A.Z. Foreman on Why Classical Arabic Poetry Resists Translation

This is not so much a guest post as something I rescued out of this site’s comments. But if A.Z. Foreman, the author of “Poems in Translation,” minds, I suppose he’ll tell me.

From A.Z. Foreman

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.

Blog of Poetry in Translation(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) rhyme scheme 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 Shukrallah. 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….

My own comments:

I’d day this also speaks 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. A contemporary critic can easily say “but Hissa Hilal is no good!” But then we need to examine of what a poem is, how we mean it to function, and so on.


  1. Whether recovered from “comments” or the blotting paper can we believe such a response indicates the high level of appreciation for this blog?

    Please do keep up the excellent work!

    1. Indeed, it does. I second the request to keep up said good work. Also, man do I make a lot of typos when typing fast late at night.

  2. To paraphrase Ezra Pound, if you closely follow the form of the original poem when translating, you will lose the original force and rhyme of the poem; whereas, if you manage to rework the poem to foster the same poetic force, you will have effectively created another poem.

    I think the real question is how much leeway you want to give yourself. If you give yourself enough creative room, you can [in my opinion] recreate the same feel and force of the poem. And you can even retain most of the original poem. But of course, in one sense, Pound is right in that it will so different that we could legitimately call it the translator’s separate creation.

    I, for one, feel comfortable following this more radical approach, and I don’t think its illegitimate to say that it is in fact a “translation” and not necessarily a complete “remake.”

    1. Yankee…

      It appears that’s what Naomi Shihab Nye and Lena Jayyusi did in their translation of al-Shabbi, if the one poem taken from their collection and posted online is true/accurately rendered.

      I wish I could turn up a discussion about poetry across cultures I once read, in which Westerners visited a sub-Saharan country where the poetic traditions were so different in their values (building on tradition, for instance, rather than saying something “original”) that the U.S. or U.K. poets, whoever they were, couldn’t manage appreciate the poems…much less translate them.

      Anyhow, good to hear from you. Please do let me know if you’re doing more poetry translations on Meedan or elsewhere.

    2. Mainly arguments like this are arguments of semantics, rather than methodology. Naturally any translational process that attempts anything other than a simple prose gloss will likely result in a new poem in the narrowest sense. I don’t think anyone is going to argue otherwise.

      But I think your point is bolstered when poets who are themselves bilingual translate their own work, sometimes in both directions, (e.g. Ann Cotten,, Joseph Brodsky, Gabriel Preil, Adel Karasholi, Gwyneth Lewis and Grahame Davies) and truly do experience the result as a translation and the two as the same poem, it suggests that something else is at work here. If you read what many of the aforementioned folk and others have said about the process, it seems that many of them actually experience it not as a whole new creation, but rather as an act of re-writing. And I think that re-writing rather than re-creation is a more useful way to think of it. When one re-writes anything -be it a novel, an article, a poem or a homework assignment- certainly it is in some absolute philosophical sense a different thing. But that is at best an academic distinction- it is not how people experience it. The first edition of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” underwent several massive revisions and additions before its last and “canonical” one. But one can at most say they are different *versions* of the same project. If a mozart symphony is adapted for performance by a saxophone quartet (an instrument which didn’t exist in mozart’s time) the resulting performance will still be -in most ways that matter- a performance of mozart. Even if the sound is radically different.

      Translation of poetry is a special kind of re-writing, certainly. But thinking of it as such is certainly a more reasonable way of doing things, I believe, and less disingenuous than Pound’s chucking the whole edifice as a justification for turning the incredibly rigorous meter and rhyme of Chinese poetry into freeverse modernism (e.g. compare his “River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” with my rendering of the same poem here.)

      And there are certain poems (such as William Jay Smith’s “The yes-man in the mirror”, or most of e.e. cummings) that rely so heavily on playing with the idiosyncrasies of the language in such language-specific ways that they probably cannot be re-rendered as adequate poems without being wholly gutted into something wholly other. And some are so rooted in history and context (like Countee Cullen’s “Incident” or probably a good half of all early 20th century Hebrew poetry) that a translation would at best be only fully intelligible with a shovelful of footnotes. (How is one to translate the word “nigger” in Cullen’s poem, for example?) But in general I think translatability boils down to rewritability. And this is just more true of some poems than others, not necessarily as a function of quality.

