Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation:

Seminars in Poetry and the Free Verse Movement

ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a conversation between ArabLit’s editor and Prof. Huda J. Fakhreddine, Assistant Professor of Arabic literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work focuses on modernist movements or trends in Arabic poetry, and she’s the author of Metapoesis in the Arabic Tradition.A summary of the course can be found at the bottom of this discussion.You start by talking about “Reading Poetry through the filter of Translation.” What do you want to get across to students about translation as a “filter,” or how poetry is / can be transformed through the translational act? Are there particular “filters” you see as being put on Arabic poetry, in the translation process? What’s important about starting here? 

Image courtesy Prof. Huda J. Fakhreddine.

Prof. Huda J. Fakhreddine: It is important to start here because Arabic literature in the context we are in is at the mercy of translation. Without a long history of translations to balance its image, a text or a field (such as Arabic poetry in this case) becomes more susceptible and more easily manipulated. Homer’s works, for example, have a long tradition of translation that keeps the power of each new translation in check. When translators approach classics like the Odyssey or the Iliad, they are the ones who stand to fail or succeed. In the case of poets in Arabic, whether modern or classical, the translator has the upper hand. She is the creator of the text which, if it weren’t for translation, might as well not exist at all. The room for distortion and manipulation of literary reputation is immense here. This is why I find the first chapter of Andre Lefevere’s Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame an engaging introduction which encourages us all in the class to be more conscious of ourselves and critical of our approaches.

Reading a poem is in itself an act of translation and reading poetry in translation is a more exaggerated exercise in listening to the silence of the poem. Highlighting, the choices, the assumptions, the prejudices, and the preference necessarily involved in the processes of translation is a fitting way to invite students to be more aware of themselves as readers of poetry. What they bring to the poem is as essential as what they find in it. Great poetry constantly surprises us with what we know and as readers of poetry we should be willing to discover ourselves anew with every text.

Do you ever use multiple translations, to show the different ways a poem can be rendered? Or translate a work with the students? 

HJF: Yes. When multiple translations of the same poem are available, we try to read as many of them as possible. In the gaps and differences between the “rewritings,” much is to be discovered about the original or the source text. Translation has the potential of revealing qualities and features latent in the source text, dimensions that only appear in the process of re-reading, misreading, or motivated reading that is translation. We also often translate poems together in class or share students’ translations of the same poem. This by far is one of the closest and most discerning ways of reading a text.

 You seem to approach poetry of the 20th c chronologically, which seems eminently sensible. Are there things that might get lost in a chronological approach? Have you considered doing it otherwise? 

HJF: When I design a class chronologically, I challenge myself to disrupt that narrative by encouraging student to read poetry against history, to seek resonances and dissonances that transcend the historical periodization we find in most anthologies and surveys. And, I have also don’t it differently in graduate seminars, where we sometimes begin in the twentieth century and move forward in the class towards the Abbasid muhdath poets. Our guiding motive here is to understand the term “modern” or “new” in poetry as a literary and not as a historical term. This is the approach I adopt in my book, Metapoesis in the Arabic Tradition (Brill, 2015), where I begin with the twentieth century modernist experience to arrive at a study of metapoesis in the Abbasid age.

The chronological approach is sensible and easy, because it is what you find in most anthologies and studies.  However, alone it is inadequate. There is no development in poetry but difference. This is why fitting poetry into a historical timeline is to study it as something other than poetry. Literary histories allow us to talk about or around poetry but not read poetically, not engage with poetry as a way of thought. My hope in poetry classes is to encourage students to overcome the fixation on the hermeneutics of a text, and to approach the poem as a new way of seeing, a different way of knowing the things we think we know.  This is not easy when the study of Arabic poetry is housed in “area studies.” With onslaught of cultural studies, I find myself forced to foreground the value of poetry in informing us about the history of the region or in shedding light on current socio-political issues when describing classes or advertising them. However, my hope in the class is to arrive at more than a literary history and to critically engage poems as aesthetic entities, whose merits are not reliant on the stories they tell or the information they disclose. I aspire to be able to move students towards finding an urgent connection with Arabic poetry; a creative affinity which allows them to respond to Arabic poems as they would to poems in their own language.

Have you had aspiring poets in the class, who want to learn Arab forms? 

