What’s Gained, and Lost, in a Bilingual Collection

I hadn’t realized that Hagar Before the Occupation/ Hagar After the Occupation was a bilingual collection.

When I requested a copy of the book, written by Iraqi poet Amal al-Jubouri and translated by poet Rebecca Gayle Howell & Husam Qaisi, all I knew was that Hagar was written by al-Jubouri post-2003, making it one of only a handful of such works in translation. Most works in English that address the Iraqi occupation were written by Anglo journalists, politicians, poets, and/or soldiers. Oh, and I also knew that Rebecca Gayle Howell is not fluent in Arabic, and that Qaisi did a more “literal” translation and Howell largely worked from there.

My first reaction to the collection’s bilinguality was: Fan-tastic!

Bilingual collections are fairly rare, outside of academic texts. The Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa 1 collection, ed. Peter Clark, was bilingual. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Rising of the Ashes, trans. Cullen Goldblatt, was in English and French. I think it takes a certain bravery to publish bilingually. Yes, go on, check my work!

Patty Paine, one of the editors of Gathering the Tide, said that she and the other editors of Gathering had considered making their collection bilingual. Ultimately, they decided it would be too long as such. As I read through Gathering and looked up a few of the originals (and in one case an alternate translation), I wished that it had been bilingual. I regretted its monolinguality.

Then, as I read through Hagar, I realized there are downsides to bilinguality.

A translation is a sort of an interpretation of the poem. The translator must decide — more or less — what the poem “means” (yes, yes, I oversimplify) before she can render it in another language. She must weigh different possible connotations of a word or phrase, the other words and phrases they touch, the sound and feel of them, and ultimately she must make decisions.

When I read through Hagar the first time, I couldn’t stick to the English. I’d go back and weigh this phrase against that phrase, this placement on the page vs. that. Unlike Stephanie Fauver, I don’t think of translations as placeholders, as inadequate representations of an original. I consider them works of art in their own right. Rebecca Gayle Howell is a poet; she has made aesthetic decisions (as against repetition, for one); these poems have her fingerprints, and Qaisi’s, as well as al-Jabouri’s.

But instead of taking in the translations whole cloth, as a singular experience, I was hopping here and there, wondering what I would’ve done, wondering — if the poet “approved” the translation — if that means this view is “right”. An interesting experience, but, next read, I’ll have to block off one language.

Perhaps a better bilingual experience would come by presenting the whole collection together in one language, and this facing the whole collection together in the other.


  1. Now, would you consider a collection written by the same author in two languages as bilingual? Whay would be the reaction to such an endeavour?

    1. I’m with Sofia on both points: Yes, and would love it.

  2. I, too, find bilingual works distracting. I can’t help looking at the Arabic (in my case) and considering how I might have chosen to do it or guessing at the choices of the translator. And that obviously detracts from the experience, especially when reading poetry. On the other hand, when images and metaphors are so dense that I am not getting much “sense,” referring to the original language can be helpful.
    An acclaimed bilingual collection you didn’t mention MLQ was Darwish’sThe Butterfly’s Burden, trans. Fady Joudah.

  3. I like a bilingual collection, but only if the translation is fairly literal! If it’s a more interpretive type of translation, I too find it distracting and keep asking myself why certain decisions were made.

    But of course, it’s when a translation is *least* literal that it’s most helpful to have the original available! Maybe it depends on your reading purpose… one language for pleasure, two for research…?

  4. Hi Mona,
    I would consider a dual-language book by one author bilingual. Two languages equals “bilingual” in my book, no matter who’s doing the writing. *My* reaction to such an endeavor would be–hurrah! I’d love it! 🙂

  5. What do you think of the book Victims of A Map- bilingual works of three of the most distinguished poets in the world, let alone the Middle East: Darwish, Adonis, and Samir Al-Qasim. About eight years ago, I had a student from the United Arab Emirates who did not like the translation of Qasim’s Travel Tickets because the translator did not repeat the last line twice- “Dont waste the tickets”. Similiarly, this can be found in an early poem of Darwish’s Victim #48 which some translators end with “For I was killed too” and some repeat the line three times “They killed me/They killed me/they killed me”. I speak and read no Arabic at all, but I am wondering if there is not a certain tradiiton in Arab poetry of repeating the last three lines of a poem that both Darwish and Samir were using. Any help or thoughts on this?

    1. ARRGH. Chiming in again because you’ve described a pet peeve of mine. There are Arabic poetic traditions that use repetition (ghazal for example), but I’m not sure that applies here. What *does* apply is the tradition of translations into English skipping repetition.

      Repetition has meaning. Repetition is KEY. Throwing it away can wreck a piece of literature. I’ve seen this practice mangle chants and folktales in particular. What a shame. 🙁

      1. Yah, as Sofia says, repetition is definitely used more in Arabic poetry than in English poetry (and is a key way of establishing sound & meaning), and different translators approach this differently. Many excise a number of repetitions. Actually, this is a function of prose as well…

  6. Aida Y Haddad and I are about to have a poetry collection published. The collection is entitled “Alone, Together” and will be published by Kutub Ltd.
    I live in Beirut and write in English, Aida lives in Washington and writes in Arabic. The collection consists of Aida’s poems in the original Arabic, translated by me to English, and vice versa. I would very much like your feedback on this project.

    NB- I am the author of “Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir,” published by Dar An-Nahar.
    Mishka Mojabber Mourani

Comments are closed.