Tamim Barghouti and Translating Popular Arabic Poetry into English

Tamim Al-Barghouti told Amina Howeidi, for a piece published in 2005, that translating one of his poems into English tends to strip it of meaning.

From Howeidi:

A poem in Arabic, his “most efficient” way of expressing himself, is a complete entity in and of itself. Ask him what a poem means and he will respond simply, “What I wanted it to mean, I’ve already said in it. I’m unable to say it differently.”

And yet now Al-Barghouti — who is something of a poet-celebrity, with a viral poem in 2011 and a major 2007 appearance on the Prince of Poets TV show — has his first collection of work in English. It’s set to launch June 26 in London, at the Khalili Lecture Theatre. The translations are by the author, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, and by the poet’s late mother, the novelist and translator Radwa Ashour.

It was 2007 when Al-Barghouti’s poem “In Jerusalem” appeared on the Prince of Poets show, vying for the million-dirham prize. After this, according to Saifedean Ammous:

Palestinian newspapers have dubbed Tamim The Poet of Al-Aqsa; his posters hang on the streets of Jerusalem and other Palestinian cities, where key-chains are being sold with his picture on them. Sections of the poem have even become ring-tones blaring out from mobile phones across the Arab World, and 10-year-old kids compete in memorizing and reciting it. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen Tamim’s poems on Youtube and other video websites.

The English translation of “In Jerusalem” was done by Radwa Ashour and Ahdaf Soueif, and it begins, effectively, in an italics that feels almost like a whisper: “We passed by the home of the beloved.”

It’s a long narrative poem — a popular poem — and here it moves into a language where spoken-word poetry is much more marginal. Rather than poems that reinvent language, as we Anglophones might expect from poetry, particularly translated poetry, “In Jerusalem” is a storytelling and history-telling poem.

Some of the poems in Al-Barghouti’s new collection, In Jerusalem and Other Poem, read like short stories, as “Nothing Radical: The Prophecy.” Here, each verse is like a miniature piece of aphoristic flash fiction: “Nothing radical / Schoolchildren will no longer stand in rows / To salute the flags of their countries / Rather, the flags will line up to salute the children.”

All the poems in the new collection, brought out by Interlink Books, were written in Cairo, Ramallah, Amman, Washington, DC, and Berlin between 1996 and 2016.

In addition to his June 26 appearance, Tamim Al-Bargouti will also be at  SOAS on Tuesday, June 27 to take part in the Arabic Poetry and Stories Translations Workshop (SOAS, S118, 2:30 to 5:30 PM) and public event (SOAS, KLT, 6:30-8:00 PM), convened by Marina Warner and Wen-chin Ouyang.