‘Songs of Mihyar the Damascene’: A Translation that Took 16 Years to Publish

This spring, New Directions brought out a new translation of Adonis’s أغاني مهيار الدمشقي, originally published in 1961 and first translated to English by Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard, in a translation published in 2008 as Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs:

Award-winning translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid — who also is at work translating the group of pre-Islamic Arabic poems known as the Mu’allaqat — writes a compelling behind-the-scenes piece in the latest Asymptote about the 16-year-process of bringing his and Ivan Eubanks’ co-translation of the collection to light, as Songs of Mihyar the Damascene.

He answered five questions about this particularly long road to translation.

You write: “We asked C. K. what he thought of the idea. He took us into his office, called Adonis at his home in Paris on the phone, told him we were doing a good job of it, whereupon Adonis gave us his blessing.” This seems too good to be true — considering Adonis was already a world-renowned poet in 2003, and you were both undergraduates. But it seems…Adonis was handing out permission to anyone who asked? Did you communicate with him while working on the translation, or was it a process between you & Ivan?

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: It certainly felt too good to be true at the time, I’ll be the first to admit that! At that point, in 2003, Adonis had had very little published in English, at least in book form, and most of what was available was through smaller presses, so I think he was happy to have more work appear in English. If my memory serves me right, C. K. also mentioned that our translation was very invested in being poetry in English, and I think that may also have appealed to Adonis as a poet. The project, after all, came out of a Creative Writing seminar.

Adonis may have been handing out permission to anyone who asked, I really don’t know about that. But he is an extremely kind and generous man, in my personal experience with him, and this probably also had something to do with his giving us permission. To provide just one example of his generosity: In 2005 I was applying for a year-long CASA fellowship for advanced studies of Arabic in Egypt, and not only did Adonis write me a recommendation, he also wrote a separate personal letter to the director of the program at the time urging them to accept me. Not many literary figures of his stature would go out of their way like that to help someone who was just starting out. He’s very generous like that.

To answer your other question: Yes, I was in communication with him. More specifically, I met with him once at a café in Paris in 2005 (I was living in Poitiers, France, at that time) and spent several hours going through every question that Ivan and I had about the texts. It was very helpful, even if he was always reluctant to pin his texts down to any one specific meaning—you can read Elliott Colla’s wonderful translation of Adonis’ essay “Ambiguity” for more on this topic (https://www.asymptotejournal.com/criticism/adonis-ambiguity/). I should say that there were also complete French, German, and Spanish translations of the book available at that time, and I frequently consulted those.

Have you read the other translation of Songs of Mihyar the Damascene, by Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard (as you’ve read the other translations of, for instance, the Mu’allaqat)? How do you think the “re-translator” as you became by chance rather than by choice, in this instance, should/can relate to other translations?

KJAZ: I’ll be honest: Because of the way things played out with that translation and ours, I couldn’t bring myself to read all of it when it was published, though I do still have a copy of it sitting on my bookshelf. What I did do was read through the first section of their translation, and it immediately became apparent that their aesthetic approach to translating the book was very different from our own (that was evident even from how they chose to translate the title). There was clearly no danger of too much overlap between the two translations—and that was a relief to me. I have lots of respect for both Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard, and I’m a particular admirer of Haydar’s scholarly essays on Arabic literature, several of which were quite groundbreaking. But even when Ivan and I were revising our manuscript last year, I rarely consulted their book, simply because I wanted to have the text really reflect our voice and our approach to translation.

What are the intersections, here, between literary translation and academia that you think are better…disentangled? How do we create a landscape for literary translation that’s more collaborative and if not less competitive, at least less territorial?

KJAZ: That’s a great question. My own personal experience of that—and I reference this in the Asymptote essay—was that when I was in academia, there was always this little voice in my head asking, “What will they think?” Here, they was basically everyone else in academia. In particular, when you’re writing scholarly essays for an academic audience, there’s usually a premium placed on demonstrating that you really know all the ins and outs of the texts you’re discussing. But Adonis’ poetry is incredibly rich, and it’s often (at least in my experience) impossible to bring all of those nuances across in English. To give an example, I wrote a whole chapter of my dissertation (60 double-spaced pages) on a single, one-page poem by Adonis! So that creates a bit of a dilemma for the translator, obviously. I was just starting out both as a translator and as an academic at the time, and there was a lot insecurity there on my end. Haydar and Beard were both already established professors when they published their translations, so I doubt the same issues arose from them.

