New and Forthcoming Arabic Poetry (in Translation)

Soon, no doubt, Google will come out with its first book-length edition of translated poetry.

Dmitriy Genzel, a research scientist at Google, says they’re still having a spot of trouble with rhyme (and, oh, something Genzel refers to as “feeling”), but they’ve got the whole rhythm and meter thing under control. Genzel told NPR:

“[T]here’s quite a big aspect of [poetry translation] that machines can do pretty well,” he says. “It’s not such a human endeavor as people might think.”

I would think it’s just a Google publicity stunt, but Genzel seems to be taking the whole venture quite seriously. A public version of this poetry-translation software hasn’t been released, but here is the current software’s version of al-Shabbi’s “It must respond if people just wanted to day life.”  (“If the people wanted life one day).

It must respond if people just wanted to day life
It is imperative that under that must be broken for the night that settles
Evaporation in the atmosphere and ceased to exist and has not embraced life longing

فلا بــدّ أن يستجيب القــــدر             إذا الشعب يوماً أراد الحيـــــــاة
ولا بـــدّ للقيـــد أن ينكســــر                ولا بدّ للــــيل أن ينجلــــــــــي
تبـــخّر في جــوّهـا واندثــــر                 ومن لم يُعانــقه شوق الحيــاة

I am not being entirely Luddite about the possibilities of translation software, but perhaps they’d be better off starting with limericks.

Indeed, Arabic poetry presents all sorts of particular challenges. A.Z. Foreman, who blogs at Poems in Translation, had earlier commented on this site:

Anyone who says this [that “so much survives the process of translation”] 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..

Indeed, the best works of Arabic poetry released in fall 2010 were from contemporary authors: Adonis: Selected Works, edited and translated by Khaled Mattawa; Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief , translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, and the first of two versions of Darwish’s Absent Presence, translated by Mohammed Shaheen and published by Hesperus Press.

The second version of Darwish’s book, titled In the Presence of Absence and translated by Sinan Antoon, is due out late this spring from the non-reclusive Archipelago.

In the “pre-20th century” category, a paperback edition of The Poems of al-Mutanabbi is forthcoming in March 2011. This is one of Elias Muhanna’s suggested “five books to read before you die.”  If you don’t mind a more literal English, this Princeton site, featuring work by al-Mutanabbi, is worth seeing. English words are accompanied by a reading in Arabic by Samer Traboulsi.

Also, Syracuse University Press has published (or will be publishing, according to Amazon) Abundance from the Desert: Classical Arabic Poetry. I haven’t seen it, but it’s apparently based on Dr. Raymond Farrin’s “award-winning dissertation completed at UC Berkeley.”

Banipal 40 will no doubt have some interesting new translations of contemporary Libyan poems. And there’s also a new Kindle book out, titled Arabian Poetry, featuring “rare” Orientalist translations of classic poems. I don’t know anything about it except: Wow, look at that cover.

Poetry translation prizes to which you should submit:

Sure, we know about the PEN. But what of The Times Stephen Spender Prize for poetry translation 2011? Entries must be postmarked no later than the last post on Friday 27 May 2011, and entrants must be British residents or British citizens.

The Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. The competition welcomes submissions of unpublished translations of poems from any language and time period–ancient to contemporary. All right, we’ve  missed the deadline for this year (Dec. 1), but you can get in for next year.

You may well have heard of the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, but, in case you haven’t, the deadline fast approaches: Jan. 31, 2011.

Million’s Poet update:

The first “non-Arab” poet has qualified for second phase of the Prince of Poets competition. Malian poet Ali Gibreal the highest points amongst the four poets who stood before the panel at Al Raha Beach Theater.

Help me out, if you can:

Remember this story? Mounir Said Hanna found guilty of ‘Satire’. It’s “old news,” but I would like to know what ‘s happened to Mounir Said Hanna, found guilty of writing a satiric poem about Mubarak.


  1. Hi,

    Do you know if Al-Shabbi’s poem has ever been published in English translation in its entirety? I am unable to find a published translation, and I have completed my own.
    thank you in advance.

    1. Gaelle,

      Not as far as I’ve been able to find. Never mind the “Arab mind” comments here; maybe you could download this article and see if translations are mentioned? (I have no access.)

      I believe it’s been translated into French (I found a partial that seemed to indicate that), but I don’t read French, so….

