This week, the International Writing Program (IWP) adds Arabic, Polish, and the first-ever Malay translation of Walt Whitman’s famous poem “Song of Myself” to the 9-language WhitmanWeb multimedia gallery. The gallery, which presents one section of the 52-section poem each week, along with an audio recording, foreword, afterword, and discussion question, already includes Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Ukrainian, as well as the first-ever translation into Persian.
“I am large, I contain multitudes,” Whitman wrote; by adding Arabic, Polish, and Malay (bringing the total language count to 12), WhitmanWeb encourages a multitude of new readers to discover the poem and join the conversation. The gallery, currently in its 26th week, will publish the three new translations beginning from section 1 of the poem, with the 52 weekly installments to run from now through May 2014.
A WEALTH OF RESOURCES
WhitmanWeb combines the scholarly resources and expertise of the Walt Whitman Archive with IWP’s international network of poets and translators. University of Iowa professor Ed Folsom, one of the world’s premier Whitman scholars and co-director of the Archive, collaborates with WhitmanWeb translators working to produce first-ever translations (like the Persian). Folsom also writes the weekly forewords to each new section of the poem, replete with analysis, commentary, and even trivia. There’s a cliff in Canada called “Old Walt” where the final three lines of section 20 of “Song of Myself” are carved in stone in three-foot-high letters—who knew?
2 RADICALLY DIFFERENT ARABIC TRANSLATIONS FROM IRAQ AND SYRIA
The Arabic page of WhitmanWeb actually includes two translations: a 1976 version by Iraqi poet Saadi Yusef tracked down by IWP alumnus Soheil Najm (who offers his opinion on it, including some of Yusef’s questionable changes and omissions in a short essay in the “Resources” section of WhitmanWeb) and a 2005 translation by Abed Ismael, a professor of Modern American Poetry at the University of Damascus, in Syria. The IWP is digitizing the Yusef translation for the first time—no easy task, since the Arabic text has to be transcribed before it can be uploaded to the gallery. Presenting the two Arabic versions side-by-side allows Arabic-speaking readers and scholars to compare and contrast the decisions made by the translators, as Nadia Fayidh, a professor of English and American poetry at the University of Mustaserya in Baghdad (Iraq) does in her short essay in the WhitmanWeb “Resources” section. Prof. Fayidh also translates the weekly comments into Arabic (made possible by funding from the Cultural Affairs Office at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad), and is the voice of the audio recordings of the Yussef translation.
FIRST-EVER MALAY TRANSLATION
IWP alumnus Eddin Khoo is translating a new section of the poem into Malay each week, the first time anyone has attempted to make “Song on Myself” available to Malay readers. (Malay is spoken by more than 200 million people in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and Borneo).
DIGITIZING THE POLISH, LINE BY LINE
While visiting the University of Iowa from Poland, Dr. Marta Skwara, an Americanist at the University of Sczecin, mentioned a Polish translation of “Song of Myself” to WhitmanWeb collaborator Ed Folsom. When she returned home, she tracked it down and has worked to digitize it, retyping all 52 sections so that they can be uploaded to the gallery, proving that, for scholars and admirers of Whitman, WhitmanWeb is a labor of love.
“Translators have been approaching us since we launched WhitmanWeb last October,” says IWP editor Nataša Ďurovičová, who oversees the design and coordination of the gallery. “They let us know about other existing translations of the poem and propose new projects.”
IWP hopes to also translate the forewords, afterwards, and discussion questions for each section, but, with limited funding, only the Persian, Russian, and Arabic tabs include translations of these rich materials. “We would love to have these commentaries in the other languages as well,” says Ďurovičová. “Especially Chinese. That’s the language in which the conceptual distance is the greatest, so having these resources translated could really help the conversation.”
Individuals interested in contributing to the project should contact Nataša Ďurovičová, natasa-durovicova[at]uiowa.edu.
WhitmanWeb will also serve as the virtual “textbook” for the IWP’s inaugural free online lecture series, which will invite anyone with an internet connection to engage in discussion led by Whitman scholar Ed Folsom and IWP Director Christopher Merrill. “Like” WhitmanWeb on Facebook to stay up to date on this and other news.
