Today, the third installment of journalist and translator AJ Naddaff’s series of talks with translators of premodern Arabic literature, which he tongue-in-cheek calls “Untranslatable”:
The bi-monthly series will appear here and at his substack, where you can subscribe.
By AJ Naddaff
This week I’m excited to share with you a conversation with Huda Fakhreddine, a literary translator and Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, co-editor of Middle Eastern Literatures, and an editor of the Library of Arabic Literature.
Our interview was held the day before the release of Come, Take a Gentle Stab: Selected Poems by Salim Barakat (Seagull Books), which she co-translated with Jayson Iwen.
Salim Barakat, a Kurdish-Syrian poet and novelist, born in 1951 in Qamishli, northern Syria, has been hailed as one of the most unique Arabic-language authors. His language is “intentionally textured and thickened beyond recognition,” pushing Arabic to a point just past its linguistic limits. His work has been translated into Swedish, Spanish, Catalan, French, Kurdish and Turkish and now, for the first time, in English!
We also went back a millennium to talk about her work with The Mu`allaqat for Millennials, Pre-Islamic Arabic Golden Odes (2020) published by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) in cooperation with the AlQafilah Magazine.
Does your translation approach change from translating pre-modern Arabic poetry and modern poetry? There is this assumption that translating contemporary poetry is easier. Do you think that’s true?
Huda Fakhreddine: I try to push back against the idea of some poetry being easy and some poetry being difficult. I don’t believe that within poetry there is new and old, pre-modern and modern. Every poem is a linguistic event which reimagines its entire tradition.
As a translator, one must approach a poem on its own terms and definitely without preconceived ideas about when it was written and by whom. This is all useful information—but ultimately the poem speaks for itself. I always imagine myself as a student of that one text. And you must adjust, as you translate, to the requirements of the world that the poem erects on its own. Whether it was written yesterday or whether Imru’ al-Qays or Tarafah wrote the poem. That is why it is healthy to let go of these preconceived ideas, especially as we translate the Mu`allaqat.
There is a lot of baggage that readers, translators, scholars, and compilers have piled on top of these poems. But ultimately, if they are really poems that survive on their own poetic merit, you should be able to sit down and read them and enjoy them without all the noise. If you can make that connection as a translator, then your translation stands a chance.
I appreciated what you said in a recent online conversation with Hatem Alzahrani, Michael Cooperson, and Fawzia Al-Ashmawi. Something along the lines of, ‘It is not enough to just like a poem to want to translate it, you have to also be a critical reader of that text.’
HF: Exactly. I know that those of us who work on modern Arabic poetry always feel a need for translations. And that is true. The more translations we have from Arabic, the better. We are not as well represented, so we need more translations of the same poems or texts. And we need translation to be a critical engagement. Translation is first and foremost a critical reading. It must be motivated by having something to say about the text—not just transfer it from one language to another, which is impossible anyway.
Tell us more about your recent translation on Salim Barakat. How did this project start and do you feel like you’ve successfully translated him?
HF: It started with me being intrigued by him. More than that, as a reader and critic, I was agitated, maybe annoyed, by his writing project—both in poetry and in prose. It was a real challenge because it seemed at some point that he was not only untranslatable, but unreadable. And that is why it was very tempting to try and get something out of him and move it into another language and see what will happen. What will his consequence be in a different language?
The aftermath of his texts in Arabic is very disruptive. Critics have said that when Salim Barakat writes in Arabic it sounds unlike itself. It is not the Arabic we know. We have to unlearn and relearn Arabic to read him because he is deliberately intervening there, transgressing, and violently rewriting the language from within. So how do you then take that experience and place it in another language? Can you do that or not? Translating Salim Barakat is both a challenge and an experiment, and I do not know if it has succeeded or not.
The word haymana was brought up a lot in that recent lecture—which we can translate as hegemony. Does bringing Salim Barakat into English challenge the global hegemony of the English language, what David Damrosch has coined as the Disneyfication of the globe? What is the role of a good translation and what strategies did you apply for your recent translation of Barakat?
