The Silence That Remains: On Translating the Poems of Ghassan Zaqtan

By Fady JoudahAugust 15, 2017

The Silence That Remains: On Translating the Poems of Ghassan Zaqtan
The following essay serves as the introduction to Ghassan Zaqtan’s The Silence That Remains: Selected Poems, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah, which is out today from Copper Canyon Press.


Once we see in the need to “translate” the obvious need to “betray,” we shall see the temptation to betray as something desirable, comparable perhaps to erotic exaltation. Anyone who hasn’t experienced the ecstasy of betrayal knows nothing about ecstasy at all.

— Jean Genet


AS I COMPLETED my work on Ghassan Zaqtan’s recent poetry in Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, I wanted to read more of his earlier poems. I asked him to send me copies of those collections, but that proved to be a story. At first, he sent me a copy of Putting Description in Order, his 1998 volume of new and selected poems. The book featured work from four previous collections. It began with Old Reasons (1982) — Ghassan’s third collection, which he considers his actual debut — and concluded with new pieces meant to announce a forthcoming project, Zodiac of the Horse, which would never materialize.

The copy of Description I received appeared to have spent much time in sweaty hands and damp conditions of storage on a forgotten shelf. Just as its title promised, Description was the first exhibit, one can say, in how Ghassan Zaqtan rearranged his art: not simply a matter of choosing the best from the past, but also of disassembling the original body (of sequence mostly) that housed many of the poems, and then reconstructing a new corpus for them.

The second exhibit was also performed on the body of Description. With black pen, Ghassan had marked some of the pages of my copy. Mostly he edited punctuation, crossed out a few poems, and tinkered with a couple of titles or some stanza breaks. The most intriguing intervention, however, was his occasional deletion of a section in a sequence or a stanza in a poem. He seemed carefree. He was quoting and misquoting himself, reshaping and reforming memory.

I took note of this precedent — Ghassan’s aesthetic of nonchalance, illusory and paradoxical as it may be, regarding his own text’s iteration. It excited me to work with a poet who protects his margins’ rights to wander. It’s a feeling I know well. Borderlands become central, all boundaries active. The record is no holier than the self.


What were the early poems like when experienced within their “original” homes? What of the poems Zaqtan didn’t include in the “selected” works? I turned away from Description and asked for the early books whole, all four of them, but Ghassan told me that copies were hard to come by or part with, especially Old Reasons. And in the case of Not for My Sake (1992), Zaqtan could only obtain a copy of the bound galleys.

Old Reasons, it turns out, had narrowly escaped erasure. Its publication preceded the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 by a few days. Ghassan possessed 15 author copies and held on to them in his apartment in Beirut. On the first day of the invasion an Israeli rocket lodged itself in the third floor, where he lived, and burned the books and everything else. Luckily Ghassan had left the building earlier. On his person were two copies that he intended to give to friends. The publisher had distributed no more than 100 copies before the rest of them burned in their boxes in the warehouse. Years rolled by and copies of Old Reasons began to resurface and reunite with their author in unexpected places — in Damascus or Algiers, for example. They were the copies that the publisher had managed to send out before incineration became their fate.

Was this another level of deletion (and its ghosts) that might explain Ghassan Zaqtan’s art and his relation to it?

In the epigraph to his landmark collection, The Heroism of Things (1988), Ghassan Zaqtan wrote: “I’m mystified / how do I / rearrange the poem / everything’s been said.” This “everything” is, of course, what others have said ― a history of documented speech, local and otherwise. It is also what the poet himself had begun to say in previous work, what he hears the previous work speak back to him constantly. And yet it is something more, a rehearsal and iteration of silence. Here is the title poem from Not for My Sake:

Not for my sake

or yours

and not for the sake of what others had agreed to describe

            and fully did

speech and its loads

are not mine

before me

            all of it was

Even today this preoccupation, this waiting and listening (and retrieving), is palpable in his work. “Three Hallways”, the only remaining poem from Zodiac of the Horse, found its way back to print in Zaqtan’s most recent collection, Marchers Call Out to Their Brothers. The title comes from a line in the 1998 poem, and is difficult to capture in translation. They’re not pedestrians in protest or demonstration, not amblers through a park, not a file of soldiers. They are the dispossessed, the displaced and dispersed on foot.


If the narrative of human consciousness has already been told countless times over countless reproducible nights, then perhaps what remains is the private memory that haunts a mind. To have memory and to articulate memory are two different things. The memory recalled in silence seems always whole (in the company of its entourage of feeling), or at least far more complete than when articulation is attempted. As time proceeds or recurs, gaps appear in the memory previously articulated. The more one attempts to capture memory and enunciate it, the more one is resigned to an endless task.

