This may well be one of those posts that only makes sense to me. It’s a bit random, I confess.
During August, I went to an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Palestinian poetry. A Bird Is Not a Stone is an anthology of contemporary Palestinian poetry which has been translated by about 30 Scottish poets into English, Gaelic, Scots and Shetlandic.
One of the many things that I found interesting during the talk, however, was that none of the poets involved would actually use the word ‘translation’. They explained how they worked with someone who created a bridge translation, and then the Scottish poet would from that create a new poem. They fully acknowledged that they could never adequately capture the rhythms, images, allusions of the original in the new languages, but they could try to make a new poem that would remain faithful to the original and express its truth in a different context and for a different audience. In this way, the voices of Palestinian writers could be heard beyond their homeland.
This talk took place right about the same time the bombing between Israel and Gaza was at its worst. The lineup of Palestinian poets who were supposed to attend kept changing as the escalating violence caused travel problems, or visa issues meant that they would be delayed. Even so, as the audience — most of us white, well educated, middle class — gathered in the tent, the troubles of Palestine felt a long way away.
That is until the poetry started.
First, we heard the interpretations read by the Scottish poets who had written them. Then a local lecturer in Arabic literature read the original. Slowly, through the medium of poetry, our imaginations were captured by the stories that formed in front of us.
And then Christine De Luca read a Shetlandic poem she had created from the bridge translation of a piece by Maya Abu Al-Hayyat. Though it clearly wasn’t set there, I felt transported to the northern isles. Wind howled. Rain thundered down. The sea was stormy. And sorrow enveloped me.
Then Liz Lochhead read her English version of the same poem. Hearing it in my native tongue, I felt the tension between the familiar language and the unfamiliar images. It was a story that was not mine. It was an experience which was foreign to me, in a place which was foreign to me, telling of a horror that was foreign to me.
Whenever I see an image of a child’s hand
sticking out of the rubble of a collapsed building
I check the hands of my three children
I count the fingers of their hands, the toes on their feet,
I check the numbers of teeth in their mouths, every
last hair in each finely-marked wee eyebrow
Whenever a child goes silent in Al Yarmuk Camp
I turn up the volume on the TV, the songs on the radio,
I pinch my three children
to make them cry and squirm with life
Whenever my sore heart gets hungry
at Qalandia checkpoint
I comfort-eat, I
emotionally over-eat, craving excessive salt
as if I could then somehow say: enough, block out
the salt spark of tears everyone around me is crying.
Then Alistair Gray read Graham Fulton’s English poem which yet again was different.
And then finally came the Arabic, read by Maya Abu Al-Hayyat herself.
Though few of us could understand the words, we could feel the passion that hadn’t entirely been captured by the other languages. The anger. The horror. The fear and uncertainty. The knowledge that death and war and destruction and loss are spectres, always hovering nearby.
When she finished reading, the tent was silent.
I and several others wiped away tears.
In the minute or so it took to listen to a poem, the crisis in Israel and Palestine came alive for me in a way it never had. Before, I could have said something about the facts about what was happening. I, like so many others, watched the news and could name the dates and events and retell parts of the story that I had heard from different perspectives.
But at that moment, it pierced my heart.
I’ve been thinking about that event a lot recently, partly as I prepare to go to Israel and Palestine with Christian Aid and the Church of Scotland to hear about work being done by ecumenical partners and organisations there, and to learn more about the challenges that Palestinian Christians face. I will hear stories and then come back and share them to raise awareness of the situation of our brothers and sisters in the Occupied Territories. I want to do that in a way that expresses their truth to a different audience.
But perhaps oddly, I’ve also been thinking about that event in relation to preaching.
There are many different ways to preach. Different contexts require different kinds of sermons. Different texts require different approaches. But the important point for me about preaching is to open up the text in such a way that my listeners can enter it themselves. I don’t just want to share the Good News; I want to invite people to live within it, to find their place there, to discern for themselves what Jesus is asking of them.
But often, our scriptures feel like the original Arabic of the poems in A Bird Is Not a Stone. I can’t understand it. The context is foreign. The words are foreign. The images are foreign. The original audience is foreign. I don’t have the original poet in front of me sharing their passion through their writing.
In a way, the hundreds of biblical commentaries out there provide bridge translations. Some of the better ones offer the theological equivalent of news stories as well. But they stop at the so-called ‘facts’ of the text, not recognising that fact and truth are not the same (and that even ‘fact’ can be subjective). Sadly, too many sermons also stop there.
But good preaching is about the next step. The hardest step. The step that takes the bridge translation and creates a new poem, but one which remains faithful to the original. And that can only come from living and wrestling with the foreignness and the tensions and all the many contexts out of which the text came and into which it has spoken and is speaking.
This takes time, yes. But the real difficulty, the really daunting part, is that good sermons tell the Good News in such a way that it pierces the hearts of those who are listening. And we can only do that if we allow our own hearts to be pierced.