      Look forward to seeing it,

  2. The google oracle prophesies unto me whenever the internet says something new about me.

    Arberry’s translations of Mutanabbi are firmly in the tradition of the schoolchild’s latin crib- and are intentionally devoid of literary merit. Take the following line:

    على قَدرِ اهلِ العَزمِ تأتي العزائمُ وتأتي على قدرِ الكرامِ المكارمُ

    Which arberry gives as:

    “According to the degree of the people of resolve come the resolutions, and according to the degree of noble men come the noble actions.”

    Or this

    وَقَتَ وما في المَوتِ شَكُّ لواقفٍ كأنّكَ في جَفْنِ الرَدى وهْو نائمُ

    which becomes in arberry’s rendering:

    “You stood firm when there was no doubt that any who stood must die, as though you were in the very eyelid of death and death was asleep”

    The problem with so much pre-20th-century Arabic poetry is fourfould

    (1) Classical Arabic poetry depends on the fusion of sound and meaning so heavily that it can make or break the poem, and in ways which draw on features of the language’s morphology and phonology which cannot be readily compensated for in translation in any obvious way. And even if they could be, the effect wouldn’t be the same. For example, تجنيس is a respectable and elevated poetic device in classical Arabic. But in English, wordplay and puns, which are the corresponding techniques, are simply not respectable enough -when used as heavily as in classical arabic- to be experienced as a great aesthetic vehicle for art. One can, for example, render my first example from Mutanabbi in a way that somewhat replicates its manipulation of lexical roots -and even rhyme- , and get something like this:

    The sign of the steadfast is a steadily kept word,
    And a prince’s good grace is a princely reward.

    But at best this will be read as merely clever- and at worst a gimmick.

    (2) The very notion of what is considered “poetic” is radically different from what newcomers are used to. Panegyrics and satires are marginal forms in much of western literature, whereas they are so central to the classical Arabic tradition that many poets -such as Al-Mutanabbi for one- wrote almost nothing outside of those two genres. It you tell a western audience that one of the greatest Arabic poets of all time (by some accounts the greatest) had basically two themes, and poems written on any one of those two would say basically the same thing in the same format in the same (and only) rhymescheme with the only variation coming from different incarnations of technical proficiency and inventiveness, it will come across to most as a sign that classical Arabic isn’t worth learning for its literature. Westerners want a poet with more thematic complexity and subtlety than an on/off switch. Put Al-Mutanabbi’s corpus beside those of Robert Frost, W.H. Auden or Ezra Pound (or even those of Ovid and Horace) and there isn’t a commentator in the world skilled enough to prevent a western reader from coming away with a renewed cultural narcissism. If you then show said reader some translated work by Nizar Qabbani, Adonis, Amin al Rayhani or any such poet who started writing after Arabic literature adopted a good deal of western aesthetics, there is absolutely no reason for that reader to get the impression that Arabic literature has the west to thank for anything good it has produced. I’ve seen it happen- many, many times.

    (3) Most translators of poetry -especially classical Arabic poetry- are really bad at it. Very few translators from Classical Arabic are poets themselves, and most are scholars who can’t suppress their scholarly urges long enough to care about whether the translation will strike a non specialist as worth reading again. And most of the time, the formal features are ignored. It’s bad enough that most non-Arabophones have no way of knowing that modern poems like Mahmoud Darwish’s “I am From There” were originally written in metrical lines that mostly rhyme. But with Classical Arabic literature, it’s just plain crippling. Translators’ excuses (e.g. “I can’t use Arabic meters or monorhymes in English, so I’ll just have to forgo formal features altogether and attempt to make it into good free verse.”) don’t really help the matter.

    Since I wrote the comment you referred to, I myself have only managed to translate one classical Arabic poem in any way that remotely approaches success -and not for lack of trying. ( Click here to read it if you like) and seen maybe one translation of Al-Mutanabbi that worked as English poetry (and not for lack of searching). It’s by Herbert Howarth and Ibrahim Shakrullah. Here’s how it began:

    Promiscuous tags and liberal lip I hate,
    That gutter currency that swamps the state
    Where slaves who knock their masters down and clear
    The till are certain of a great career.
    I went there as the guest of liars, who
    Would neither entertain nor let me go,
    Liars for whose putrid frames death would not function
    Unless equipped with a carbolic truncheon….

    1. Ah yes, I hear from that same google oracle. I would prefer, however, that it speak to me in verse.

      And this goes ditto to problems with translating much contemporary, non-Western-influenced poetry—such as nabati, or much of the other “million’s poet” verse—which also fall into (2), the valley of cultural aesthetics, no?

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