‘So Much Survives the Process of Translation’

Yes, it’s Halloween, but it’s also nearly time for this year’s Arab-focused London Poetry Festival. Spooooky!

British poet Fiona Sampson, a non-Arab who’s scheduled to appear at the festival, recently spoke with The National about how she perceives attitudes toward poetry in Britain vs. in the Arabic-listening world. (Her take: In the Arab world poetry’s central; in the British world it’s seen as “the most flowery and the least responsible” of the genres.)

I agree that, yes, poetry has traditionally been the “diwan of the Arabs,” and, yep, Mahmoud Darwish did pack stadiums. But—while I don’t agree with critic Rasheed al-Enany that poetry and fiction have completely switched places in the Arabic soul—poetry, particularly modernist or “prose poetry,” is commanding less attention.

For instance, the big new lit prize, the “Arabic Booker,” is for fiction, not poetry. And most of the writers in the Beirut39 collection were represented by their prose.

That’s only some places, mind you. In the media room at the Sharjah International Book Fair, reporters were most keen on the evening poetry events. And, of course, the Million’s Poet show still attracts millions of viewers.

Sampson, clearly a fan of Arabic poetry, called it “much more flexible” than English poetry. She told The National that even when (good) Arabic poetry is not read in the original language, “so much survives the process of translation. There’s still something very evocative and strong there.” I’d like to stick another “good” in before the word translation.

Among the poets who’ll be reading at the London Poetry Festival are Nujoom al Ghanem, Fadhil Al Azzawi, Suheir Hammad, Mourid and Tamim Barghouti, Adonis, and others. (Find a fuller rundown here.)

There are also non-Arabs, of course, including English writer Simon Armitage and the British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

People who might attend and write about events as they happen:



  1. Just attended a reading of Adonis’ at Alwan in NYC last night. The room was packed, ‘the poet’ in his usual fine form — remarkable for being 80 — and Khaled Mutawa, adeptly translating back and forth in the Q & A that followed, after reading his own beautiful English renditions of Adonis. What a pleasure! Another attendee, Jennifer Sears, said she might write up a post for the blog.

    1. Oh, it was Jennifer! I hope she does. Did Khaled read his own poetry as well, or it was mainly an Adonis event? Glad to hear the room was packed!

      1. It was an Adonis event, so no Khaled poetry. But both his renditions of Adonis and his delivery of them were luminous.

  2. “so much survives the process of translation. There’s still something very evocative and strong there.”

    Oh c’mon. Anyone who says this has never tried to read a translation of an Arabic poem written before the 20th century. When I see a truly enjoyable translation of Al-Mutanabbi’s satires, or a version of Imru’l-Qays’ mu’allaqa that conveys how dung is scattered beautiful as pepper seeds, then we can talk..

    1. Well, clearly she’s referring to translations of contemporary work, which is her focus.

      But that means you and I can’t talk, unless I can find you a delightful translation of al-Mutanabbi? Well, I can try….

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