      But all this is extrinsic to the issue of pre-modern (and especially classical, and of that most especially pre-islamic) Arabic poetry where -aside from the massive technical linguistic issues involved- a whole different aesthetic is at work: and not just thematically or socio-culturally, but materially as well sometimes. No Anglophone English translator/recreator, for example, will be able to find a way to acceptably render Imru’l-Qays’ line about the delicate beauty of animal-dung, without making it not about animal-dung. As most don’t live in a desert or limit themselves to pre-industrial technology, camel-shit and deer-shit just don’t do it for English-speaking readers. No matter how you try and slant it.

      And it looks like I’ve written another mammoth comment. I am nothing if not a master of prolixity.

      1. I think Ibrahim al-Koni has made me appreciate camel dung. Although perhaps when you’re immersed in the prose experience (for far longer than immersion in a single poem), it’s possible to make a reader transport herself to the desert, and into a mental space of appreciating the tenderness of dung.

      2. A.Z.: Why don’t you pick a classical poem or poem excerpt of 10-12 lines that each of us will translate with a discussion of some of our strategies?

  3. @ YankeeTranslator. Fair enough. Here’s one from Abu Nuwas- who had more thematic complexity, a poem that is almost modernist in the way it subverts tradition. The problem for a translator of this passage, it seems, would be in getting the western reader to understand the tradition being subverted.

    عاجَ الشقِيّ على دارٍ يُسائِلُها،
    وعُجتُ أسألُ عن خَمّارَة ِ البلدِ
    لا يُرْقىء ُ الله عينيْ من بكى حجَراً
    ولا شفَى وَجْدَ من يصْبو إلى وَتَدِ
    قالوا ذكَرْتَ ديارَ الحيّ من أسَدٍ
    لا دَرّ درّكَ قلْ لي من بَنو أسَـدِ
    و مَن تميمٌ، ومنْ قيسٌ وإخوتُهُمْ،
    ليس الأعاريبُ عندَ اللهِ من أحَدِ
    دعْ ذا عَدمتُكَ، واشرَبْها مثعَتَّقَة ً
    صَفْرَاءَ تُعْنِقُ بينَ الماءِ والزّبَدِ
    من كَفِّ مُختصَرِ النّارِ، مُعتدلٍ
    كغُصْنِ بانٍ تثنّى ، غيرِ ذي أوَدِ
    لَمّا رآني أبوهُ قد قعَدْتُ لَهُ
    حيّا، وأيْقَنَ أني مُتلِفٌ صَفَدي
    فَجاءني بسُلافٍ لا يَحِفّ لَها
    ولايُمَلّكُهَا إلاّ يداً بيدِ
    اسمَحْ وجُدْ بالذي تحْوي يَداكَ لها،
    لاتَذْخَرِ اليومَ شيْئاً خوْفَ فقْرِ غدِ
    كم بَيْنَ من يشْتَري خمراً يلَذّ بها
    وبين باك على نؤيٍ، ومُنْتَضَدِ
    يا عاذلي قد أتَتْني منْك بادِرَة ٌ،
    فإنْ تَغَمَّدَهَا عَفْوي فلا تعُدِ
    لوْ كان لوْمُكَ نُصْحاً كنتُ أقبلُه،
    لكنّ لَوْمَكَ محمولٌ على الحَسَــــدِ.

  4. camel-shit and deer-shit just don’t do it for English-speaking readers.

    I don’t know, the appeal of foreign poetry to me is precisely the un-ironic un-sarcastic appreciation of camel-shit or the grace of an elephant’s gait (frequent trope in Sanskrit poetry), it opens up our view of the world. Better camel dung than Omar Pound making all the references contemporary, which ended up being painfully dated by teh time I read it.

    Satirical poetry is a marginal form now, but thou shalt believe in Pope, as Byron wrote.

  5. To translate Arabic poetry into English, no matter what century is from, is a difficult task to say the least.

    Some words do not translate. As a result, the emotion evoked in the original poetry is lost.

  6. I have arabic–written oems,some of whcih have been composed and sung by variosu arabian singers in egyt and morrocco. my widh now is to have
    these poems disl;ayed thrioguh an arabian internet as to widen my prominence. can yoju help em,please?
    please do send em your hopefully salvational answer at your earleist convenienc ena dI WILL BE more th happy to email you my literary worksd as soon as I have had your resposne

    very truly yours ;

Comments are closed.