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

KJAZ: Exactly. I know I’ll finish the project, but the timing has to be right. Do you think this is true?  KJAZ: Honestly, I haven’t thought too much about ideology. 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. 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. On the opposite side, some translators merely translate because they think it is interesting, a “translation for translation’s sake” sort of mantra. I’ve learned some patience over the years. Where do you stand?   KJAZ: Well, almost all of the projects I’ve worked on have “found me,” rather than my finding them. Now that I’m a bit older and more experienced, that aspect of “purpose” has fallen away. 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. 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. (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. 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. 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). What is it that is being conveyed? Can you walk me through the rationale behind this approach, which is quite different from how others, even recent translators, have approached this figure? 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? And I’d ideally also like to have the time, when it is published, to publicize the book and put the word out there. 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! 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. I want it to sing, in other words.   AJN: How did you know you reached a place of “100% satisfaction”? That was a huge gift, and it shifted a lot of things in my life. 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. First up is award-winning translator of poets and novelists Kareem James Abu-Zeid. 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. 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. 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. 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. J. So, for example, “colocynth” becomes “pungent colocynth” or “bitter colocynth” at times, to really hammer the points home. So I guess that’s what I commune with. I wonder, then, if there is an altogether more productive way for thinking about the translation process. 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. 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). 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? It’s hard to do something like that. 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? 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. 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. And that has spilled over to my translations as well. 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. In other words, if a text has a natural, flowing quality in Arabic, the English should have the same. 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. 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). 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. Naddaff is a writer and Ph.D. 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. 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. 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. 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. And then I try to convey that. So there’s a certain element of flow and synchronicity, that is outside of any “project” I might have. 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. 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’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. 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. 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 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. 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. Imru al-Qays, for example, had a mini-series made about him on Jordanian TV (here’s a link to some info about it). There needs to be interpretation, the translator has to have a clear vision of what’s most important in what they’re translating. We hope you enjoy! 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. 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. 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. And I work from there. student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. 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. 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! 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). You mentioned initially that the project was stalled for a long time, but that you are currently negotiating with a publisher. 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. 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. 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? Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditTumblrWhatsAppPinterestTelegramPocketSkypeLike this:Like Loading… 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. 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. Kareem James Abu-Zeid: Making Imru al-Qays Sing and Soar November 24, 2022November 24, 2022 by mlynxqualey 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. 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. 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? 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. 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). 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. It’s challenging, of course, but I do really enjoy “introducing” authors in that way. And sometimes there is a clear reason. 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). In any book project, there are always so many elements that are completely out of my control. With more modern texts, it varies. 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. Naturalness and flow are two of the things I try to translate. 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 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. This cultural context is so foreign to the modern English-language reader that some of the gaps need to be filled in. AJ Naddaff: You’ve mentioned in the past that your rule of thumb for translating Imru al-Qays is total domestication. Those legends and stories are part and parcel of these texts. 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. During that time, I came back to the US for some translation events and also to visit friends and family. What sort of conditions do you have for a publisher? So yes, it’s very intimate, the connection with the texts.  AJN: Is there an ultimate purpose driving your translation project? 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? 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). 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.

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