HF: Not only in Salim Barakat, but I think in every translation it is important to try to recreate the effect of a text in the other language, its consequence. Aside from what a poem means, what does a poem do in its original language, and can it do the same thing or have the same effect in the other language? Striving to recreate that requires a translator who not only masters both languages but is also well-read in both languages, and has creative and critical stakes in both literary traditions.
The word haymina came up because we were talking about the power dynamic between Arabic and other languages today. I work in a Near Eastern and Civilizations Department (NELC). They call us Area Studies, so we know we are on the margins of the Humanities. Arabic and the Arabic literary tradition are thought of as secondary or nascent compared to the more established literary traditions. And, as I said in that conversation, this has nothing to do with the value or merit or history of these traditions, but it is about the power dynamics in the world today: ideology, history, politics. That is where haymana came in and we were discussing its effect on translation. The very little that gets translated from Arabic to English always needs prefacing; it needs somebody to convince the English readers that this is worth their time; that there is something to learn from it, even if it is superficial and problematic, but something.
With translating Salim Barakat, he has a relationship of conflict with the language, with Arabic. Again, critics both in Arabic and in other languages comment on how intimidating his language is. He is well read in Arabic syntax and morphology, claims he only reads pre-modern works and has no idea what is going on now. He deliberately uses this high eloquence as a weapon to defamiliarize Arabic.
So when translating him, my co-translator and I were interested in poets who do something similar in English, where English is broken and defamiliarized. We looked at the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets for example. It helped to look at poets who had a similar posture towards language in English when trying to translate Barakat. We didn’t do this in an attempt to find equivalents for him in English but rather to try and a place for him in English. Who would be his friends, his neighbors in the English language’s imagination?
A good translation is a one that strives to be a level meeting ground between two traditions, two systems of imagination, two forms of thought. A good translated poem is one that can stand alone without its original but still channels that original in creatively provocative and critically generative ways. A good translation triggers discovery; it provokes its readers to find their own way back to the original.
HF: For me personally, the Mu`allaqat are the beginnings of my relationship and fascination with Arabic poetry. I read the Mu`allaqat as a child. I memorized them before I even knew what they meant. They are magical texts to me.
There is no doubt that they are one of the main sources of the Arabic language. They contain the beginnings of poetic memory in Arabic. We say beginnings because we accept the narrative about these poems being the earliest samples of Arabic poetry that we have. But in fact, they are so refined and developed that they must be the culmination of something before them, the end of an era in poetry. They are masterpieces of world poetry, and they carry in them a long tradition that must have preceded them.
What are they and why are they important in the Arabic literary tradition?
HF: I also have issues with talking about the Mu`allaqat as if they are one thing. They are seven, and in some versions, ten poems— and each one is a world of its own with a very distinct voice, a distinct kind of angst and emotion. Some poems—like Tarafah’s and Imru’ al-Qays’s—share verses as result of the oral transmission, I assume. Yet even in those there is a very different kind of emotion, a different trajectory or arc. Tarafah is his own poet and Imru’ al-Qays is his own poet. So lumping them together as the Mu`allaqatis something we have gotten used to, but we should also try to move away from this and read each one of these poem on its own terms.
Another proof for how important they are is that we always go back to them. When we come to study Arabic poetry, we come closer to a comprehensive understanding of a poem when we place it in the larger context. I believe that a significant dimension of meaning and of form in many modern Arabic poems can only be accessible when you understand these poems in a conversation with or against the backdrop of the Abbasid qasida and the pre-Islamic qasida.
It is a continuum that you cannot chop up into historical periods, which are constructed and are not that useful when you approach poetry from a poetically critical perspective.
Can you talk a bit about the work that was done for this project as well as its vision?
HF: This project invited a host of translators and commentators to present the mu‘allaqāt to a new generation of readers, in Arabic and in English. At the helm were Hatem Alzahrani, Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature at Umm al-Qura University, and Bander Alharbi, editor-in-chief of AlQafilah magazine. The final volume was published by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) in collaboration with the Al-Qafilahmagazine.