“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” ― William Carlos Williams
Need a little more poetry in your life? The IWP has just the thing: WhitmanWeb, a new multimedia gallery that is publishing Walt Whitman’s epic poem, “Song of Myself,” in 52 short weekly installments.
The gallery, which launched in October, presents a new section of the 52-part poem each week, in English and eight other languages, including the first-ever translation into Persian. Visitors to the gallery can also hear a new section of the poem read aloud each week in English by University of Iowa professor of acting Eric Forsythe, and in Persian by the poem’s co-translator, Iran-born Los-Angeles-based poet Sholeh Wolpe. These two very different voices highlight the internal tensions of the essential American democratic self Whitman captures so successfully in the poem.
“The influence of ‘Song of Myself’ on American poetry is incalculable,” says poet and IWP director Christopher Merrill. “Whitman insists that ‘every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’—words that have inspired countless poets to map new worlds. It is hard to imagine William Carlos Williams discovering ‘the pure products of America,’ Theodore Roethke undertaking ‘the long journey out of the self,’ or Allen Ginsburg writing ‘Howl’ absent Whitman.”
Each week, visitors will also find photographs of Whitman (courtesy of the Walt Whitman Archive), along with commentaries and questions for discussion. There’s even a special WhitmanWeb Facebook page, designed as a forum for international conversation and exchange of ideas about the poem, Whitman, translation, and other topics.
“Whitman lends himself to cultural translation,” says Whitman scholar and University of Iowa professor Ed Folsom, who co-directs the Walt Whitman Archive. Visitors to WhitmanWeb will find a general introduction as well as a weekly foreword by Folsom and an afterward by Merrill accompanying each new section. Weekly discussion questions draw readers into a conversation with the material. These commentaries, designed to orient, inspire, and challenge readers, are also made available in Persian and Russian, with translations into Chinese and other languages forthcoming. Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill spoke about the genesis, development, and international appeal of the WhitmanWeb project during a recent World Canvass radio broadcast “IWP: Telling the Stories of the World” (the discussion, which lasts about 20 minutes, begins at the 1 hour 17 minute mark).
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, section 51
“Whitman’s idea of a modern self, expansive and capacious, has attracted readers from surprisingly many different languages and literary cultures,” says editor Nataša Ďurovičová, who oversaw the design and coordination of the gallery. “‘Song of Myself’ is challenging to translate because it is a vernacular poem, its language both colloquial and exalted; it speaks to so many people because the first-person-singular voice bursting forth is so imaginative and cerebral yet also coming out of a tangible, material body and the physical world it inhabits. This is poetry one can’t resist reading out loud.”
In addition to making translations of “Song of Myself” available in Chinese (simplified), French, German, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Ukrainian in one location in a clickable, user-friendly format and opening a forum for international discussion, WhitmanWeb has also commissioned new translations of the poem. In addition to the first-ever translation into Persian, in 2013 the site will publish a new Russian-language translation by young Uzbek poet Alina Dadaeva, an IWP alumna, the first new translation of “Song of Myself” into Russian since 1922. The University of Nanjing (China) has also promised to collaborate on the translation of the weekly commentaries, with additional translations of the poem and commentaries to be added to WhitmanWeb as they become available. Especially exciting is the prospect of publishing not just one, but possibly two translations into Arabic, one a published “classic” from the mid-1980s, one a brand-new version by a Damascus-based poet.
In the internet age, when few of us have time to sit down and read “Song of Myself” from cover to cover, we hope that you’ll take a few minutes each week to visit WhitmanWeb, and read, listen, and join the conversation on Facebook. By the 52nd week, not only will you have read “Song of Myself” in its entirety, but you will have spent a year under the tutelage of Walt Whitman—who knows what great new poetry may emerge as a result?
With the recent changes in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, IWP director Christopher Merrill addresses this question by introducing Huffington Post readers to Greek poet Constantine Cavafy.
The indispensible Common Review links to a long piece in The National (out of Abu Dhabi) on the distinguished literary translator Humphrey Davies and his perspective on the history, the skills, the politics and the special concerns that arise in translating out of the Arabic. It's also interesting to hear that a new academic translation program is opening up in Cairo.