Kareem James Abu-Zeid on translating Adonis’ Songs of Mihyar the Damascene

Translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and Ivan Eubanks (New Directions, 2019)

A Very Long Road to Publication. Or: Why You Shouldn’t Give Up on Your “Failed” Translation Projects

In the spring of 2003, I was twenty years old and a senior at Princeton University, enrolled in a semester-long literary translation workshop run by the American poet C. K. Williams. C. K. was a remarkably kind and generous man who would later become a mentor and friend. I had begun the workshop by translating French poetry, but C. K. quickly asked me to start translating something from Arabic instead. The next week, I came in with translations of a very well-known, but also very Romanticism-oriented twentieth-century Arab poet (who shall remain nameless). C. K. workshopped the translations with his usual care and attention, but at the end of the class said to me: “Kareem, next week you’ve got to bring in some real poetry.” That was when I decided to begin translating poems from the Syrian-born poet Adonis’ best-known collection, Songs of Mihyar the Damascene (originally published in Arabic in 1961), which is arguably the most important collection of Arabic poetry since the Second World War. If that isn’t real poetry, I thought, then nothing is. Little did I know that I would soon be co-translating the entire two hundred-plus page collection and unwittingly embarking on a sixteen-year journey to publish the manuscript, one that involved all of the following: rejection from not one but two major publishing houses, albeit for very different reasons; an email from a well-known professor in the field of Arabic Studies who had been working on his own co-translations, essentially telling us that the project was theirs, not ours, and that we should keep our hands off; and an unlikely revival of our own project several years later.  

Looking back, I can see that when I first began translating Adonis’s poetry in that college workshop, my translations were not particularly sparkling. First, I was still learning Arabic, which at that point in my life was technically my fourth language behind English, French, and German. Songs of Mihyar the Damascene is one of the most challenging works of modern Arabic literature, and many of the intricacies of the Arabic were utterly lost on me back then. Second, I had spent almost all my time in college studying French and German poetry, and I knew very little about how English poetry actually worked. But Adonis’s iconoclastic verse refused to let go of me, and I found myself dragged farther and farther into this strange poetic universe. After a couple weeks, Ivan Eubanks, a Ph.D. student from the Slavic Department, approached me after one of the workshops and asked if I’d like to try working with him on the texts. Ivan knew no Arabic, but he was producing stunning translations of Pushkin’s poetry week after week in the workshop, and clearly knew the ins and outs of English poetry much better than I did, so I readily agreed. I was learning a lot from the collaboration, and the texts were finally starting to come alive in English, with Ivan’s help and C. K.’s input. A month or so later, Ivan suggested we try to translate the whole book. We asked C. K. what he thought of the idea. He took us into his office, called Adonis at his home in Paris on the phone, told him we were doing a good job of it, whereupon Adonis gave us his blessing. It was as simple as that—or so I thought at the time.

Ivan and I worked intermittently on the project for the next few years, generally over Skype, since we were rarely both in the same country at the same time. We drafted, revised, re-revised. We met up together once in Mannheim, where I was living at the time, and spent a week poring over the whole book, word for word, fueled by strong German coffee in the morning and stronger German beer at night (two translation habits I have since given up entirely). We were both, at that point in our lives, wedded to the idea of becoming university professors, and my field was clearly going to be Arabic (via comparative literature), so I was particularly concerned about what other academics would think of the translations. In hindsight, I can see that that insecurity, that fear of other people’s critiques and judgments (it’s called literary criticism for a reason), was holding back our translations, but I didn’t realize it then.

The Arabic text of Songs of Mihyar the Damascene is well-deserving of its preeminent place in the history of modern Arabic literature, and it (like any work of extraordinary poetry) presents unique challenges to translators, and a couple of them should be mentioned here. First, it was written at a moment in time (the early 1960s) when Arabic poetry was in the process of freeing itself from the classical formal structures and meters that had dominated it until the 1950s. A modernist movement was sweeping through Arabic literature, and Mihyar is often considered the poetic apex of that movement—it manipulates the classical meters of Arabic, twisting them and altering their form, without ever actually giving them up. How is the translator to convey such metrical innovation when working in a language (English) where free verse has largely taken over the poetic landscape? On the level of diction, too, Adonis reveals both an incredible poetic dexterity and an immense erudition, taking up, for example, important terms from the Quran and re-appropriating them in a very Nietzschean fashion, imbuing them with new and iconoclastic meanings—it is no coincidence that the book’s third section is titled “The Dead God.” Recreating the book’s deconstruction of Quranic and Islamic terminology was no easy task in English, and while I believe we succeeded in many instances, in others we simply had to point out some of the less familiar references through extensive notes that appear at the end of the book.

