In approaching Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s work, I struggled. His poetry is athletic, double-jointed, full of sonic leaps, double-entendres, extended metaphors folded into cascading syntactical expansions which heap onto the French language more weight than it is intended to bear. His work, as he said himself, is “a linguistic guerrilla war,” a series of energetic and violently surreal assaults on the plodding phalanxes of French, the language with which colonials and royals strove to subdue, subordinate, and erase him, his people (the Amazigh, also known as Berbers), and their experiences of frequent, violently imposed imperialism.
Like all good poetry, his work is aware of and attuned to the language which composes it; his attention, though, is particularly dialed into the way the language’s sonic structure can evoke experience and disgust (a key feature of Khaïr-Eddine’s aesthetic), as well as the political history of its use. Every translation is an interpretation of the original and not in any way definitive, and I am not particularly interested in arguments of faithful versus unfaithful, since the vicissitudes of linguistic evolution, transmission, and mongrelization, impose wildly different pressures on different languages and their users. But in this context, based on Khaïr-Eddine’s (understandably vengeful) relationship with the French language, I found myself unwilling to do interpretive violence to a text built out of and in repudiation of this kind of violence. To erase the particularities of the text felt too close to the foreshortening use of language his poems respond to.
So, I strove to preserve as many of the superficial effects of the language as possible. It is, after all, as much through the order of sounds and clauses as the construction of images and vituperations that Khaïr-Eddine “disarticulates” the language, then uses it to convey a fuller, postcolonial experience to his audience, as repellant and visceral and shocking as it is. Of course, many of his choices were difficult to replicate in their clever multifariousness. For instance, in “Barbarian,” when constructing the wood pigeon in the latter third of the poem, Khaïr-Eddine gives it a “beak of gas,” or, in the original un bec à gaz, which means literally ‘gas-beak’ but also means idiomatically ‘gaslight.’ My instincts when facing this kind of dilemma were to err on the side of the literal (though in other areas I’ve been able to supply a similar idiom which communicates visually and tonally a similar import), in order to preserve the defamiliarizing jolt that this wordplay seeks to induce in the reader.
It is often after that jolt that Khaïr-Eddine’s poems are running; I seek this jolt, too. He doesn’t use them solely for shock value (though shock is an important tool in his belt). They are there to, among other things, remind us that language is powerful. That though it may be used to muddy, distort, or blot out, it can also be used — as he does — to disgust, incite, and witness.
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