Collaboration is Nice, But I want a Slam

The admirable Poetry Translation Centre continued its work (and play) with Arabic poetry this week, hosting a workshop on the Mauritanian poet Mubarka Bint al-Barra’.

According to the PTC, “Mauritanian poetry has rarely been translated into English, so this was a very welcome opportunity to encounter the work of Mauritania’s leading woman poet.”

Al-Barra is part of what’s called the country’s “third generation” of poets, and sometimes uses free verse. The PTC focused its April 6 session on “انا والشعر” or her “Poetry and I.” The notes about the group’s translation process focus mainly on how to render individual words and phrases rather than on rhythm, sound, or echo, although presumably these were discussed (and argued over?) as well.

This is, I’m sure, an excellent way to get inside a poem. But the result is just one English version, which seems to close down the process too much. On the other hand, the multiple translations of Dr. Samia Mehrez’s “Translating the Revolution”  course at the American University in Cairo open up an ongoing space for discussion.

Yet even there, while viewers can post comments on the course blog “Unsettling the Dust,” it seems that the discussion is largely finished by the time the audience arrives. What would be fun: to follow this up with a live translation slam.

According to PEN American, live translation slams “proved to be audience favorites at the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, and again at PEN World Voices.” PEN also has hosted an online translation slam.

In general, I try not to advocate competition over collaboration. But I think—as a general body of translators, reviewers, publishers, and readers—we need to look at a greater range of possibilities and think harder about which things work and which don’t, and why.

Do you have suggestions for an Arabic poem to be slammed?

Also, an interesting blog post from earlier this year, about “prose in the land of poetry,” that is, Mauritania. Among other things, author Elycheikh Bah Ahmedtolba posits: “In Mauritania, it is difficult to write prose since the poetry is the only literary standard prototype prevailing and many people are poets. It is to say that prose was the outcome of displacement from the open nomadic horizon into the narrow space of the city with all its impositions and inclinations.”

And, of course, the translation: “انا والشعر” and “the literal translation” and the group’s final “Poetry and I.”


  1. YEAH! What fun and maybe some new translators can be found.

  2. This is a wonderful blog that I hope generates conversation among Arabs or those who read and comment on Arabic.
    But: The process of translation cannot revive the question of rhythm. But should it be concerned with ‘le mot juste’ (Saussure) we end up with an impossibility. Unlike Qur’anic Arabic, poetry is usually marked in select areas if and only if the poet wants to de-limit his meaning amongst other words which themselves are polyphonic in meaning. That said, there can be a grounding for a multiplicity: where a universal can be made in which particularities are capable of being read that define the center. Still, that requires a comment on that grounding lexical marking in the source language as well as the difference that surrounds it and tries to break from it. It usually provides means to break out from under the stricture of the one that is often modulated intricately.
    Translating the poetry of revolt in Egypt is about giving it more context by way of understanding. It is not a process of publishable translation as poetry but as commentary. So, the process of translation as sameness in form is preposterous. To translate is to travel and to respond back to something else written in a quite different setting in another one that tries to comprehend one site but in fact comes to really question its own self-formation, not actually comes closer to understanding the poetry of that site.

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