On Bringing the Mu‘allaqāt into English: ‘There’s Such a Divide That Needs To Be Crossed by the Translator’

Kareem James Abu-Zeid recently won a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to translate the Mu‘allaqāt, or the “Hanging Poems.” This collected work is one of the defining, foundational texts of Arabic literature:

Al-Mu’allaqat 3, 1978. Indian ink on paper, 92 x 64 cm. © Dia Al-Azzawi. Courtesy Galerie Claude Lemand, Paris.

What we now think of as the Mu‘allaqāt are works by seven poets, collected—we believe—hundreds of years after their composition. The classic seven are works by: Imru’ al-Qais, Labīd, Tarafa, Zuhayr ibn Abi Sulma, Antara ibn Shaddad, Amr ibn Kulthum, and Harith ibn Hilliza.

Three more pre-Islamic poets are sometimes grouped with these other seven. They are: Al-Nabigha, al-A’sha, and ‘Abid ibn al-Abras.

Abu-Zeid aims to translate all ten for a collection he intends to bring out with a major, nonspecialist publisher.

Al-Muʿallaqāt is not an un-translated work. Previous English renderings include: The Seven Golden Odes of Pagan Arabia (1903) by Lady Anne and Sir Wilfrid Scawen Blunt; The Seven Odes (1957, reissued 1983) by A.J. Arberry; and The Seven Poems Suspended in the Temple at Mecca (1973, originally published in 1893) by Frank E. Johnson. There is also one translation that aims at capturing the poetry, published by AUC Press, The Golden Odes of Love (1997) by Desmond O’Grady.

Yet Abu-Zeid aims to do something new, and bring these poems into the canon of “world” literature in English. He spoke with ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey:

What do you want to bring to the poems that doesn’t exist in previous translations?

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: I should say that the first time I tried tackling these was a long time ago. It was actually 2005-06, and I had a CASA fellowship in Egypt, for Arabic study abroad. It was a year of intensive advanced Arabic language study, and, in the second semester, a few of us got together and asked the program to put together a course on pre-Islamic poetry, the Jahaliyya poetry. They got Farouk Shousha, who has been head of the Arabic Language Institute, and he taught the course. He’s also a poet.

I fell in love with the poetry back then, and I started translating it. I was still getting my Arabic chops established at that point, but I translated parts of a couple of the poems—a couple of the muʿallaqāt poems—and really enjoyed it. The course was focused on pre-Islamic poetry, we read through most of the muʿallaqāt, line by line, and at one point, Farouk Shousha said: Why don’t you translate all of them?

That kind of stuck in my head. I didn’t get around to it—I had other projects, was doing a PhD. And then I finished my PhD a year ago. I’ve essentially been making a living out of translating and editing full time for the past year, and have been thinking more and more about creative projects. And this felt like the right time.

Have you read all the translations out there?

KJAZ: Yes. The one that I really love only does three of the muʿallaqāt. And that’s Michael Sells’ Desert Tracings. I like his a lot, but also I feel our styles as translators are different. My translation’s not going to look like his.

Most of the other translations are very academic, like the Arberry. They’re great to consult, and I will be consulting them I’m sure, but they don’t read as modern poetry.

There was a translation that came out from AUC, by Desmond O’Grady, whose poetry I’ve read and enjoyed, but I didn’t like that translation so much. It didn’t really grab me. I also felt, linguistically, he was ignoring some of the issues in the poetry, or maybe they were calculated choices, I don’t know. But it didn’t wow me as a translation.

The O’Grady translation took out place names.

KJAZ: He took out most of them, actually. I didn’t like that choice.

It seems like an odd choice.

KJAZ: Well, many people, even scholars, have questions about the place names.

Most people assume that “Dakhool” and “Howmal” [which come at the opening of the Imru al-Qays] are place names. But there are others who think the first is related to dakhl, entering, which would be a sexual reference, and that Howmal is related to hamil, pregnancy. That’s a whole other semantic field. And we don’t know, and we’ll probably never know. Unless maybe there’s a treasure trove of pre-Islamic texts somewhere we haven’t found.

I kept the place-names in even if they’re mysterious in the text. I actually think they lend to the mystique a little. They lend to that sense that this is a different world. Even the names, there’s a spring in part of the Imru al-Qays that’s called Dar al-Juljul, and even in Arabic it sounds foreign to me.

I felt that was a problematic choice, as a translator. I’m not against those kinds of choices, but in this specific instance it felt a little bit much.

It seems to work against the atmosphere of the poems

KJAZ: In the section of Imru al-Qays’s poem with the storm, you see the image of people standing there, trying to get their bearings—do you see what’s happened over there and over there and over there? The whole landscape has been changed. To me that’s part of it. And I love the image in that part specifically: “And Mt. Mujaimir stands there, in the middle of the onslaught, a venerable leader wrapped in gray-streaked robes.”

