Kareem James Abu-Zeid Wins NEA Fellowship for Retranslation of ‘Hanging Poems’

Accepting his recent PEN award.

Translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid has won a $25,000 grant to support the retranslation of the classic Arabic works known as the “Hanging Poems,” or al-Mu‘allaqāt:

Abu-Zeid was announced as one of 22 grantees to win National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) support for their translations. His is for this collection of foundational works of pre-Islamic poetry.

Abu-Zeid said, in a recent interview with Words Without Borders:

For over ten years now, I’ve been thinking about translating the main (and most famous) group of pre-Islamic Arabic poems, which are called the Mu’allaqat, or “Hanging Poems.” There are ten of them (some historians number them at seven rather than ten), and they’re all very long and unique expressions of the ethos and harsh life in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in the sixth and early seventh centuries CE. They are the very first works of Arabic literature, and are akin to Beowulf or the Chanson de Roland in terms of their cultural importance. In my view, they’ve never really had a solid poetic translation in English (though there are some good academic ones out there). So I want to really bring them to life, like Seamus Heaney did for Beowulf or Robert Fagles did for Homer. I also want to put them on the map of world literature—it’s important for me that they come out at a larger press, rather than one that specializes primarily in Arabic literature. But it’s a huge undertaking—the texts are long and extremely challenging linguistically. I translated the first and most famous one (by Imru al-Qays) to try to secure some grant money to help facilitate the project, but it’s hard to get funding for a retranslation, and so far I’m 0 for 1 in terms of the grants I’ve applied to. We’ll see what comes of the project—I have a feeling it will happen, sooner or later.

Previous English translations of Al-Muʿallaqāt include, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “The Seven Golden Odes of Pagan Arabia (1903) by Lady Anne and Sir Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, The Seven Odes(1957, reissued 1983) by A.J. Arberry, The Seven Poems Suspended in the Temple at Mecca (1973, originally published in 1893) by Frank E. Johnson, and The Golden Odes of Love (1997) by Desmond O’Grady.”

“Unlike much older translations of this work,” the award citation says, “this new translation will be more poetic and accessible. Each poem will be contextualized with a brief introduction.”

Abu-Zeid has been distinguished by several translation awards, including “PEN Center USA’s 2017 translation prize, Poetry Magazine’s 2014 translation prize, a Fulbright research fellowship, and translation residencies from the Lannan Foundation and the Banff International Center for the Arts, among other honors.”

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