Kareem James Abu-Zeid: Making Imru al-Qays Sing and Soar

By AJ Naddaff

It’s been quite the hiatus since my last piece — but I’m pleased to return with three great interviews featuring important actors in the Arabic to English translation scene.

First up is award-winning translator of poets and novelists Kareem James Abu-Zeid. Among his most recent accolades is his winning of the Sarah Maguie Prize for his collection of Najwan Darwish’s Exhausted on the Cross (NYRB Poets, 2021). He also recently published some poems in World Poetry Review by the poet Olivia Elias from French. 

This conversation was mostly centered around his work translating the legendary pre-Islamic poet Imru al-Qays, which earned him an NEA translation grant back in 2018. I asked him about this project (sneak preview: it will appear in the Fall 2023 edition of Poetry London). 

Back in May and June, Kareem and I exchanged these emails. Some of the content may have changed since then, but I think it is an important exchange capturing Abu-Zeid at an important moment in his literary trajectory. We hope you enjoy!

AJ Naddaff: You’ve mentioned in the past that your rule of thumb for translating Imru al-Qays is total domestication. Can you walk me through the rationale behind this approach, which is quite different from how others, even recent translators, have approached this figure?

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: First, I have to say, I hate the term “domestication.” It makes it sound like the source text is some kind of beautiful wild beast, and the translator is putting it into a cage. My rule of thumb with Imru al-Qays, as with any poetry, is that the text has to work as poetry in English, it has to really soar in English. It shouldn’t “sound translated,” by which I mean: it should sound natural in English, as if an English-language poet could have written it (from an aesthetic point of view, not a cultural/social point of view). And that’s because the text soars in Arabic, of course. 

AJN: Can you give some examples of how you negotiate translating the various stylist challenges of Imru al-Qays?

KJAZ: With each portion of the text, I figure out which aspects I want to emphasize: What’s the real thrust and import of this portion? What is it that is being conveyed? And I work from there. So, for example, in the section that I’ve titled (in English) “The Wolf” (available here) there’s a sparseness to the language in my translation, because this part was most likely composed after Imru al-Qays’ father died, and is essentially an example of sa’luk (“vagabond”) poetry: it’s about poverty, and also an ethos of giving away even the little that one has, as a kind of hospitality or chivalry. That is very very different from the boastful section entitled “The Horse” which was likely written while Imru al-Qays was still a prince: there, the translation is lush and rich and expansive, because the images in Arabic have those qualities. And if you compare it with the Arabic, you’ll notice that I’ve spelled out some of the connotations/associations of the different animals that are mentioned in the middle (the gazelle, the ostrich, the fox…). 

AJN: That act of cultural translation sounds pretty important for reaching a wide readership presumably unfamiliar with the terrain of pre-Islamic Arabia.

KJAZ: Exactly. This cultural context is so foreign to the modern English-language reader that some of the gaps need to be filled in. So, for example, “colocynth” becomes “pungent colocynth” or “bitter colocynth” at times, to really hammer the points home. In the opening section of the poem, for example, the emphasis is on the poet’s sorrow, and the bitterness of farewell, and so I have: “but I feel like I’m splitting bitter colocynth.” And with place names, for example, I make a lot of use of the commentaries that we have, to try to fill in the gaps so that the modern reader has at least a sense of what’s going on (because, presumably, the import of these names would have been clear to the listener in pre-Islamic Arabia): So, for example, “Thabeer” becomes “Mount Thabeer” in the English, and “Wajara” becomes “the fertile lands of Wajara.” Otherwise, “Thabeer” and “Wajara” mean nothing in English.    

AJN: What most bothers you about a translation?

KJAZ: One thing that bothers me (in general with translation) is when a translator has gotten all the words right, but the text doesn’t make any sense on the global level. There needs to be interpretation, the translator has to have a clear vision of what’s most important in what they’re translating. For me, I want Imru al-Qays to sound modern on the aesthetic level, which is why I’ve gone with a free verse translation (though it is still very rhythmic). The strong meter and rhyme of the Arabic obviously facilitated memorization and recitation, but we don’t need to memorize the English text, so I’ve let that regularity go in my translation. (At 1:08:24 of the following Bulaq podcast, you can hear me read the final portion of Imru al-Qays’ text, which I titled “The Storm,” which will give you a sense of the sound. 

So, to summarize, I want the translation to really come alive in the English – that’s much more important to me than retaining formal aspects of the Arabic. I want it to sing, in other words.  

AJN: How did you know you reached a place of “100% satisfaction”?