That’s really a gorgeous image, I think. And I think there, especially, we want the name of the mountain. It’s completely personified.

I think the O’Grady translation might be out of print.

KJAZ: It also came out from a specialized press. And that’s great, I love AUC, but it limits the readership.

That was a big part of my application—I want this out from a major, nonspecialized press. Part of my goal with this is to try to—if one can talk about a canon of world literature—to get these texts into that canon. Because I think that with classical Arabic literature in translation, everyone maybe reads the Qur’an and The 1001 Nights. That’s largely it so far. There are other books coming out, but they’re always from specialized series.

I think the Library of Arabic Literature is doing an amazing job, but I have a feeling the readership for that is mostly Arabic academics and people who are already interested in Arabic literature.

Have you talked to publishers about it?

KJAZ: Yes, and I have interest from two pretty major publishers. They’re both exactly what I’d want. So that’s an encouraging sign for this project.

Some people have suggested you’re a bit crazy for taking this on.

KJAZ: It’s a little bit crazy. I think for me, I love the challenge, and to me this poetry almost feels like it’s coming from an alien world. The Arabian Peninsula in the sixth and seventh centuries. It’s just a very, very different cultural climate, obviously, and physical environment. These were nomadic tribes—well, not all of them were completely nomadic—living in such harsh conditions. They had a completely different ethos and worldview, and to me that’s particularly exciting.

It allows me to be even more creative, I think, than I could be when translating modern prose. There’s such a divide that needs to be crossed by the translator, and that’s where the creativity comes in.

The model I use when translating something like this is Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, which is extremely musical, extremely modern, and yet it brought up a lot of the text in incredible ways, and still captures this feel of what it must’ve been like back then. That’s where I’m going with this. For me, it’s an extremely exciting project, because I think there’s a lot more room for creativity, and I’m very free with the line breaks, the rhythm.

I’m not trying to come up with a line-for-line translation. People like Arberry have done that in their works, and it’s great that the scholars are doing that. But my goal is to really capture the poetry.

To what aspect of the work do you feel most bound, do you most want to capture?

KJAZ: I try to think in terms of the images, what images are being conveyed. I feel like I’m always faithful to the meaning. But the truth is, there are a lot of ambiguities in these texts, and there are a lot of debates around certain terms. In those cases, the translator often has to make a choice. I’m reconciled to the fact that not everyone will agree with my choices.

I feel musicality is an important element of it. I don’t feel bound to things like line breaks, to things like rhyme. I think there’s way to get the musicality in that keeps it modern without having to have a strict rhyme scheme, for instance.

We have to remember this poetry was passed down orally. It’s got strong rhyme and very, very consistent rhythm, presumably to help people memorize it. And that’s a function that’s no longer needed in modern poetry. So, for me, I can then capture that musicality in different ways that won’t come off as stilted or monotonous in modern English.

The NEA grant suggested you’ll also introduce and contextualize the poetry. To that end, what do you intend to include?

KJAZ: My thought initially was a short introduction to each poet and poem. Certainly a bit about the poet’s life, as each one has their own mystique and mythos, Imru al-Qays being a big example of that. There are all these stories about him, and it’s unclear which ones are true and which are not.

Some of them are likely quite spurious. Some say he died at the hands of Emperor Justinian in Constantinople by a poisoned cloak, I believe it was. I’d like to at least mention those, because someone like Imru al-Qays is presumably a historical figure, but he’s also in many ways a literary figure. There’s a larger-than-life aspect to him. I think even if many of those stories are very likely not true, they need to at least be mentioned.

And all of these poets have stories.

My initial thought was, at the very least, an introductory essay about each one. And then likely some kind of glossary of proper names.

Imru al-Qays—it’s his work I’ve translated for the sample, so that’s the one that I have completed. For example, one of the sections of the poem is about a woman named Fatima who he’s trying to seduce. It’s likely that Fatima was his cousin, and that doesn’t come out in the poem, but it is known from other textual evidence. So that’s something that’s interesting to the reader, I think.

As much as I can, I try to explain references within the text, but I can really only do that if it’s not too clunky.

Are you working from the manuscript tradition or printed sources?

KJAZ: I’m working from printed sources that give the variants in the texts across the editions. It’s not like there’s a manuscript form 600 AD with these texts. These were written down a long time after they were composed, presumably. So that’s another aspect to it. Presumably there are huge variations between what was originally composed and recited and what eventually made its way into print.

There are scholars who have gone so far as to say that actually all this stuff was a post-pre-Islamic fabrication. I don’t agree with that, but that’s a theory out there—that none of these poets actually existed.

I’m focusing really on the texts, and the words in the texts. I’m certainly consulting some scholarly sources. But I’m not trying to please academics with this translation. There are plenty of academic translations out there, and I think if I did please all the academics, then likely it would not have been a good translation.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf got hammered by a lot of scholars. There was a huge debate over just the first word.

