Ahmad M. Ahmad on Translating Nathalie Handal into Arabic

By Tuğrul Mende

Ahmad M. Ahmad is translator of Nathalie Handal’s Selected Works 2005-2019 from English to Arabic. about translating Nathalie Handal’s Selected Works 2005 – 2019 into Arabic. He talks about the experience of translation poetry and what the most challenging aspects of translating this genre means to him. 

This follows a discussion yesterday with poet Nathalie Handal.

Tuğrul Mende: Tell us about what brought you to translating poetry.

Ahmad M. Ahmad: I am a proficient reader of poetry and literature in general. My first poetry translations were published at the age of eighteen, my freshman year of university. Then I returned to translation while I was in the United States. I translated into Arabic selected poems by Charles Simic, Robert Bly, Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Mary Oliver, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Auden, Derek Walcott and others. Now I am working on a huge anthology of contemporary American poetry.

TM: What is your translation process?

AMA: I read the book first, and then reread the poem I intend to translate. I read quietly to catch the tone, the voice of the poet, and the poet’s inner feeling. I aim to capture the diversity of moods not only in the poem, but in each line. And I start getting in Arabic the full flow of colors of the original poem written in English.

When I finish translating, I place the Arabic and English poem next to each other and read them together. I often stay closer to the first impression. I rarely change a word or paraphrase a single line.

In translating poetry, I trust my taste for both languages, and my intense sensitivity makes me inhabit the poem as if I were its Arabic author.

TM: Tell us about how you came to translate Selected Works 2005-2019 by Nathalie Handal into Arabic—which includes selected poems from her seven award-winning collections. 

AMA: I got to know Nathalie Handal’s work at first through her various poems translated into Arabic, then I read them in English. I read those poems with love, and I felt their depth and uniqueness and the authentic Arab voice that lies in the breath of the poems and the poet. 

When I started working with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper, I translating Nathalie’s work, and I loved them more. I am proud of my translations of the poets I love.

I would have loved to translate all her books but had to do a Selected Works instead because it is difficult to publish an individual poetry collection in the Arab world, due to the decline in the purchase of books, especially poetry. Also, the purchasing of rights burdens publishers.

TM: What are the most challenging and surprising parts of translating Nathalie Handal Selected Works 2005-2019?

AMA: Nathalie is a multi-voice, multicultural poet, with many layers of emotions. Her inner poetic voice is always colorful and diverse, not only between one book and another, or between one poem and another, but between one line and another, so that the totality of coloration and change constitutes a captivating symphonic effect, unique in flavor. 

The fortunate translator finds excessive intelligence, fierce nostalgia, deep femininity, and a great reader of the world, as he sees in the pain of the poem her eyes that shine with images of her constant travels and her relationship with cities and cultures while she carries the Palestinian wound with her wherever she goes; to the extent that I consider her a Palestinian poet as much as I consider Mahmoud Darwish , Samih al-Qasim, and Ghassan Zaqtan are Palestinian poets. So I lived ecstasy while reading and translating her poems. Some that especially come to mind: “The Songmaker—19 Arabics,” “Biznagas,” “Seven Stars in Sevilla,” “Juan Rulfo, the Ghosts, the Arabs and the House,” and “Barrio Patronato,”  “Your Mystery is the Milky Way,” “Orphic,” “In Acca,” and “Ahmad.”

TM: Do you have a favorite, especially in its Arabic translation?

AMA: Probably “Love and Strange Horses – Intima.”

TM: What is the difference between reading and experiencing Nathalie Handal’s poems in English and in Arabic?

AMA: The biggest difference is Nathalie’s poetic techniques are unfamiliar in Arabic. As a translator, I have tried to communicate these techniques faithfully, to preserve the poet’s tone and breath, to preserve the fine, close thread that connects the technique to the essence of the poem.

As for the experience of living the poems, I claim that if Nathalie had written in Arabic, she would have written as I translated them. And here I remember the comment of the late Amjad Nasser about my translations of Nathalie: “It seems that you, Ahmed, love her work more than you do that of other poets…” I experience Le Plaisir du texte de Roland Barthes while translating Nathalie’s work.

TM: Do the translated poems belong to the translator, or to both the translator and the poet?

AMA: I feel I have a stake in it in every book that I have translated. 

I am not the translator who professes translation. I am a lover of the text I am translating. I live the text, and give it all of myself. My eyes tear up. I can smell its pain, and traces of its old wound. I know hope, pain, bliss, and prolonged sorrow, therefore I can be its partner.

I am the poet’s faithful Arabic tongue. I claim that in most of what I have translated. I left the water of my life in it, as well as being faithful of every letter, every word. 

The comment I often hear about my translations, and which I cherish is: “If these poets had written in Arabic, they would not have written better than you translated them.”

TM: What is your relationship with the author? 

AMA: Since I first read Nathalie, her soul, her breath and her vast and deep world have become clear to me. I knew her memory of Bethlehem and Palestine, although this memory was formed before Nathalie visited that rich and lovely land. I even heard the voices and smells of the places Nathalie visited.

After her first voice message to me—she was in a Lebanese café on Bleecker Street in New York City, Fairuz in the background—I felt even closer to her work.

My acoustic acquaintance with Nathalie gave my translation of her poems another dimension: from her throat comes all that nostalgia that warms me and makes me feel that I am not a stranger, that the world will be better than it is now.


Tuğrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.