Courtesy Red Hen Press

The Translator Poems of Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

‘Water & Salt’ is a book that spans the globe, from Seattle to Jordan and back again.

It is probably no mistake that some of the best poets are translators. While translating poetry is an impossible, thankless task—I’ve heard it described as performing open heart surgery with a chainsaw—it still teaches you to ask all the right questions: Why did the poet use this word in that particular spot? Does a line break mean the same in this language as in the original? Just because you’ve managed to assemble a word-for-word translation of a sentence, its rhythm might be completely wrong—a sentence can sound like a crashing wave in one language and a galloping horse with a trick knee in another. These airy, complicated questions of translation are bound to make anyone a better writer.

Redmond writer Lena Khalaf Tuffaha has translated other poets from Arabic to English. She’s written beautifully about the experience in an essay on her website titled “Translation as Poetry.” She explains that the “first time I unlocked one of these phrases on my own, I felt like I had put on goggles and was happily diving into the cerulean deep of a pool after years of blurry immersion.”

Now Tuffaha is publishing her first book of poems with prestigious Pasadena publisher Red Hen Press. Water & Salt spans the globe, from Seattle to Jordan and back again:

We are driving away

because we can leave

on the magic carpet of our navy blue

US passports that carry us

to safety and no bomb drills

to the place where the planes are made

and the place where the president

will make the call to send the planes

into my storybook childhood

The repetition of “planes,” from being manufactured to being launched, is meaningful. Here in Seattle—once the Jet City, though that name has fallen into disfavor in the age of Amazon—the planes are a point of pride. They represent jobs and industry and security for families. There, they bring endings to childhood.

These poems bounce between worlds to look at familiar objects from both sides. Tuffaha compares vivid street markets to fluorescent supermarkets. She writes, “I love to tell you where I am from,” when she says “the nine letters—Palestine, the “place with a name charged as an electric fence”—that inspire opinions in absolutely everyone. Her poems are addressed to ugly Americans and friends and Syrians and her close family. Even Tuffaha’s beloved coffee habit is different in America (“free-trade shade-grown organic”) than it is in the Middle East (“ . . .never serve coffee without ground cardamom.”) The sun casts different shadows here and there. Everything looks a little different.

It becomes obvious as you read Water & Salt that Tuffaha is still deeply invested in the business of translation. Not even something as innocuous as an almond can just be itself. Here, they are dried and brown and vacuum-sealed. There they are green and so sour they’re “puckering.” Her poetry is always translating something—experiences, cultures, memories—for someone else. She’s a patient intermediary, explaining how one word can have a million different meanings. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., 624-6600, elliottbaybook.com. Free. All ages. 7 p.m. Sat., April 22. Paul Constant is co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage at seattlereviewofbooks.com.

More in Arts & Culture

Death Cab for Cutie Headlines Deck the Hall Ball 2018

The annual 107.7 The End holiday bash moves to WaMu Theater.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are beacons of light in <em>Rafiki</em>. Image courtesy Film Movement
Getting It Twisted

What to watch for at this year’s edition of Twist: A Queer Film Festival.

Ryan Gosling blasts off as Neil Armstrong in First Man. Photo by Daniel McFadden
Sea of Tranquility

In Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man,’ Ryan Gosling delivers a fascinating blank slate portrayal of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

The new Chris Cornell statue resides outside of MoPop. Photo courtesy MoPop
Seattle Rock Star Statue Breakdown

The new Chris Cornell statue at MoPop got us wondering about the statues honoring local music legends.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as star-crossed lovers. Photo by Neal Preston
Not the Brightest Star in the Sky

Lady Gaga shines in the otherwise underwhelming ‘A Star Is Born.’

Jazz harpist 
Brandee Younger. 
                                Photo by Kyle Pompey
A Beginner’s Guide to Earshot Jazz Festival

A look a seven of the most intriguing performers at Seattle’s annual month-long jazz celebration.

Valtesse doesn’t mess around with its elaborate cabaret style. Photo by Jules Doyle
Valtesse’s Art of the Tease

The new female-driven cabaret company strives for a noir cinematic sophistication.

Cumulus (Alexandra Niedzialkowski) searches for a ‘Comfort World.’ Photo by Sarah Cass
The Silver Lining of Cumulus’ Clouds

The Seattle indie pop act returns with the bittersweet tunes of ‘Comfort World.’

Greg McClellan of Kirkland completes his 48-hour long concept album after almost 20 years. Madison Miller/staff photo.
Kirkland Man Creates 48-Hour Long Concept Album

Greg McClellan finishes what may be the world’s longest album in dedication to his lifelong friend.

Pick List: Childish Gambino, French Cinema Now, Tres Leches

The best entertainment the week has to offer.