Lit & Found: ‘Western Poets Kidnap Your Poems and Call Them Translations’

In the latest issue of Poetry Birmingham, Mona Kareem not only reviews the translation of Adnan Al-Sayegh, Let Me Tell You What I Saw, she also has a necessary critique of the current state of literary translation.

In it, she writes:

I had thought that the phenomenon of western poets adapting someone’s translation had vanished. I would argue that it did disappear for a few years from English, only to return at the hands of poets, not translators! Translation has become ‘cool’; in some way its popularity speaks of the failure of a liberal intellectual class wrestling with the rise of Western fascisms. It rejuvenates their monolingual diction and imagery, it fits in the tenure dossier, it rescues the Third-World poet who is always imagined as a singular voice against the savage masses; as if the Cold War has never ended, or God forbid, hasn’t been won by the United States. Translation today, as scholar Dima Ayoub argues, is seen not only as a necessity but also necessarily good. What makes translations a must? Where does this blind faith in translation come from? Doesn’t translation act also as unconditional access, as surveillance, as an expanding force of the global capitalist market of literature? 

From “Western Poets Kidnap Your Poems and Call Them Translations,” Mona Kareem

Read the whole review-essay on the Poetry Birmingham website: “Western Poets Kidnap Your Poems and Call Them Translations.” The issue is also available in print.


  1. One thing is certain: this sudden upsurge of interest in Arabic lilerature is nothing but innocent. The movement as a whole can very well be called “The new Orientalists”, i.e. il their time, the third leg of colonialism. I know personally of so called “poet”s, after a short time spent in the Maghreb, of which he spoke not s single word of their languages, become THE specialist of maghrébin literature, sometimes “domesticating” concepts pique “Maqaam” that needs encyclopaedias to go into the depth of what it is and the cultures it springs from. I saw “translations” from Algerian Derdja, purely stolen from a French translation made by a derdja native. When you know the intricacies of this language that abounds of metaphors, it is simply impossible to translate from in, unless with four hands., which I believe is the only way of translating from and into languages based on concepts, philosophies, thought systems, that are miles apart. Basically, we feel ripped off, as two centuries ago, our ancestors were ripped off their land.

    1. Unfortunately this is a misguided and incorrect article on translation in general and collaboration in literature. Using attention grabbing headlines like “kidnapping” just to get clicks on an article is unprofessional and shouldn’t be encouraged by re-posting and sharing.

      1. There is nothin “attention grabbing” if this is what it is. And nothing unprofessional either. But I grant you, it is not politically correct, but that is not my business.

  2. Adonis has said that every translation is a new poem. One need only look at the several translations of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apolllo” to illustrate. Another phenomenon in translation, particularly when two poets collaborate in the work, is the translation, once thoroughly worked on, pointing a way to improvement in the original.

    1. I found a Dutch poem on line when I was looking for funeral poems to write in a card. I came across a poem I recognised as an English poem ( Do not stand by my grave and weep) translated into Dutch with a Dutch authors name. Although it was almost a word for word copy one or two lines were different, That could be because the author wanted to add something fitting, or the original just translated it to that. Both poems beautiful, but the Dutch one is a translation and the author has her name to it.

  3. Exchanges like those between Zahia Matougui and Mostafa Salameh will certainly advance our perceptions as they motivate other responses. Current Western interests in Arabic literature shore up visibility and increase readerships. Nothing essentially wrong with that. Responses that come with ideas and positions push arguments forward. Let’s have more of these. My question is: Would it be possible to respond without accusations, and through arguments and positions rather than declarations?

    1. I agree. My comment. should have been more “measures” and. supported by arguments.

      1. Your article touches upon controversial issues that will probably remain so for sometime. Opening up conversations on such issues is always welcome.

    2. Agreed that discussions are important. Arabic literature is a field that’s rich and it’s always a good thing for it to have more visibility. Granted I don’t agree that the review is just politically incorrect. It’s factually incorrect and chose to ignore the fact that several poets worked in both languages to translate and adapt the work, with the participation of the author. There is no denying that colonisation of languages does exist but it wasn’t the case here, as anyone who reads the book can see.

  4. My comment was not targeted to the book you mention, neither was it targeted to the need to translate into and from languages. Otherwise, we would certainly miss our on a large part of world literature. The comment referred to cases I have come across where the translation done from Arabic to French was lifted word ford word and presented as the “author'”‘s own translation. But unfortunately, whereas the translator from Arabic to French, as a native of Derdja Arabic was able to render an item adequately, the lifted translation did not work in English, because the “translator” , not being a native speaker of Derja, and having no knowledge of that language, couldn’t pick up the pun in the Arabic original. And in some of such cases, people who disregard academic integrity so as to present themselves as “specialist” of, let’s say, maghrébin literature. So, I am by no means against interest into Arabic, sufficiently to lead to a variety of writings being translated. This, of course gives visibility to literatures written in various forms of Arabic, and this a interest to be appreciated. I couldn’t be more in favour of translators working hand in hand, as , if I take the example of Arabic, the acquisition and even excellent mastery of Arabic that somme translators display, leaves an area that can only be grasped fully by a native speaker. The other point is that despite the fact that translation from Arabic is to be welcomed, one cannot ignore, that literary interest are not the exclusive reason (if you are financed by some organisations to do a translation, the interest is not exclusively literary. This is indeed a very controversial issue, that needs to be raised, but certainly not in the way I did, in a rush and maybe emotional declaration. For this, I withdraw the comment, the way I put it, but maintain the controversy which it raises.

    1. Ten years ago, and on these pages, I posted this comment on Occidentalism: “Jenine Abboushi Dallal wrote a brilliant article on Arab writers and the possibility of shifting readerships: “The Perils of Occidentalism: How Arab Novelists Are Driven to Write for Western Readers.” The Times Literary Supplement, April 24, 1998. Other translators of Arab works had also commented on translating Arab writes as linked to market considerations. Miriam Cooke is one of them.” Controversies draw us back to problematics that should be revisited. Thanks for touching on these issues.

  5. Thanks for the references. I was familiar with some of Miriam Cooke’s publications in the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, but not with Jenine Abboushi Dallal’s paper.

    1. It’s such a pleasure to come to know what poets around the world are writing. I think of how Emily Dickinson is translated into dozens of languages, however difficult the task, or the inevitable creation of a “new poem” vis a vis the translation. (See: But it’s not only about how a poem is made but who are the people writing: their humanity and concerns, whether similar to mine or wonderfully different.

Comments are closed.