(Perhaps Even) Enjoying Pre-modern Arab Poetry in English

In his introduction to the new Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology, Geert Jan Van Gelder writes skeptically that, “in a time when the growing interest in the Arab world is matched only by ignorance of its literary heritage, translations can be informative, entertaining, and perhaps even enjoyable, not only as literary curiosities but as examples of genuine literary art.*

lalIt’s true that classical Arabic poetry has struggled to be enjoyable in English translation. Van Gelder’s anthology, which I have not read in total, has its enjoyable moments, but seems not to be pointed primarily at catching the attention of a poetry-reading audience so much as a scholarly one.

Some are more successful than others, but I haven’t yet come across a real zing moment. Van Gelder chooses a ghazal by al-‘Abbas Ibn al-Ahnaf, for instance, and renders this opening:

بخيلة علي أميرتي بكتابها … وتبذلت بصدوها و حجابها
فانافس في كرب ألهوى مغمورة … والعين ما تفك من تسكابها

As the good, but not particularly thrilling:

My princess, stingy with her letters, spends
a lot on spurning me, hiding from sight.
Thus is my soul submerged in passion’s pangs;
my eyes shed streams of tears incessantly.

Then yesterday, I stumbled across two new translations — one of al-Buhtari and the other of al-Ma’ari by scholar and translator of the Qur’an Tarif Khalidi. They were posted on the Angry Arab News Service with only the explanation that, “I attach two poems (by al-Buhturi & Abu’l `Ala’). They are from an anthology of Arabic literature, ancient & modern, verse & prose, all my own translations, which should be completed in a couple of years or so.”

These are well-chosen poems and translations with legs of their own;  “The Poet and the Wolf” draws on strong emotion and imagery, and the translation uses muscular language:

What a night!
Dawn at its tail-end
Like an inch of gleaming steel,
When a sword is drawn from its sheath. 


You can read the rest of the poem on AANS. I look forward to seeing Khalidi’s anthology and, yes, enjoying it. His translation of al-Ma’ari’s “A Rain Cloud”:

A rain cloud:
The sea had given its caravans to drink.
Once quenched, it took wing to high ground, jubilant.
But the king of the winds rose up to it with his troops,
And scattered it, unwilling, unfulfilled.
I wept for that cloud, having missed its quest,
Though neither its longing nor its passion was mine.
So too the nights:
They’re never generous when a creature pleads,
Never faithful to their promise.

Bold is mine, obviously.


  1. Muscular translations into modern English of ancient European poets are also current: Horace, Homer, the poet of Gilgamesh, Sappho, various Celtic bards, among others. We do these works honour.

    1. Yes, whenever I’ve read these recent translations of old works, I’ve thought: There is no reason to despair of not being about to translate classical Arabic poetry.

  2. I do not know the originals by Buhturi and Al Maary, but Khalidi succeeds in letting the poetry through – raises the question: how different can the translation of a poem be from the original?

    1. There’s Frost’s famous saying that poetry is what gets lost in translation; but he was trying to define poetry, not translation. Any translation, as faithful to the original or not, is a new poem and ought to be at least as good. The best test of your question is to look at work by a bilingual poet who composes in both languages, and also translates his/her own. Milosz comes to mind, Brodsky.



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