Khaled Mattawa: ‘Translation Really Taught Me How To Write Poetry’

Yesterday, Libyan poet and translator Khaled Mattawa, recipient of one of this year’s Genius Grants, was onNPR’s Here & Now, talking about poetry and translation, and most of all how translation has informed his own work:

“It began,” Mattawa said, “for me, with picking up a book by the poet Mahmoud Darwish in a store in Brooklyn on Atlantic Avenue. And I was beginning to write poetry. I wasn’t liking a lot of the results that were happening with my own poetry. So when I began to translate, it was really a way for me to almost look at the poetry from the inside. Almost like the American legend of just taking a car apart and figuring it out in your garage and that’s how you become a good mechanic. Well, for me to become a decent poet, I needed to take great poetry and take it apart through translation.

“So translation really taught me how to write poetry when I was starting out.”

Certainly, translation is a way of learning literature in which many poets and writers participate, although less so in the U.S. But Mattawa pointed to many in the history of English poetry who had.

“When you think of the history of English poetry, the great English poets all translated from Latin and from other languages. Milton…really got his sense of what the English language ought to be from translating from other languages to it.

“So translation is a teacher of poetry.”

Mattawa was asked about the poetry currently being written in Libya — was it political? With a later qualification, Mattawa said, “I think the Arab world has really become tired of political poetry. That was really the age of the 50s, of the 60s, some of it was bombastic poetry. Serious poetry readers were looking for that private space.”

He named a number of women poets writing about personal space that he particularly admires: Joumana Haddad, Iman Mersal, Maram al-Masri.

He added that, “The political poetry has never left the scene. It is there to excite people and tell them what they already know.”

He was further asked, a little strangely, about whether poetry is being translated into Arabic, at which point Mattawa spoke a bit about his translations of Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost. “I felt that translating poetry into Arabic would be a good extension of, maybe, my talents.”

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