HJF: Yes. I have had aspiring poets in my classes, in both Arabic and English. There is always a “planned” digression where we discuss Arabic poetic forms and metrics. This is a discussion I greatly enjoy. It allows us to read the poem in Arabic out loud and that is absolutely necessary even if the class is in translation. For example, the opening of al-Sayyāb’s “al-Masih ba‘da al-salb” is a great demonstration of meter, rhyme, cadence, and rhythm in a modern Arabic poem. I often use this opening to discuss the meaning or poetic function of meter, rhyme, lines breaks, grammar and punctuation in a poem.

What moves & shifts do you highlight in your “Introduction to Arabic Poetry in the twentieth century”?

HJF: I am primarily interested in the formal and rhetorical changes from the qasīda to the free verse poem and then the prose poem. This is why we often begin with examples of the qasīda from the later 19th and early 20th. We spend time examining the experiments of the precursors to the modernist movement of 20th century such the Apollo group and their contemporaries leading up to early examples of the Arabic free verse poem. I present these transformations against the backdrop of the socio-political moves and shifts from the end of the 19th century until the mid-twentieth century.

What do you gain by beginning “The Free Verse” course with Ahmad Shawqī? How do you think his work is changed in translation, and how do you discuss that? How have students interacted with his work? 

HJF: I believe much is lost without placing the Arabic free verse movement in the larger context of the Arabic poetic tradition. Ahmad Shawqī’s generation of poets is a point of intersection between the Arabic poem as it had become in the late 19th/ early Twentieth century and the experimental poem of early twentieth century (the Apollo group, the Dīwān group, the Majhar poets…) who paved the way for the free verse poem in the late 1940s.

Shawqī work gives us a chance to discuss the challenges of translating form, which is ever-present in the translation of all poetry, even when form is not as obvious or easily recognizable as in a qasīda. When studying Shawqī’s work in translation, students are often more interested in his biography and his political career. To balance that, we read parts of his poems out loud in Arabic and also listen to some of his poems in the voices of ‘Abd al-Wahāb and Umm Kulthūm which help compensate for the sound that is lost in English.

Women poets’ voices & concerns seem mostly absent from the “Free Verse” course. Have you considered including Saniya Sālih or Nāzik al-Malā’ika? If you were going to add additional poets or poetic movements, who would they be?

HJF: This is a very important question that comes up a lot. It is something I consciously think about when preparing for every class. The syllabus you saw is a survey of the free verse movement which I have taught several times. I try to change it a little bit every time. We, of course, read Nāzik al-Malā’ika’s critical works and sometimes look at samples of her poetry as well as the poetry of Lamī‘a ‘Abbās ‘Amāra, Fadwā Tūqān, and Saniya Sālih among others. Nevertheless, you can still say that women remain almost absent. Taking the work of women writers and poets seriously means being demanding as readers and sparing them the “sympathetic” reading which accepts their works as symptoms of cultural or ethnic or gender complexes, without questioning their aesthetic merits.

In the “Poetry of Commitment,” what are the “false labels”?

HJF: I think “Poetry of commitment” itself is a deluding label. I take issue with categorizing poets based on the themes or issues they portray in their work. This labeling, I think, obscures rather than illuminates the distinctive features of their poetic projects. Such labels also sometimes carry with them certain assumptions about the value of the work. Unfortunately, great causes do not necessarily produce great art. This heading for a class unit allows us to examine further the relationship between form and content; between the poetics of a text and its “message.” Other labels we pick apart are “Literature of Resistance” and “Poets of the South in Lebanon” as examples of this labeling process that is motivated by extra-literary imperatives.

You seem to end the “Free Verse” course with Adūnīs, Shawqī Abi Shaqrā, and Muhammad al-Māghūt. But are there younger poets in the mix as well? 

HJF: The syllabus you saw was a template for a class I teach on Modern Arabic poetry. It sometimes focuses on the beginnings, the rūwwād phase, of the Arabic modernist movement and other times there is more focus on the second and third generations of modernist poets, both the poets the verse-poem and the poets of the prose poems: Mahmūd Darwīsh, Muhammad ‘Alī Shams al-dīn, Shawqī Bazī‘, Jawdat Fakhreddine, Abbas Beydoun, Abdu Wazen, Bassam Hajjār, Qassim Haddad, Muhammad Bennis, Zuhayr Abu Shāyeb, Nazih Abū Afach, Salīm Barakat… I have sometimes ended this same class with a unit on Arab-American and Arab poets who write in English. After having discussed poetry in translation, ending here offers an interesting perspective on the notions of a canon, of language and its poetic memory, on hybridity, diversity, otherness, and other terms of inclusion and exclusions.

