Ammiel Alcalay and the Limits of Translation

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 loggernaut An essayist, editor, translator, poet, and scholar, Ammiel Alcalay is the author of After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, the cairo notebooks, from the warring factions, and Memories of Our Future: Selected Essays, 1982-1997. He has edited and translated the anthologies Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing and For/Za Sarajevo: A Tribute to Bosnia, in addition to translating The Tenth Circle of Hell, by Rezak Hukanovic; Portraits of Sarajevo and Sarajevo: A War Journal, by Zlatko Dizdarevic; and Nine Alexandrias and Sarajevo Blues, by Semezdin Mehmedinovic. Ammiel Alcalay teaches at Queens College, CUNY and the CUNY Graduate Center. -Ramsey Scott

Loggernaut Reading Series: I wanted to begin with a question about geography and your personal development as a poet, writer, translator, and (dare I say it) intellectual. I'm particularly interested in your connections to the following areas, and to ideas, languages, and cultural ties you associate with them: New England, the former Yugoslavia, and Israel/Palestine. What is your connection to each of these regions? How have the cultural legacies you've been left with from each of these places influenced your work and thought?

Ammiel Alcalay: To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, or Robert Hunter more precisely, "what a long strange trip it's been." These things seem to change fairly significantly in different phases of one's life. In my case, for at least the past five years or so I've been feeling more and more tied to the New England part of myself (even though I live in Brooklyn) but getting back to that has been quite circuitous. Growing up "first generation," with parents and extended family speaking a whole bunch of different languages and acting differently (yelling out your name in the supermarket, for instance), does mark you in a way. On the other hand, the more I think back to the kids I grew up with, middle-class and working class, the more I realize how many of them were in similar situations - Italian, Greek, Chinese - there just wasn't any official definition or discourse around it so we weren't encouraged to "share" in that patronizing but sometimes useful way kids are these days. But Boston, Gloucester (where we went for part of the summer and counted amongst family friends Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini), and later Cape Cod (where I lived for several years working in trucking and automotive stuff), did leave some very indelible marks on my sense of place, landscape, light, speech patterns - the textures of everything deeply familiar. Not to mention the Red Sox, which could the subject of a whole other interview.

This is not to say that the 8 years I spent in Jerusalem didn't also etch some fairly indelible materials into me but I would concur with Charles Olson's great line that "people don't change, they only stand more revealed." As far as ex-Yugoslavia is concerned, since my parents came from there as refugee/immigrants, they preserved a kind of "frozen" sense of the place, circa late 1930s, up till 1941. Although I never lived there, it was deceptively familiar on many long visits. If I hadn't had these extended and deep experiences and encounters with other places, I don't think my work would have developed the way it has - in other words, I don't think I would have felt the need to engage in all these different aspects or facets: the work that went into After Jews & Arabs or Keys to the Garden; my work as a translator of Bosnian texts, my political and cultural engagement on the question of Palestine; the materials that went into the cairo notebooks and from the warring factions, and so forth. I learned a tremendous amount by being in other places, by involving myself in other languages and ways of being public as a writer that, when contrasted to some of my contemporaries that haven't had such experiences, does distinguish my approach in sometimes quite dramatic ways.

For instance, the experience of being politically involved while living in Jerusalem before and during the first intifada, is quite irreplaceable because it really was a popular revolution, despite the fact that it was suppressed and then politically co-opted. There was something incredibly exhilarating and expansive in that. But what I discovered, as someone who was politically active in high school during the crucial years of the late 60s and early 70s, is that I was encountering ways of thinking, acting and being that were, in many ways, already familiar to me.

So there has been this constant negotiation and renegotiation between places and times and activities - to this I would add that, as far back as I can remember, I've always had this knack of gravitating towards things and people that are very local, or genuine, or of a place, whether it be a bookstore, a garage, or a corner with people hanging out like when I managed a laundromat in the West Village in the mid 1970s and there was a contingent of retired longshoremen out talking every morning and every afternoon. When I was a kid there was a wonderful guy named Mr. Chase who would paint our house. He also worked on the Boston & Maine, I can't remember whether as a brakeman or an engineer, but I do remember that I would fake any and every possible kind of illness so I could stay home from school and hang around with Mr. Chase, carrying his bucket of spackle, watching him work the walls and listening to him tell stories.

When I was in Jerusalem the first time, in the late 70s, I worked as a kind of general gofer and assistant at this very old organization called the Council of the Sephardic Communities - most of the people there were old Jerusalemites, from families that were there for hundreds of years, and just by hanging around I learned and intuited a tremendous amount, things that led me to understand what I found and didn't find in books. During the intifada, we had a close friend who was a Mennonite and she ran the Mennonite Center there which became a kind of clearing house for all kinds of people that later went on to become both famous and infamous. Just by spending time there and listening, engaging with various people, I was able to gain the kind of nuanced understanding of things that is just unavailable otherwise.

This has always characterized my approach, for instance, to the literary world - I'd much rather work with a small press and get deeply involved in the whole endeavor at a very modest level than strive and hob knob with big name type people. That just doesn't interest me because there is little or no exchange involved - those kinds of people are just moving ahead, with little or no concern for anything common or collective. That too, I feel more and more strongly, is part of an intellectual ethics, a way of putting into practice various power relationships and breaking some of them down rather than falling into them and simply accepting what's given. Everything also changes as the context changes - I put a tremendous amount of effort into translation and enabling access to various literatures and traditions but as that gets taken up in a more organized way by others I find it less urgent and have shifted my energies elsewhere.



[continues...]



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Selected works of Ammiel Alcalay:

After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture

the cairo notebooks

Keys to the Garden

Memories of Our Future

from the warring factions


Translations:

Sarajevo Blues

The Tenth Circle of Hell

Nine Alexandrias



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