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.
(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.