Kareem James Abu-Zeid on ‘Literary’ vs. ‘Academic’ Translation

Way back in March, Kareem James Abu-Zeid was in D.C. for the Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here festival. At that time, he spoke with Epicenter about Mutanabbi (the tenth-century poet of poets) and about the art of translation:

This is not academia.
This is not academia.

Kareem James Abu-Zeid is one of a few professional Arabic-English translators who makes his living outside academia. In the past, he has taught courses in Arabic (and German, French, and English) at UC Berkeley and at the Universities of Mannheim and Heidelberg in Germany. But he has since left the academy. And his primary focus was never on academic work, but on translating and writing.

In the interview, which is posted in full below, he discussed the divide between “academic” and “literary” translation:

Everybody has different takes on translation — and there’s actually a lot of Arabic literature being translated — there’s a pretty strong divide between what I’d call more academic translations and more literary translations. And the vast majority in Arabic tend to fall on the academic side. Academic meaning they’re very, very close to the Arabic text, also in terms of structure and all of this stuff.

Personally, those translations don’t reach a very wide audience, nor will they ever, because they don’t read very well in English. So my own personal take — and the first rule for me — is that the text that you translated shouldn’t sound translated. That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be aspects of the culture; it doesn’t mean that certain structures can’t be mirrored; but my take is that — if it’s poetry, for example — it should sound like something that a good English or American poet would write. And the same thing with a novel. It shouldn’t sound stilted.

His gorgeous translation of Rabee Jaber’s Confessions, which came out earlier this year, is certainly a text of which any Anglophone writer should feel jealous.

Abu-Zeid also briefly noted the political aspect to being an Arabic-English translator. In particular, he discussed his translation of Najwan Darwish’s Nothing More to Lose, which made the Best Translated Book Award longlist in 2015. It was also widely reviewed — very widely reviewed for a translated poetry collection — and was named by NPR as one of its books of the year in 2014. Abu-Zeid’s translations of N. Darwish also earned him an award from Poetry magazine. But not all attention was good attention:

And about two years ago I translated my first book of Palestinian poetry, which has done really well, and it’s got a fair amount of national attention, but just looking at some of the reviews and the blog posts, out of the comments, it just degenerates into this — I don’t know if they’ve even seen the book — but it just degenerates into this Israel vs. Palestine bashing that has nothing to do with anything.