KJAZ: 100% is never really possible, but at some point I just felt, “I’ve done everything I can with this.” And then I’m ready to move on to other texts, to new challenges. Zuhair, for example, is almost a polar opposite to Imru al-Qays, and his style is so aphoristic, where so many verses stand alone as hikma or a kind of proverbial expression. I started fumbling with Zuhair after I finished with Imru al-Qays, because it was so different, and I was ready to turn to something new. 

AJN: I rarely see translators move beyond the domestication-foreignization binary. I wonder, then, if there is an altogether more productive way for thinking about the translation process. I’ve seen words like substitution and equivalence to describe approaches. 

KJAZ: Well, in all honesty, my approach is almost certainly closer to what people call “domestication” than to what they “foreignization.” I just really dislike that word: “domestication.” I don’t think, in general, that a translation should call a lot of attention to itself (as a translation) unless there’s a clear reason for it. And sometimes there is a clear reason. In the last book I translated, Exhausted on the Cross by the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, there was a part that I translated as follows: “Christ was a fedayee, just like you / but he was condemned and crucified / in the sea of a single day, while you— / your cross is raised with every dawn.” Here, I’ve kept the Arabic fedayee in there, rather than “domesticating” things by translating it as “sacrifice,” for a couple reasons. First, this poem (titled “They Woke You at Dawn”) is partially about active resistance to the Occupation of Palestine, and fedayee is more powerful than “sacrifice.” Second, using fedayee complicates the English in a lot of interesting ways. The word has different connotations in Arabic than it does in English, but it is a word that can be found in the Merriam-Webster American English dictionary. Its first known use in English was in 1955, but I don’t think it really came into the English lexicon until the First Intifada. It tends to have connotations of guerrilla fighting in English, but here, in this poem, it’s really about being a sacrificial lamb, which shifts the meaning a bit in English (that was one reason I italicized it in the poem, even though the word is in the dictionary). 

AJN: What is translation for you really about?

KJAZ: Most of the time, I don’t want my translations to call attention to themselves, whether because they sound unnatural in English, or because they include a whole bunch of foreign words. Naturalness and flow are two of the things I try to translate. In other words, if a text has a natural, flowing quality in Arabic, the English should have the same. And if it doesn’t (for example, in the case of much of Adonis’ poetry, which was a real challenge to translate), then the English should reflect that as well. Honestly, though, when I’m translating, it’s more of an intuitive process, and I don’t think of these things at all when I’m actually translating a text. Translation, for me, is more about intuition and feeling than it is about logic and linear thinking processes. 

AJN: How important is establishing a personal connection with the text or person you are translating? For example, what is your entry point into the Mu’allaqat?  Do you always have a personal connection to the poetry you translate? 

KJAZ: The cool thing with the Mu’allaqat is that they are one of the foundations of Arab cultural memory, and there are all these crazy stories and legends about the various poets. It doesn’t really matter to me whether those stories are true or not (many of them probably aren’t!): I still feel like that’s part of the mystique around these texts, and part of how they are received across the Arab world. Imru al-Qays, for example, had a mini-series made about him on Jordanian TV (here’s a link to some info about it). So I guess that’s what I commune with. Those legends and stories are part and parcel of these texts. With more modern texts, it varies. Again, I try to really feel into the impact of the text I’m working on, the way it hits home with the reader, the impression it leaves (which is sometimes difficult to describe). And then I try to convey that. So yes, it’s very intimate, the connection with the texts. 

AJN: Is there an ultimate purpose driving your translation project? For many translators working with Arabic, they appear to be driven by a utilitarian drive to help bring Arabic literature on the world stage, or to at least, give it a better chance of fair evaluation (considering the power dynamics). On the opposite side, some translators merely translate because they think it is interesting, a “translation for translation’s sake” sort of mantra. Where do you stand?  

KJAZ: Well, almost all of the projects I’ve worked on have “found me,” rather than my finding them. So there’s a certain element of flow and synchronicity, that is outside of any “project” I might have. But I can say that I’ve always really loved bringing authors from across the Arab world into English for the first time (at least in book form). It’s challenging, of course, but I do really enjoy “introducing” authors in that way. When I was younger, I think there probably was more “purpose” to my translations – I was interested in having a career for myself, and making a name for myself and the writers I was working with, which I think is natural. Now that I’m a bit older and more experienced, that aspect of “purpose” has fallen away. I meditate a lot, it’s one of the main focuses of my life, and that tends to erode “purpose” (in the sense of a future orientation toward things) in favor of a more present-moment orientation. And that has spilled over to my translations as well. Beyond the projects I’m working on right now (including a book coming out later this year: “Chaos, Crossing” by the French-language Palestinian-diaspora poet Olivia Elias), I have no idea what the future holds for me in terms of translations. In any book project, there are always so many elements that are completely out of my control. Not knowing what the future holds is more interesting, in any case – it allows me to be more flexible, to “go with the flow,” so to speak, and I’m always surprised by where the flow takes me.  