Furthermore, while English tends to be a very direct language, Arabic is notorious for the vast semantic range and the multiple meanings a single word can have. In the Abbasid period of Arabic history (roughly the eighth to thirteenth centuries A.D.), for example, Arab linguists wrote extensively on a category of nouns called ­al-addad, generally translated as “contranyms” in English; these are words that have two separate meanings that are diametrically opposed to one another (“cleave,” which can mean to adhere and to split apart, is one of the few English examples of this). Although contranyms are a particularly extreme example, it is no exaggeration to say that Arabic words generally have more diverse meanings than English words, and Adonis exploits this potential ambiguity in the language to masterful effect. Thus, in the very first lines of Mihyar, when Adonis writes, “He approaches unarmed like the forest and incontestable like clouds. Yesterday he bore a continent and displaced al-bahr,” how is one to translate al-bahr? The word means “sea,” yes, and this certainly fits the context (and is what we ultimately chose); but a meta-poetic subtext runs through the entire book, and ­al-bahr also refers to the classical meters of Arabic poetry. Second, what about the word we have translated as “unarmed” in the phrase “unarmed like the forest”? This too works in the context of the opening of the book, where a clear war-like atmosphere comes through; but as my friend Elliott Colla (a prominent scholar and translator of Arabic literature) pointed out to me, this word can also mean “rainless” when used with clouds, which do indeed appear later in the same sentence. This fits in with the book’s resonances with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as with the fact that the word that we have translated as “clouds” can refer either to clouds in general or, more specifically, to the type of clouds that bring no rain. These are just a few of the challenges that emerged from the very first line of Adonis’s collection, and this may give a small sense of the challenges involved in translating over two hundred pages of this poetry.

At many points in Songs of Mihyar the Damascene, we were able to capture a broader range of the text’s meanings, but here, in this opening line, we decided to prioritize a more fluid reading experience in English, rather than attempting to convey all of the Arabic’s many nuances. Critiques of translations are often centered on meaning, and on all the meanings that are lost in translation, but we felt that it was equally important to convey the poetic quality of the Arabic—in other words, it still needs to read like poetry in English. And one important aspect of Adonis’s poetry that we also tried to translate into English is its remarkable lexical concision, though this meant that some of the dense and nuanced meanings of the Arabic source text are absent in the English.

In 2006, three years after we started work on the project, we felt that our manuscript was ready. The first place we submitted it to was, appropriately, a prominent US university press that published literary translations, primarily of canonical works from Europe. The press’s editor was favorably disposed toward the project (C. K.’s recommendation no doubt helped) and sent it out to two different academic reviewers. When the anonymous academic reviews came back, I was devastated: One said our translation was too literal, and failed to capture the poetic qualities of the Arabic; the other said the book was too free, and failed to capture enough of the varied meanings of the Arabic. It didn’t matter that the reviews were contradictory. Two negative reviews were two negative reviews, and the project was dead at that press.

While all this was happening, in the summer of 2006, Ivan, C. K., and I received a somewhat unnerving email from a prominent professor of Arabic Studies who, it turns out, was working on his own book of co-translations. The email was kind, but also a bit strange. The professor, a non-native speaker of Arabic (unlike his co-translator), had learned of our project through an online article about it. He said he was surprised we didn’t know about their co-translations of the book, citing excerpts published at a long-defunct academic journal back in 1989. A part of me wanted to reply that I was still reading Dr. Seuss in 1989, and another part of me wanted to crawl under my bed and hide. At that point in my life, my plan was to be a professor of Arabic (I was about to start my Ph.D. at Berkeley in comparative literature), and the field is a notoriously small one: everyone knows everyone in Arabic Studies, and a few small enmities here and there can be enough to derail a career. I was upset, disappointed, and terrified all at the same time. Although the tone of the email was kind, the gist of it was clear: we’ve been working on this longer, and we’re way more senior than either of you, so hands off. C. K. kindly offered to respond to the email, and wrote a very diplomatic reply saying Adonis had given us permission as well, and we left it at that.

Years later, when I was wrestling with the question of whether to stay in academia, I remembered that incident, and it helped me leave a career path that no longer fully resonated with me. I never wanted to have a territorial relationship to texts I was working on, and I also wanted to help younger translators, not compete with them (I’m currently serving as a mentor in the American Literary Translators Association’s mentorship program). All the same, I can’t say that I blame that scholar and translator: they had clearly been working on the texts much longer than we had, and they were much more senior than us. Furthermore, though I didn’t know the translation work of the email’s author (his translations had primarily been published at specialized academic presses), I was familiar with some of his scholarly work, which I admired, and I was a particular admirer of the scholarly work of his co-translator, who had written some groundbreaking essays on a number of different genres of Arabic poetry. That fact, strangely, made receiving the email much harder for me.

C. K. understood that this situation might very well spell the end of our project, and wrote the following to Ivan and myself in an email: “I should tell you, as I imagine I have before, that sometimes one has to chalk up one’s labor to experience, and go on to other things. I’m not saying this is the case yet with your Adonis, but it is something that has to be kept in mind. (I have too many projects even to count which have ended up unpublishable, or unperformable, in my drawer, some of them representing many months of hard work...)”

We didn’t give up, though, and this time submitted our manuscript to one of the biggest and most prestigious commercial presses in the United States. They told us they would need some time, and would have to send it out to reviewers, but that they were favorably disposed to the project. Then, however, the inevitable happened: By late 2007, the other translators had a contract for their book to be published the following year with a smaller but very well-respected independent press, which killed our project. Getting a translation of Arabic poetry published was hard enough. Getting a “retranslation” (as ours had now technically become) published was almost unheard of. I was very disappointed, but I told myself I’d let it all rest for five years or so and then think about trying again. I didn’t realize it then, but Ivan and I had actually dodged something of a bullet.

Time went by. Between the time when our first draft of the manuscript was complete and the present day, many things happened in my life. I received a year-long fellowship (the CASA Fellowship) for advanced studies of Arabic in Cairo, during which time I was able to learn from some distinguished scholars and poets, and attain more of a mastery of the Arabic language. I also completed a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, studying Arabic poetry under Margaret Larkin, who is one of the few scholars in the West who has a true mastery of both Classical and Modern Arabic. I had multiple translation residencies, including one at the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada, where I was able to learn from some of the most gifted literary translators out there, including Katherine Silver and Russell Valentino, who helped me dramatically improve the literary quality of my translations. I also published six books of literary translations, and received national recognition for some of my work. And perhaps most importantly, after several years of Buddhist meditation practices and long periods of silent retreats, I came to the realization that academia was not the right place for me, which freed me from the “What will they think?” straitjacket I had subconsciously been wearing. In other words, I had grown both as a reader of Arabic and as a translator. My translation philosophy had also changed as a result of this. I had left behind my earlier view of translation as a mirror, and instead now asked myself: “How would an English-language poet write this?” And also (to re-quote C. K. Williams): “Does this sound like real poetry in English?” If the answer to that second question was “no,” I knew I had more work to do on the text.

In 2014, I mentioned the Adonis project to my friend Jeffrey Yang, a remarkable poet and editor of poetry at New Directions Publishing, and with whom I had worked on a couple books together at that point. He was interested in the collection, but had a backlog of projects, and the process moved slowly, as these things often do. Finally, a couple years later, New Directions agreed to publish it. Ivan and I took the opportunity to do a thorough review of our manuscript, and this was when I realized what a bullet we had dodged. I had written almost half of my Ph.D. dissertation on Adonis’s work, and I suddenly saw how much of the nuance I was missing in his poetry, to say nothing about many points where I realized I had completely misread some of the verses. The translation wasn’t a disaster by any means, but it was only at about 80% of its potential. Moreover, both Ivan and myself found instances all across the book where the literary quality of the translation was not what it could have been. We did a couple rounds of extensive edits, and got it to where we both felt very happy with it. New Directions also recruited the accomplished translator and scholar Robyn Creswell to write an introduction for the book, which was very much needed, given the challenging nature of Adonis’s poetry.

So strangely, here in 2019, I feel remarkably grateful to those two earlier translators of the work, because had we published ours way back when, the end product would not be anywhere near what it is now. I rarely go back and look at projects after I’ve translated them, but the unique nature of this situation presented an opportunity for me to go over much earlier work and revise it, which in turn revealed the ways I’d grown and matured as a translator. The whole thing was also a very humbling experience. As a literary translator, I’ve been extremely fortunate and had several lucky breaks: the other six book-length literary translations I published all had remarkably easy paths to publication, and in each case the author or the press initially approached me about the project, rather than the other way around; so it was good for me to have one project that took a harder road.

Furthermore, five of those six earlier books I had translated were by authors who had never had books published in English before, which led me to appreciate just how difficult it is to sell books by authors who are relatively unknown in English. Because our translation was “delayed” by over a decade, we might actually avoid this difficulty: Although the vast majority of English translations of Adonis’s works (poetry and prose) have had limited readerships in English and received relatively few reviews in non-academic media outlets, Khaled Mattawa’s 2012 translations of Adonis: Selected Poems has been very successful, and has helped Adonis receive a much broader readership in English than he ever had before. It is quite possible that sales of our book will benefit from his earlier translations.

Adonis’s Songs of Mihyar the Damascene is one of the most important works of modern Arabic poetry, similar in cultural clout to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and it can easily hold up to multiple translations in English. In fact, I doubt ours will be the last, though I imagine it will be at least a decade or so until the next one comes around. This sixteen-year path to publication was a far cry from what Ivan and I had planned or hoped for back in 2003, but I’m extraordinarily grateful for the way it has all worked out, and New Directions is a dream press to publish such a book with. The one regret I have about the project is that C. K. Williams, who passed away in 2015, never saw the end result. It’s cliché, I know, but the whole experience has taught me that there’s often more to learn from one’s so-called “failures” than one’s successes. I’m working on a couple of different poetry projects right now, and I recently received a rejection from a major press that had been at the very top of my wish list. This time around, it didn’t faze me at all.