I just can’t get involved in that stuff as a translator. For me, the musicality is a really important part of the poems, and the actual poetic quality. I feel like that often gets lost in the academic discussions, because there’s such a huge debate over what did this word mean, what was this person trying to say here, and it can often get bogged down in minutiae. I try to take a zoomed-out look at: What’s the image being conveyed here? And how can we convey that in modern English?

Often, this poetry revolves around image. Yes, there are the individual constituents of each image, which are words. But it’s that overall image that I think really needs to be captured. And then a certain feel.

That’s what’s exciting about doing mu’allaqat. Each one of them has such a different feel.

Imru al-Qays really feels like this bad boy, this rebel figure. And then you have someone like Zuhair, who’s much older presumably, and much more ascetic, in the monastic sense of the world. With a very hardened, darkened world view. He comes across as much more sedate and serene than someone like Imru al-Qays. That, to me, is exciting. Really trying to capture those tones, and the images that some of these poets use.

You want to capture the difference, not overlay them all with a singular Kareemesque style.

KJAZ: I don’t think I could, even. The texts are so different—look at Imru al-Qays and Zuhair and maybe Amr ibn Kulthum, which feels very Arab in some way. Those three are very, very different, also in terms of the personality that comes through in each of the odes. It would be hard, I think, to superimpose my aesthetic onto these poems. The translator should be more of a conduit anyway.

It’s almost like doing 10 little books. That’s kind of how I’m feeling about it.

I might decide to include some other poetry as a kind of appendix. There’s the sa’alik poetry, which really only exists in fragments. But it’s really interesting to compare to the mua’allaqat poetry, who are basically tribal poets. These other poets, the renegade sa’alik poets, they existed completely outside the tribal system, which is why so little of their stuff remains.

Do you have favorites, or are they all your favorites?

KJAZ: You’ll have to ask me when I finish. Some of them, it’s been a while since I’ve read them all the way through.

I remember, when reading them in Cairo and more recently, Imru al-Qays I love, he’s just a fun character. And I really like Zuhair, which is more aphoristic poetry, where every verse stands on its own authority. I think Zuhair, more than anyone else, really conveys the kind of dark, harsh ethos of life in this desert, where the environment is really seen as life-giving, yes, but also as almost an enemy. It’s a matter of when—not if—you’re going to be beaten into submission by this environment around you and by the warring of these tribes. There were a lot of raids, there was a scarcity of resources, and there was a code of chivalry, that in many instances necessitated violent responses.

I guess Imru al-Qays is my favorite right now, but I’m hoping that will change.

Why all 10 instead of the classical seven?

KJAZ: Maybe to distinguish it from the Desmond O’Grady translation, which did seven. Unless I’m quite mistaken, nobody has done all 10 in English.

I don’t think anyone has, no.

KJAZ: There’s a great translation into French by Jacques Berque that does all 10.

That’s the sort of translation you’re shooting toward?

KJAZ: I’m doing more of a free verse—it’s not exactly free verse, because there’s strong rhythm. But he was a little bit more, every line was the same length.

That’s not how I translate, usually. So it won’t physically look the same, but I thought it just did a good job. I haven’t read every translation in every language, obviously, but I felt it was the best translation I’ve read so far that captured both the meaning of the text and the musicality. It didn’t stray too far in either direction.

It was published in 1979. The Ten Great Odes of the Pre-Islamic Period.

Did that collection make an impact on French literature?

KJAZ: I don’t know. I think it’s a fairly well-read translation. First, it’s hard to assess the impact, and second, I think there’s more of a cultural openness to Arabic literature in France. So I think almost any translation is going to have a larger impact in France.

Who do you see as your ideal audience?

KJAZ: Students, perhaps. That’s one of the things I’m thinking about when I’m assessing where to publish it. I would love for this to be included in world literature survey courses, where you might read snippets from the Qur’an and snippets from The 1001 Nights, within a much broader context of European and Asian and other literatures. So that would be one thing.

I hope it gets included in Arabic survey courses, that would be a dream. These are the foundational texts in many ways, and one of the reasons they’re so widely read is because scholars of Islam needed to go back to this poetry to help understand parts of the Qur’an.

But it’s pretty much for everyone. I want it to not just be academics, which is where so much of the Arabic literature lands. I want it to be for people who love literature and love great poetry.

I’ve translated a lot of prose, but my passion is poetry. For me, these are great works of poetry, and I do not feel they have been rendered into great poetry in English yet, and that’s where I think I’m trying to come into it.

How are you pitching it to publishers? Beowulf of Arabic?

KJAZ: That these are the foundational texts, that they’re incredible poetry, that they represent an extremely different cultural and physical landscape than anything that exists today. I think they’re very magical texts, and my hope is that this comes through in the translation.

LISTEN TO A PREVIEW of the translation on Episode 2 of Bulaq, a podcast about the world through Arab and Arabic literatures.