Kareem James Abu-Zeid, a translator of Arabic literature with an affinity for poetry, visited Kenyon last Thursday to discuss his work. The excerpts he read spanned from the sixth century to the modern day, taking leaps through time and genre to give the audience a broader understanding of not only the texts, but the process and value of translation.
Abu-Zeid has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and has won many awards for his work as a translator, writer and scholar, including the PEN Center USA’s translation prize, Poetry Magazine’s translation prize and the Northern California Book Award for Best Translated Poetry. He also has written an original book, The Poetics of Adonis and Yves Bonnefoy: Poetry as Spiritual Practice, and essays on translation. His translation of Chaos, Crossing, and Other Poems, a collection of French poems by Olivia Elias, will be published by World Poetry Books in 2022.
Abu-Zeid’s lecture began with the very first of the Mu’allaqat, or the “Hanging Poems,” which were poems said to have been hung on the Kaaba in Mecca. The first poem was written by Imru al-Qays, who was exiled from the Kindah Tribe by his father, the king. The poem goes on for about 100 verses, which were translated into English by Abu-Zeid.
The next piece from his selection was Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Adonis (written in the early 1960s), which is considered the “summit” of the Arabic modernist poetry movement. This is a book-long translation, following Mihyar the Damascene as he takes on different historical personas to contradict myopic views of Arab culture.
Next, Abu-Zeid turned to two books by Najwan Darwish, Nothing More to Lose (2014) and Exhausted on the Cross (2021). The first poem he read from Darwish, titled “We Never Stop,” is a political piece about Palestine, where the poet is from.
Abu-Zeid said that he loves translating Darwish’s work. “His poetry is so varied that there’s always something new in there for me (in terms of tone, form, subject matter, musicality, etc.),” he wrote in an email to the Collegian. “Najwan has become a close friend as well, which makes the process much more enjoyable.”
Talking about his experience in translation, Abu-Zeid explained that the process is essentially a deconstruction and reconstruction of a text. “I need to decide which aspects of the source text are the most important or critical ones to convey in English,” Abu-Zeid wrote. “It is rarely (if ever) possible, as a translator, to recreate all the various aspects of the source text. So it’s my job to decide which ones are the most critical, the ones that absolutely have to come through in the English.”