yang and Osman clearly make a good team: throughout their work, both poets deftly shift gears from the intensely lyrical to the epic, from the personal to the historical, from the grand scale of the objective to the minutiae of the subjective. As Morrison’s old woman said, “a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis.” Luckily, the Uyghur language appears to be in safe hands:

The first time I met the mountains
and saw their snow-capped peaks
I imagined Grandfather’s white hair
The forests also read me the books of autumn
Birds migrated to the stream of human existence
Clouds without shelter spoke to me
as I listened to their silence
besieged by the lightning of poetry.
—From As One Who Walks in a Dream

Approaches to Translating

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I am currently reading an essay called “Translating Medieval European Poetry” by Burton Raffel. As far as I can tell, Raffel seems to be a fan of completely rewriting the words so that they express the same sentiments elicited from the audience of that era. For example, if a poem refers to something that was common knowledge back then but may no longer be common knowledge now, he, as a translator, will not translate it exactly. Instead, he will either explain context within the poem or change it completely. He uses Beowulf as an example. There is a section of the poem that directly translates to:

“Often… he took away (deprived) of their mead hall seats crowds of enemies, many tribes (people, nations)”

…which can literally mean:

“More than once, he pulled seats in the mead-hall out from beneath troops of his foes, tribe after tribe”

Although we may come to understand what that means in context, we don’t get the same rhythm and cadence of the original poem, nor do we get the full brunt of the meaning. Depriving a free warrior of his rightful seat in the mead hall means you are depriving them of their freedom (turning him into a slave), and that is usually done in battle, war. That is what the audience of that time would have gotten – something frightening and awe-inspiring rather than something that feels weirdly worded. So the author translates it as:

“He made slaves of soldiers from every/ Land, crowds of captives he’d beaten/ Into terror”

Completely different, but gives the audience the same feeling that the old audience might have felt.

Raffel also says using exact translations is not faithfulness to the text but rather pedantry and “poetry’s deadly enemy” which made me laugh. Translators are so dramatic. Perhaps he is correct.

Another translator, Lydia Davis, takes a different approach to translation. She believes in straying as little as possible from the original text. From her introduction to a translation of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert in “Some Kind of Beautiful Signal”, it can be induced that many translators take a “re-writing” approach in order to convey the irony, the type of vocabulary, the level of diction and order of elements, the overall style of the work. However, she believes that translating it truthfully will bring out the irony or the style just as it is brought out in the original work. She does concede that a literal translation is not a well-written one, but gifted writers who add phrases and amplify or recombine sentences of the original work often lose the essence of that which they are translating. She compromises the two approaches then – a well written yet faithful translation.

I think the approach one takes to translation depends on what one is translating and what languages are involved. Perhaps it is easier to stay faithful and convey the meaning of more contemporary works compared to more archaic ones. In any case, most translators seem to believe that translation is a compromise and will not always be the same as the original. Perhaps it is like how a movie adaptation is never quite the same as the book. What makes a good adaptation however, is whether the movie captured the spirit of that book.