I taught a seminar last year on the Arabic prose poem. In that class, we read a host of younger poets: Nazem Elsayed, Golan Haji, Samer Abu Hawwash, Iman Mersal, among others.

How do you think the search for “poetic innovation” and “modernizing efforts” (vs. aesthetic mastery of previous innovations, for instance) brings to a student’s view of Arabic poetry over the centuries? 

HJF: Modernizing efforts are not opposed to aesthetic mastery of previous innovations. Quite the contrary, the greatest innovations grow out of an intimate understanding and mastery of the past.  Abū Tammām is a curator of his poetic tradition, and its re-inventor at the same time. The most innovative poets, even those whom we understand as rejecting what came before them, such as Bashshār b. Burd and Abū Nuwās, are in fact most insightful and discerning in their understanding of their traditions. Aren’t the mu‘allaqāt, the Qurān, and the inventions of the Abbasid muhdathūn, all examples of transforming the literary/poetic past into something unexpected? Similarly, the greatest achievements in modern Arabic literature are the ones that succeeded in being, to borrow form T.S. Eliot, the “present moment of the past.”

Do you think it’s useful to work together on translating a poem in class (bridge translating, team translating?) if some of the students don’t know Arabic? 

HJF: Of course, much is to be gained from a collaborative translation. In my experience, the most rewarding and eye-opening translation projects were collaborative. I co-translated a collection of my father’s poetry, Lighthouse for the Drowning (BOA Editions, 2017) with Jayson Iwen (poet and professor of English). Jayson doesn’t know Arabic but his contribution to this translation was integral. He balanced my over-confidence as a native speaker and as the poet’s daughter! Working with Jayson, I had to “objectively” think about and explain why these poems work. He was freer and more aggressive than I could be when revising the first drafts of translations. He approached the translated poem as he would a poem in English. My role after that was to bring the draft back into the limits or purview of the source text.

What we have to remember in translation is that meaning is only one element of the poem. However, we typically sacrifice all the other elements to translate meaning. A team translation like the one you describe encourages the translators to seek to grasp what a poem “does” rather than what a poem “says.” What a poem does is almost always a linguistic intervention that goes far beyond meaning or themes. Skilled translators are ones who aim to recreate that intervention in the target language, even when a concern with meaning is entirely absent.


Introduction – Reading Poetry through the filter of Translation

Introduction to Arabic Poetry in the twentieth century

UNIT 1- Colonialism and Arab Revival

The Origins of the Qasida, Jacobi
Arabic Poetry a Continuum, O’Grady
Ahmad Shawqī: The Classical Arabic Qasīdah at the turn of the twentieth century.

UNIT 2 – The Post-Colonial Situation and the Western Model

The Arab Romantics: Khalīl Mutrān, Jubrān Khalīl Jubrān

UNIT 3 – A Post-1948 Arab World and the Modernist Project

Adūnīs and Yūsuf al-Khāl: The launching of the Modernist project

UNIT 4 – Disillusionment and Struggling Identities

Major Poets of the 1950s- Badr Shākir Sayyāb, ‛Abd al-Wahāb al-Bayātī S!alah$‛Abd al Sabūr and Ah$mad ‛Abd Al-Mu‛ti Hijazī

UNIT 5 –Poetry of Commitment – Modern Arab Poets and False Labels

Poets of the Resistance – Mah$mūd Darwīsh and Samīh al-Qāsim The Poets of the South – Jawdat Fakhr al-Dīn and H!asan ‛Abdullah

UNIT 6 – The Arab World in the Post-Modern Condition

The Question of Prose Poetry- Adūnīs, Shawqī Abu Shaqrā, and Muhammad al-Māghūt

Huda Fakhreddine is a specialist in Arabic literature. Her work focuses on modernist movements or trends in Arabic poetry and their relationship to the Arabic literary tradition. Her book Metapoesis in the Arabic Tradition (Brill, 2015) is a study of the modernist poetry of the twentieth century Free Verse movement and the Abbasid muḥdath movement, as periods of literary crisis and meta-poetic reflection. She is interested in the role of the Arabic qaṣīdah as a space for negotiating the foreign and the indigenous, the modern and the traditional, and its relationship to other poetic forms such as the Free Verse poem and the prose poem. She also has an interest in Translation Studies, the politics of translation and its role in creating the image and status of Arabic literature, and especially poetry, in other languages. She holds an MA in English literature from the American University of Beirut and a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Indiana University, Bloomington.

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