On How to Translate ‘Poetry is the Diwan of the Arabs’

A couple days ago, as I was Englishing an interview with an author, I asked the brave souls of Twitter whether there was a good way to translate “poetry is the diwan of the Arabs,” such that it would be pithy, and yet immediately legible to an Anglophone-only reader:

Colophon portrait from the 1595-6 Khamsa of Nizami, signed by Daulat. It shows Daulat (left) and and ‘Abd al-Rahim (“Amber-pen”), a scribe, working on the book. From BL Or. MS 12208, f. 325v; digitised and held by the British Library.

For full context, the author I’d interviewed was not simply re-iterating this old chestnut, but rather saying that while poetry used to be considered “the diwan of the Arabs,” the novel is now ascendant.

I did, naturally, look up a few suggestions before turning to Twitter, but none seemed entirely satisfactory. Some, including this one by Mahmoud Sobh, were more footnote than translation. While it’s all wonderful background information, in the end I had a relatively small word count for the interview, and was looking for a compact solution.

A few of the recommendations from translators, librarians, readers, scholars, and authors:

Mariam Aboelezz: “The Archive of the Arabs.”

Emily Drumsta: “‘register’ is an old (if prosaic) solution”

Adam Talib: “Poetry is the record of Arab history (but it’s a cliché and not really true and people should stop thinking/saying it!)”

Levi Thompson: “I have used ‘record’ before.”

Norah Alkharashi: “One meaning of ‘Diwan’ is a collection of poems by one poet. So, in this verse, it cannot mean a book of any sort because it will be redundant. Diwan also can mean a space for exchanging stories and ideas; and thus reaching a mutual collective consciousness. In Arabic architectural tradition is a special type of living rooms. Between a static entity “a book” and a dynamic space exactly falls the metaphor of Diwan here as intended by Abu Feras. I suggest a translation that considers the dynamics of dialectical story telling. E.g: Poetry is Arabs epicus. Poetry is Arabs odyssey.”

Peter Torres Fremlin: “‘library’ maybe? has some of the same metaphorical range in English as ‘diwan’ is covering in the replies you’ve gotten”

Yasser Abdellatif: “Diwan means THE book, and the the house or the head-quarter too. Poetry is the House-book of the arabs”

Harald Viesen: “poetry is the (historical) canon of the Arabs”?

George Abdelnour: “Poetry is the Arab’s encyclopedia”

Abdel Rahman Sibahi: “Saga?”

Novelist and memoirist Ahdaf Soueif also weighed in. Soueif is also a translator, and I have particularly admired some of the creative decisions she has made to bring Arabic words into English — such as when leaving shaheed/shuhada in transliterated forms in her book Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. However, she suggested rather than giving into my hand-wringing, an attempted English:

Still, there were several others — including poet Mourid Barghouti — who encouraged me to give in to my essential slothfulness:

Not everyone took the exercise entirely seriously. Elliott Colla gave his “dream Google translation: ‘Poetry is the divan Arabs put their feet up on when they want to relax.'” And the brilliant Yasmine Seale added this perfection to the Google-translate version: “Hair is the Arab archive.“