AJN: While we’re still on the topic, I wanted to ask you about ideology. I am wondering if the fact that you are an independent translator liberates you from ideological constraints, especially in the context of your translation of the Mu’allaqat versus bigger institutions and projects like the Muallaqat for Millenials or the Library of Arabic Literature. Do you think this is true? 

KJAZ: Honestly, I haven’t thought too much about ideology. I haven’t read the Muallaqat for Millennials book yet, so I can’t speak to that (I finally got hold of a copy of it, so I’ll hopefully go through it soon). As for the Library of Arabic Literature, I haven’t read every single book in the series, obviously, but I think they are finding a great balance, in general, between scholarly rigor and literary quality. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read in the series, and you can tell there’s a focus there, across the board, on producing translations that are of a high literary quality in English. 

The only ideology I’m consciously bringing to my translations is an aesthetic one, which I think I spelled out in my previous emails (I won’t venture any conjectures to subconscious ideologies that are at play). I don’t think the funding source impacts my translations in that sense either, except that more funding usually means more time, and more time means the quality is likely to go up.  

AJN: I am also wondering if you could kindly address what happened with the NEA grant. You mentioned initially that the project was stalled for a long time, but that you are currently negotiating with a publisher. What sort of conditions do you have for a publisher? You mentioned the right timing is important for your completion, but what about the “right home?”

KJAZ: With the NEA grant, which was very generous, I managed to make good progress on the Mu’allaqat, but I didn’t finish them – I did a lot of the groundwork, the research, etc., and a good chunk of the translations themselves. When I applied for and received that grant, I was living out of a single backpack as a “digital nomad,” based primarily in southern India, where my main meditation teacher at the time was located. I had very few life responsibilities, very few bills to pay, and very large amounts of free time – ideal conditions, in many ways, for a translation project like that. During that time, I came back to the US for some translation events and also to visit friends and family. I somehow wound up driving across the country, and I met the woman who is now my wife while passing through in northern New Mexico. That was a huge gift, and it shifted a lot of things in my life. I had previously assumed that I’d simply be able to continue on the Mu’allaqat project at the end of the grant period, but the cost of living is much higher in the US than it is in India, and raising a young child is also no small endeavor, and doesn’t leave one with huge amounts of free time! So I had to turn more of my attention to other projects, including non-literary translations and even work completely unrelated to translation, to pay the bills, and the Mu’allaqat has been on the backburner ever since. There are some projects where I can work on for one or two hours a day and make great progress, but I feel the need for a more immersive process with the Mu’allaqat, and I simply haven’t found the time for that yet. I know I’ll finish the project, but the timing has to be right. I’d rather it take longer and be something I’m pleased with, than rush it out into the world and have it be sub-par. I’ve learned some patience over the years. My co-translations of Adonis’ “Songs of Mihyar the Damascene” took 16 years from start to finish (you can read about that process here) it wound up being a good thing that it took so long (though of course, it didn’t feel like that back when we got our first rejection letters from publishers!). 

AJN: Where would you want your translation to be read?

KJAZ: I’d really like the Mu’allaqat to find their way to “world lit”-type courses, alongside the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer and the like, so I’d prefer a fairly prominent, non-specialized press (i.e., not a press that’s specialized in Arabic literature), and response times are longer at those kinds of publishers. And I’d ideally also like to have the time, when it is published, to publicize the book and put the word out there. We’ll see what happens with it – I’m awaiting word from a larger publisher right now, and who knows, perhaps the stars will align for that project to be completed soon. I’m not worried that someone else is going to replicate my translations, so whether it takes one year or ten for the book to see the light of day doesn’t matter so much to me. Having a publishing contract would certainly be good motivation, however, and I have no doubt that it would light a proverbial fire under my ass!

AJN: How do you situate Imru’ al-Qays in the contemporary literary scene compared to someone else you’ve translated, such as Najwan Darwish? 

KJAZ: I don’t think you can compare them. It’s hard to do something like that. However, I will say that, for marketing and publicity purposes, it can be helpful to make comparisons, just to try to give English-language readers a sense of the significance and import of the texts they are reading. For example, I’ve sometimes compared the Mu’allaqat to something like Beowulf in English – not in the sense of the texts actually being similar, but in the sense that the Mu’allaqat are foundational to Arabic literature, similarly to how Beowulf can be considered to be foundational for English literature. On a similar note, I might compare the legends surrounding Imru al-Qays’ life with those of Arthur Rimbaud, say, in the European tradition – both are very rebellious figures in the popular imaginary. 


A. J. Naddaff is a writer and Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.