The project was a collaborative effort. We were divided into teams of two to work on each poem, one worked on new commentary in Arabic and the other on new translation. The conversations I had with the scholars who were writing the Arabic commentary on the two poem I translated were wonderful moments of learning and collaborative reading. I enjoyed worked with Dr. Adi Alherbish on al-A‘shā and with Dr. Sami AlAjlan on Tarafah and learned a lot from them.
The invitation to critically engage, in commentary and in translation, with these poems that have been translated many times over the years, is proof that there is something there, still alive, necessary, and urgent. Translations are always hit and miss, trials. As Beckett says: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Our successes or our “better failures” with the mu‘allaqāt will remain an extremely rewarding and enriching experience.
How does the perception of a figure change in the minds of readers who read him in translation? For example, I have only read Abu Nuwas in English translation. And now I associate him as a pioneer of wine poetry. Does translating jeopardize the perception of a historical or literary figure?
HF: That is a great question because it points to the risks or dangers of translation. We return to idea of hegemony, haymana. Because Arabic literature is minor or marginal compared to other literatures in translation, we run the risk of creating an image or a reputation that is authoritative and unchallenged. So, a translation from Arabic to English has more authority than a translation from languages such as French or Spanish.
When we get a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey, we’re not worried that Homer is going to be rewritten or manipulated. There are enough translations out there of Homer’s Odyssey that it has become immune to rewritings and misrepresentations. Each new rewriting will only enrich our engagement with Homer and his Odyssey and add to a tradition of translating Homer to English. Whereas, with Arabic, when you have one translation of Tarafah, you run the risk of that translation being more powerful and representative and authoritative than the original. Thus, through our translations, we have the power to rewrite a poet like Abu Nuwas or Bashar ibn Burd or Abu Tammam into something that fits the expectations or the palate of the target audience. We rewrite the original to cater to expectations in the target language. The only remedy for that is more and more translations. The more translations we have, the more different writings and re-readings there are, the safer Abu Nuwas becomes, and the closer we are to a flavor of the original in the translation. And then the various translations become invitations to engage with something that might rise above the specific agendas. To translate Abu Nuwas because he says something about wine is one thing. To translate him to say something about sexuality and sexual freedoms is another. And to translate him to understand his linguistic and rhetorical contribution to the badi‘ and muhdath project is another thing. We need all of them. They are all important and each one of them alone is necessary, but reductive. The whole will never be carried across, but the more attempts we have at it, the closer we get.
Lastly, I wanted to ask specifically about this quote I heard about, but I can’t seem to trace. It is by the late scholar Jaroslav Stetkevych where he is delivering a lecture and he asks something along the lines of, ‘when will we have a translation of Imru al-Qays that will inspire the global literary community?’
HF: In a groundbreaking lecture in 1968, Jaroslav Stetkevych raises a very poignant point that we should still be thinking about and guided by today. He says, ‘our mission as translators of Arabic poetry is to move an emergent poet in English through our translation towards a creative affinity with somebody like ‘Imru al-Qays.’
In short, when a young poet who doesn’t speak or read Arabic reads our translations, he should be left saying ‘there is something there that I can relate to as an artist, as a creative writer, as a poet.’ Jaroslav emphasizes the need for our translations to strive to be poetry. We don’t need to be anthropologists. We need to graduate away from the Orientalist approach where you translate using a dictionary word-for-word and then you burden your translations with footnotes, sidenotes, introductions, and indices, as if this is a document that is going to teach us something about some foreign Other. We need to gravitate away from that. And I think we have. In the past few years, we have made a lot of progress in our strive to carry across that glowing poetic, artistic core of the poem that makes it relevant and alive even after 2,000 years, as is the case with the Mu`allaqat.
I am a huge fan of Jaroslav Stetkevych and everything that he has written. And his recent passing is a huge loss. But he will be present, as we engage and re-invent our relationship with Arabic poetry, and especially pre-Islamic poetry, his work will always be a guiding light.
AJ Naddaff is a multimedia journalist and translator pursuing a MA degree at the American University of Beirut on Arabic literature & Near Eastern Studies.
Previously in this series: