Kareem James Abu-Zeid on Why It’s Important To Get the ‘I’ Out of the Way When Translating

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Words Without Borders has been running a “Translator Relay” that features an interview with a different translator each month. The month’s translator chooses the next interviewee, hence the relay. 

For September’s installment, Jessie Chaffee asked questions of Kareem James Abu-Zeid, who’s been runner-up for the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize and won the 2014 Poetry magazine translation prize, and who’s been tipped to win the 2017 Banipal Prize for his translation of Rabee Jaber’s Confessions. The sixth and final question in the interview came from the previous translator in the series, Ming Di.

The interview is republished here with WWB’s permission.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

kareem james abu-zeid on why it’s important to get the ‘i’ out of the way when translating

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: Most of the literary projects I do are from Arabic. If English is my “mother tongue” (my mom is American), then Arabic is most certainly my father tongue (my dad hails from Egypt). I grew up in Kuwait and the UAE, and spoke some Arabic as a child, but my high school only offered French as a second language, and as an adolescent I was more interested in European culture—back then, I had a very distorted image of the Arab world as being culturally backward, and I sought to underplay my own roots, immersing myself in European literature (I learned French, and later German) and identifying myself primarily as “Western.” It was only when I came to the US for college that I realized that I wasn’t exactly “Western,” or American either, and how strongly informed I was by the culture of my father. At that point I began relearning Arabic, and after college I moved to Egypt for a while to deepen my studies and my appreciation of the rich and diverse culture there. I fell in love with Arabic poetry in particular, and although I’ve translated several Arabic novels, I’m focusing primarily on poetry right now. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the Syrian–born poet Adonis (as well as the French poet Yves Bonnefoy), so there’s an intellectual element to my connection as well.

I do quite a bit of translating from French and German too. I learned both those languages primarily through literature: reading Albert Camus and André Gide in French in high school, and reading Nietzsche, Kafka, and Heidegger in German in college (among many others). In my twenties, I lived for a few years in both France (Poitiers, Strasbourg, and Paris) and Germany (Mannheim), and I still consider both those places “homes” of mine.

Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

KJA-Z: A couple years ago now, I was translating the wonderful Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail’s book The Iraqi Nights, and there was a very short love poem of sorts that posed some difficulty. A very literal translation of it is: “Whenever you throw stones into the sea / I become like a wave.” The difficulty lies in that second verse. It’s a single word in Arabic: atamawwaju, which is a verb derived from the noun mawj, or “wave,” and it means “to be like a wave,” or “to become wave-like,” or even “to be/become a wave.” I came up with a solution that was a bit free, but that I think kept a lot of the poetic quality of the Arabic:

Whenever you throw stones into the sea
It sends ripples through me.

That second line has lost the concision of the Arabic, and grammatically the subject of the verb has also changed, but those are some of the “sacrifices” that sometimes have to be made. I’ll be honest: There’s nothing that irks me more than a perfectly literal translation of a poem that has kept all the meaning but killed all the poetry.

Do you have any translating rituals? 

KJA-Z: If it’s available, sometimes I’ll have a cup of raw cacao with almond milk and ghee to wake me up a bit. Other than that, the only ritual I have is some “light” meditation. If I notice my mind is agitated when I’m sitting down to work, I’ll wait for it to calm. I’ve found that I translate best when the “I” gets out of the way and simply allows the process to happen through me—this is particularly true of poetry. It feels like I’m observing the translation process that happens through the body-mind that calls itself Kareem. The active doer-self may come in more strongly when I’m editing the translation at hand, but it’s best to keep it at bay at the outset of the process, when most of the really creative solutions come through.

To encourage this, I also use a random meditation timer while I’m translating: It goes off every ten to twenty minutes, and when it does, I stop whatever I’m doing and simply “drop in” to awareness for a few seconds, or sometimes longer. It’s like hitting a refresh button on my mind: When I turn back to the page/screen, everything is suddenly fresh again. If I felt tired a minute earlier, suddenly the energy is back.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

KJA-Z: Back when I was on a more academic path in life (I once thought I wanted to be a professor), I had a lot of metaphors, and a lot of theories. But now I have less of them. Most of the time I feel like a conduit. Like I said before: When I’m translating at my best, all sense of the translator-self falls away, and the texts somehow just flow through me. There’s an input (for example, an Arabic poem), and there’s an output (an English poem), and I’m the space where the transformation from one to the other occurs. But exactly how it happens is a bit of a mystery to me, and when I try to figure it out or become more of an active player in the process, it usually ruins it.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

KJA-Z: Right now, I’m working on another book of poetry by Najwan Darwish, which is always exciting, but I’ll talk about my process with him in my answer to the last question. I do have two other projects lined up after that one.

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 forBeowulf 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.

Finally, I’ve been falling in love with the poetry of the proto-Sufi poet Al-Hallaj, a ninth/tenth-century CE figure. I hope to tackle that project sometime too, as reading his work feels very much like a form of deeper meditation to me.

Ming Di: Many people believe that the best translation takes two people, a native speaker of the source poetry and a native speaker of the target language. How do you collaborate with Najwan Darwish (Arabic poet) in translating his poetry into English?

KJA-Z: Najwan and I have a really wonderful way of collaborating, perhaps because we’re both quite young and have similar philosophies of translation. Both of us, I think, are primarily concerned with the translation itself being a work of poetry in English, rather than an attempt at a perfect word-for-word “reflection” of the Arabic. If the original Arabic text is a plant, then the English is a new one that shoots out of that one: the two plants will look similar, but they won’t be the same (there’s another metaphor for you!).

We’ve worked on one book together so far (Nothing More to Lose, NYRB 2014), and are currently beginning work on a second book. Najwan doesn’t usually publish in book form in Arabic (he publishes individual poems or groups of poems in many different venues), which frees up how we work in English. In the more global terms of the book as a whole, it means that we can pick which poems go into the book, which automatically becomes a “Selected Poems” of sorts: Any poems that don’t work well in English can simply be left out, which is quite a luxury. And we get to determine the order of the poems in the English book too, since the English book does not correspond to a single book in Arabic. So I feel like a curator and editor, in addition to a translator, when I’m working with him.

In terms of how we work on individual poems, there is generally a lot of back and forth: I’ll translate a poem and then ask Najwan to explain (over Skype) any things that aren’t clear to me. Then I’ll produce a more poetic draft, send it to him, and we’ll Skype again to go over that. Najwan will usually ask me a lot of questions, and sometimes raise objections, or point out things that I didn’t quite get right (or that I messed up completely!)—which is obviously only possible because Najwan has excellent knowledge of English. And then another draft will be produced, and so on and so forth until we’re both happy with it. Sometimes we’ll Skype five or six times to get a single poem just right.

Every once in a while, Najwan will send me something he’s still working on in Arabic. I always love it when that happens, because then the English translation can sometimes have an impact on the original Arabic text, and the translation process feels a bit more bilateral, rather than simply flowing from Arabic into English.

This interview previously appeared on Words Without Borders. You can follow the Translator Relay in their interviews section.

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