Emily Drumsta Wins PEN Heim Grant to Translate Nazik al-Malaika’s ‘Revolt Against the Sun’

Yesterday, PEN America announced the recipients of the 2018 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants. Among the 13 projects — which span 13 languages — was Emily Drumsta’s translation-in-progress of Nazik al-Malaika’s Revolt Against the Sun:

According to the news release, PEN received “a large number of applications this year—177 in total—from a wide array of languages of origin, genres, and time periods.” From this, they chose projects to be translated from “Japanese, Arabic, Korean, Kannada, Farsi/Persian, Yiddish, and more.”

Each of the 13 winning translators will receive $2,800 help them finish their project.

Al-Malaika (1923-2007) is best known for the important role she played in the development and popularization of Arabic “free verse” in the 1950s. But while she is well known as a pioneer, her verse itself is less well-known, and largely absent in translation. Drumsta has been, over the last five or six years, working to change that.

In a 2013 interview, she told ArabLit:

I was initially drawn to al-Mala’ika because of her reputation as one of the pioneers of “free verse” (al-shi‘r al-hurr) in modern Arabic poetry. Most literary-historical accounts of Arabic poetic modernism cite her and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab as the pioneers of this new form, which is often erroneously equated with the English and French versions of “free verse” and vers libre. A more descriptive term for al-shi‘r al-hurr is “taf‘ila poetry,” named for the feet or metrical units that make up the lines. While many scholars have delved into al-Sayyab’s poetry at length to elaborate its formal and thematic features, very few seemed to have engaged with al-Mala’ika’s work on a similar level. I wanted to know what exactly were the forms that al-Mala’ika pioneered—the concrete, technical elements especially. How different were they from the traditional Arabic meters, often called the “Khalilian” meters, for the eighth-century scholar al-Khalil Ibn Ahmad. And what exactly made them “free”? How was this form of “free verse” similar to or different from the British and French versions? As I soon discovered upon reading al-Mala’ika’s criticism and poetry, there was very little that was “free” about taf‘ila poetry, and an immense and largely understudied discourse surrounds the question of “freedom” in poetry—a discourse with important social political implications.

In short, al-Mala’ika seemed to be an important turning-point figure—someone who earnestly sought to remake the familiar structures of pre-modern poetry without completely losing them, to transform Arabic poetry for a new century without completely unmooring it from its metrical roots. Among the modern poets of the 1950s and 60s, she seemed like one of the few who recognized that these metrical roots are precisely what has cemented poetry’s popular appeal in the Arab world, as well as its traditional reputation as the “register of the Arabs” (diwan al-‘arab).

Also read:

Must-read Classics by Women: Two New Translations of Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007)

Revolt Against the Sun,” trans. Drumsta, on Jadaliyya

From ‘A Song for Mankind,’ trans. Drumsta, on ArabLit

Q&A with Drumsta about al-Malaika’s revolutionary romantic poetry