As for how to make literary translation more collaborative and less territorial, I think that’s a personal choice and a personal attitude for each individual translator. But, for example, I’ve gone to the annual ALTA (American Literary Translators Association) conference a couple times now, and I’ve been really impressed by just how collaborative, encouraging, and friendly the environment is, particularly when compared to many of the academic conferences I used to go to—although I should say here that I know many academics, particularly from my days at Berkeley, who are the very embodiment of encouragement and collaboration. And thankfully, I haven’t come across that too much territoriality lately in the world of Arabic translation—most people I’ve met are very encouraging, and there’s a sense of cheering each other on as translators. For myself, now that I’m a bit older and more experienced, I would say I’m quite invested in Arabic literature reaching broader audiences, so when another Arabic translator gets a national or international award or some other form of recognition for their work, that feels like a “win” for me too.

I suppose there are many literary translations that I’d say were about 80% of what they could’ve been… Is it possible to get closer to that 100% without the sixteen intervening years? How have you changed your process?

KJAZ: Yes, I think there is! Certainly, residencies and other kinds of specifically literary training in translation are key. I don’t have an MFA, but that would obviously also count. I guess for me the big shift was no longer thinking of translation as some kind of perfect mirror of the source text. Instead, when I’m working on poetry or a novel, I often ask myself: “How would an English-language poet (or novelist) express this?” When I was more academically oriented, it was all about translating meaning (usually the meaning of specific terms, and their connotations). But now, in addition to translating meaning, I also think of translating such things as naturalness (or unnaturalness) of the language, concision, tone, etc. The translation is a new creation, and it’s all about making choices—if you go for concision, for example, you might lose some of the meaning. I find that I generally have a specific vision for the text I’m translating, and I allow that vision to guide my choices.

And I must ask: The playwright Hassan Abdurazzak wrote that (unsurprisingly) Adonis caused quite a controversy at the Southbank Centre when he apparently said, among other things, that “Arabs don’t read books” and that “most major Arab poets were not religious.” I think he’s said both those things, or versions of them, before. I’m not suggesting he’s alone in having some bad takes on the world, and — without even getting into Syrian politics — he is a very divisive figure. Hassan went on to write: “His opinions eclipsed the beautiful poetry he read.” To what extent does the personae or politics of the author matter when deciding what to translate (including/even when yes, I know, it’s such an important work)?

KJAZ: Well, they obviously matter. But Adonis has been remarkably consistent in his writings about culture, religion, society, and politics throughout his career, and I respect that, even if I don’t agree with all of his views. I should also say that my take on his writings on Arab culture and society has changed over time. When I first read Adonis’ work, I was in my young twenties, and I was very individualistic, and my favorite author was Friedrich Nietzsche—I learned German primarily to read Nietzsche’s works in the original. So I was obviously excited when I found an author like Adonis who explicitly cast himself as an “Arab Nietzsche.” I’ve mellowed out a bit in my thirties, however, and many of Adonis’ writings on religion and culture resonate much less with me now. One of the main arguments I make in my PhD dissertation—which will be published next year by Lockwood Press / RAIS under the title “The Poetics of Adonis and Yves Bonnefoy: Poetry as Spiritual Practice”—is that Adonis’ poetry consistently transcends and even upends the often-reductionist dichotomies of his own critical writings on Arab culture and society. We often tend to read an author’s poetry against the backdrop of his/her critical writings, but I would argue that you can’t always do this with Adonis—for the simple reason that his poetry is much more radical, much more ambiguous, and much more open-ended that his prose.

Read in Asymptote: Kareem James Abu-Zeid on translating Adonis’ Songs of Mihyar the Damascene