Perhaps then, in rearranging memory, Zaqtan views his past work as a painting long unexhibited, which now seems unfinished. And so he takes the canvas out of storage and applies minor, subtle brushstrokes to it, as if he were his own art’s historian. His views on the subject are clear in “Always”:

Seven days ago
was Thursday afternoon
I read the poem
the one that was supposed to have been finished
that morning
and it wasn’t finished

For seven years
I finish it every morning then doze off
and by evening
I always catch it
opening its doors on the sly
and calling talk in

Throughout Zaqtan’s work, recurrence comes bearing new gifts. Childhood, friends, marriage, eros, and death, in their various forms, suggest an obsessive irresolution, as if what is incompletely remembered is betrayed. And since memory itself is oriented toward the future (a life carried forth), the betrayal never ceases. Enthralled, circuitous, and unrelenting tenderness drives Zaqtan’s poetry and propagates it.


The aesthetic of fragment as the art of the fragile: an imaginative archeology that became powerfully manifest when we had to deal with the logistics of this bilingual edition.

At the time of this writing, Zaqtan’s early books are scheduled for republication in Arabic in 2017. In preparation, the poet again took up his subtle pen to copyedit the older works. The erratic, sometimes intoxicated and painterly punctuation of the early versions (which served as my template for these translations) is significantly streamlined, normalized. Indentations disappear, and infrequently words and minor phrases are replaced. Some poems changed their form slightly. And in a couple of instances the form was radically altered so that I had to request a return to origin, so to speak, for the sake of this production.

My translation evolved from its original template and was finished before I received the new Arabic files of the older poems for this bilingual edition. I made no further alterations. My work, then, adheres to neither mirror, inhabiting an in-between space where silences are performed. A genome’s dance with its phenotype: the result simultaneously questions and affirms fidelity or filiation. The possibility for rereading (and thus rewriting) a text, for both poet and translator, expands.

This offers something new, unintended, divergent to the reflexive approach to bilingual works of art. They are not reliable as tools for learning a language, are not necessarily limited to the accuracy of the looking glass. Zaqtan and I, with our editor Michael Wiegers’s support, agreed to let the life of the work be apparent ― uncorrected, so to speak, by what would betray the silences it generates.


What then of the silence this book speaks of: the “silence” that I lifted out of the poem Ghassan Zaqtan wrote as elegy for his father and which bears his name, “Khalil Zaqtan”?

When a reader traverses where a writer disappears, the former can more easily see and hear the latter’s silences. A reader can trace the father’s presence in “Abu Zuhair” and in “Also the House,” and there are many other figures that perform this kind of ghostly materialization in Zaqtan’s poems. The mother, especially in “Three Hallways,” is a favorite of mine. But beyond theme, place and its protagonists, and the doubles and cameos of objects and persons that populate the poems, there are also the silences of the lyric in Zaqtan’s poems, the energy fields of multiple dictions and registers.

“Old Reasons” (Old friend) returns in its narrative intensity to “Also the House” or “Another Death.” “Rain” becomes “Pillow” or “Things That Don’t Happen.” Eros persists ecstatic with psyche. To read and live with the poems is to notice how the silences morph. Across Zaqtan’s poems silences inhabit syntax, translocate within, and alter it. Sentences shed meaning and lyric shifts to ordinary speech.

Language as a moving object: perhaps in reading literature we come closest to experiencing a life, ours and another’s, in multidimensional space.


No silence is alone. Each silence is two. One is expressible, lends itself to speech, and the other is ineffable. That is what Ibn Arabi described as the two silences: the silence of the tongue and the silence of the heart. Only the former can be formulated, and “whether you keep silent or make an utterance, you speak.” And yet “between utterance and silence,” between articulation and its antithesis, al-Nifarri said, “there’s a liminal zone wherein lies the mind’s grave and the graves of things.” This is the threshold that propels our silences toward their corporeal conditions.

All silence is resistance, perhaps immanence. If silence is sacred language, golden, then everything else is inferior translation. The silence that lends itself to the translation of its feeling is what we find, or imagine we find, between the words, between the lines. If one is compelled to translate the feeling of silence, one enters history. We are instead urged to “create silence,” as Kierkegaard wrote — to reclaim and reenter it: a silence, as antidote to white noise, seems least corruptible (or most antinomian) in an irrevocably chronological world.

I believe that of silence something always remains, unexpressed, inexpressible. The silences in this book are as universal and collective as they are individual and singular. Silence here is Palestinian silence.


How does one write Palestinian silence into English? The question demands silence. The answer — a translation at best ― demands a willingness to receive and accept.

