Four Poems by Olivia Elias, translated from the French by Jérémy Victor Robert

Translator’s note: Last year saw the publication of Olivia Elias’s Your Name, Palestine (World Poetry Books), which I translated with the poet Sarah Riggs. The poems presented here are in line with the author’s defense of the Palestinian people. Olivia Elias gives the floor to the victims of massacres, creating poems like graphic, musical collages where voices and genres collide. “Day 21, Words Are Too Poor” and “Day 74, There Will Always Be Poets” were written as the war wore on, in the continuous, unhinged flow of information from Gaza. They have undergone alterations and cuts, as evidenced by the sometimes-brutal brevity of the stanzas. As though war had turned these poems into mirrors whose scattered pieces the poet, and the translator even more so, had to piece back together. Thus ends “Day 74”: “history will remember / there will always be poets / to tell the martyrdom / of the Ghetto People.” The author strives to keep a thoughtful distance with such horrific events, and such was the approach I took. I have tried as best I could to recapture the conciseness and great clarity of her words choices in English, removing any syntactical flourishes to match this almost “transparent” writing. As though war had forced poets to conduct a choir of ghostly voices–as though, ultimately, war victims needed a ghost writer. 

The two other poems are excerpts from This Mount Facing the Sea, Olivia Elias’s new book, which has not been published yet. Translating “Colin Powell, Guernica, Sculpture” meant striking the right balance between the tragic irony of the situation depicted in the poem, which unfolds as a news story, and the calm outrage that runs through the last lines. It also meant using irony to better undo the tapestry of chaos. As for “Hear Ye, Hear Ye,” the use of different letter sizes and line breaks conveys the intrinsic violence of the Powerful’s speeches. Elias turns lettering and spacing into both a megaphone and a seismograph able to record sudden swells of toxic words. Such vivid images as the veto-rattle, the iron balls and the red garlands blazing in the sky of Gaza will keep haunting the reader for a long time. 

Although in “Day 21,” the poet/truth-teller says, “Words are too poor / but I have only them,” her gripping narratives made it easier to echo their strength in English. In making room for the countless anonymous voices being crushed as we write, Olivia Elias builds them a home within her poems, a shrine facing the soothing sight of an acacia tree.

— Jérémy Victor Robert

OLIVIA ELIAS (b. 1944 in Haifa), a poet of the Palestinian diaspora, writes in French. She lived until the age of 16 in Lebanon, where her family took refuge in 1948, then in Montreal, Canada, before moving to France. Characterized by terse language and strong rhythms, her poetry shows a deep sensitivity to the Palestinian cause, the plight of refugees, and human suffering. Her work, translated into English, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Icelandic and Japanese, appeared in anthologies and numerous journals, including Arablit, Asymptote, Plume Poetry, Poetry Daily, Poetry Nation Review, Poetry London, Circulo de Poesía, Nayagua, and Al Araby Al-Jadeed. In France, Apulée, Poezibao, Poésie première. With Chaos, Crossing (World Poetry, Nov. 2022), translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, she made her English-language debut. In September 2023, appeared, in a limited illustrated edition, Your Name, Palestine, a chapbook translated by Sarah Riggs and Jérémy Victor Robert (WP editor).

JÉRÉMY VICTOR ROBERT is a translator between English and French who works and lives in his native Réunion Island. He published French translations of Sarah Riggs’s Murmurations (APIC, 2021, with Marie Borel), Donna Stonecipher’s Model City (joca seria, 2020), and Etel Adnan’s Sea & Fog (L’Attente, 2015). He recently translated Bhion Achimba’s poem, “a sonnet: a slaughter field,” which was published on Poezibao’s website, and Michael Palmer’s Little Elegies for Sister Satan, excerpts of which were posted online by Revue Catastrophes. Together with Sarah Riggs, he translated Olivia Elias’ Your Name, Palestine (World Poetry Books, 2023).

Barricade is working in collaboration with Four Way Review to uplift Palestinian voices and projects in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. View the rest of our Solidarity with Palestine series here. View more details on the series and our call for contributions here.

Palestinian flag image by iggdeh.