To reverberate Derrida’s echo of the wound of silence that, once spoken, opens into history, I can descend — briefly ― into the history of the Palestinian question. Ghassan Zaqtan’s father, mother, and extended family were expelled from their homes and lands in Zakariya in 1948 at the hands of Israeli forces. Zaqtan was born a refugee in 1954 in Beit Jala in the West Bank, and grew up east of the River Jordan in Karameh refugee camp, which Israel also razed to the ground in 1968. The family had to move elsewhere in Jordan, to Russeifa and Amman.

In his 20s, Ghassan Zaqtan joined the Palestinian revolution. Eventually he took residence in Lebanon. And from there a life of exile (“wherever we are is ours”), until Zaqtan’s return to Ramallah in 1994. This timetable is evident in his oeuvre, and is perhaps most visible in Biography in Charcoal where, in the spirit of Cavafy, Zaqtan sketches out his dislocation.


What is beautiful, liberating, and daring here is the mention of the Palestinian revolution. Describing a Palestinian of that time as belonging to the revolution is redundant. The whole of Palestinian society, in its myriad forms and locations, was engaged. Ghassan Zaqtan’s early works, especially the first four collections in this Silence, give form to those days and what birthed them. To speak of the poems’ nuance, to give them historical utterance — in “Migration” for example, in “Collective Death” or in “Will They Believe,” in “Handkerchief” and “Conversations with my Father” ― betrays the silence of poetry. Even to a Palestinian who might engage the explicatory or revelatory, this silence remains indescribable in some way. Comfort, sorrow, rapture — as forms of knowing ― shadow the ineffable.

Take, for example, the “Three Stones” (whose later cameo in a brief line in “Also the House” tells us of their place at the front door). The poem comes from Old Reasons, and begins a short sequence (originally titled “Stones for Fathers and Us”). The “three steps” become the only silence that remains of that sequence:

Three stone steps
where our fathers sit
in their full gear
looking as mean
as we knew them to be
and as they didn’t wish to be
not even for a day

How does one carry this within oneself for generations and across languages? And yet who among us has not? Another moment is found in “The Death of the Artillery Youth.” Are we able to read the Promethean in it? Who holds fire as gift and who holds it as destruction, and at which coordinates in time?


Or perhaps I offer this. The Silence That Remains is a necessary companion to Jean Genet’s masterful last work, Prisoner of Love. The young artist, which Zaqtan was when he lived those Palestinian days in Genet’s book, is a mirror image to an outcast like Genet, and to the visionary rebellion and betrayal that Genet achieves in memory, praise, and elegy of the Palestinian revolution. Here’s Genet in the opening pages of his book:

Was the Palestinian revolution really written on the void, an artifice superimposed on nothingness, and is the white page, and every little blank space between the words, more real than the black characters themselves? Reading between the lines is a level art; reading between the words a precipitous one. If the reality of time spent among — not with — the Palestinians resided anywhere, it would survive between all the words that claim to give an account of it. They claim to give an account of it, but in fact it buries itself, slots itself exactly into the spaces, recorded there rather than in the words that serve only to blot it out. Another way of putting it: the space between the words contains more reality than does the time it takes to read them.


So did I fail to understand the Palestinian revolution? Yes, completely. […] The reality lay in involvement, fertile in hate and love; in people’s daily lives; in silence, like translucency, punctuated by words and phrases.

Genet “among — not with — the Palestinians” was twice an outsider. To be fully present in the Palestinian revolution and not be totally of it, he sought proof that the Palestinian revolution not only existed but was also spectacular. He waited for silences to return to him before they could take shape on the page. For Ghassan Zaqtan there is a different agency, urgency, and intimacy of language and body:

     Happy and thrilled with my voice as it resembles me,
as it calms down when I’m crying or in longing,
as it puts on its old clothes … as I hug you,
as it walks out of me barefoot in the night
to arrange itself for the alphabet
of your sleep

Whatever its domain of consciousness, Palestinian silence is here, “oppressed, beloved, exposed / and full of perishing radiance” — “banners that tug / only at trees // and are not retrieved / a triumph.” Ecstasy pervades the book. Survival, remembrance, desire, resolve: to be “together, alone, in the poem.”


The quotes of Jean Genet come from Prisoner of Love, translated from the French by Barbara Bray.


Fady Joudah’s Alight and Textu are his latest poetry collections from Copper Canyon Press. He is the recipient of the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2013 and is a Guggenheim fellow in poetry. His new poetry collection, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, is forthcoming in 2018 from Milkweed Editions.

LARB Contributor

Fady Joudah's most recent poetry collections are Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance and Tethered to Stars, both from Milkweed Editions. He is also the author of the poetry collections Alight and Textu, both released by Copper Canyon Press. He is the recipient of the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2013 and is a Guggenheim fellow in poetry.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!