Translating rich and complex Arabic poetry for a contemporary English-reading audience is no easy feat. But Ferial Ghazoul, chair of the department of English and comparative literature at the American University in Cairo, and John Verlenden, a writing instructor there, have won international acclaim for their translation of the poet Qassim Haddad’s The Chronicles of Majnun Layla and Selected Poems. Haddad, who was born in Bahrain in 1948, is best known for his free-verse poetry and for reworking the classical love story into a modern poem infused with erotic imagery.
In Cairo, the two translators have been working together on translating Arabic literature in Cairo since 1995, including Edwar Al-Kharrat’s Rama and the Dragon and Muhammad Afifi Matar’s Quartet of Joy, which earned them the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award in 1997.
Their latest book is the product of almost nine years of work on Haddad’s poetry.
Published this year by Syracuse University, the book earned the professors another University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award.
Ghazoul and Verlenden sought to convey Haddad’s evocative prose and imagery in their translation, consulting Arabic language and poetry experts from Cairo University and the American University of Beirut.
Their next project will be a book of translated poems by the Iraqi poet, Nazik Al-Mala’ika (1923- 2007), who, like Haddad is an Arabic free-verse pioneer.
Because they were traveling, the team spoke by e-mail to Al-Fanar Media about their work.
Why were you drawn to work on this translation project? And would you elaborate on the process of working together?
Ferial Ghazoul: We were particularly interested in translating Chronicles of Majnun Layla because it is a literary classic and part of world literature. It is known in the East and the West, but originated in ancient Arabia. Apart from Haddad’s breath-taking imagery, his Majnun Layla poses a serious challenge to translators. The narrative itself and the historical account of the love story of Majnun and Layla is ancient, but what the poet did is use the same narrative with modern and postmodern poetics. To capture the hybrid quality of Haddad’s work, translators have to be creatively aware of tone and of irony.
I have a deep understanding of Arabic poetry and its analogs in other languages. John Verlenden is a creative writer and poet. He is aesthetically aware of the effect of rhythm, tone and imagery in the target language. We go over the translation of the poem several times until it is approved by both the native speaker of Arabic and the native speaker of English, the critic and the poet.
John Verlenden: Most of the time, I have only general ideas of the work’s qualities until I see [Ghazoul’s] first draft. Then of course I begin to get more specifically excited about language, narrative tropes and other literary qualities.
I am more interested in language and sheer talent than I am in storyline. It doesn’t matter what the writer is writing about so much; it’s the how. I see my goal as collaborating to bring the work of a top artist into general circulation.
What was the most challenging aspect of translating Haddad’s work?
FG: The most challenging aspect is to keep the Arabic beauty of the original while also having a genuine aesthetic effect on the reader, who may not know Arabic. So we strived to keep the exotic dimension of the ancient story while appealing poetically to the reader, in a delicate balancing act to achieve what the French call les belles étrangères when beauty and foreignness are integrated in a translation rather than sacrificing one for the other.
Why is Qassim Haddad’s interpretation of the Majnun and Layla love story a valuable literary addition?
FG: What is remarkable about Qassim Haddad’s rendering of this classic Arab lovers and their world-circulating legend is his amazing ability to retain his Arab roots and poetics while being a contemporary person with a humanist vision at the same time.
How will your translation of Haddad’s work benefit readers around the world?
FG: Our translation in a world that is becoming more and more globalized will contribute to understanding and appreciating other cultures, including their traditions and legacies. It will help people learn about the past and from the past, about other cultures and from other cultures.
JV: Sometimes I think if a translation hits another writer at just the right time, then that person will immediately be changed, aesthetically, perhaps philosophically—above all, in terms of what he or she sees as possible in the literary medium.
Why is classical Arabic literature important to contemporary readers of the English-speaking world? And how can you prevent the delicacies and nuances the Arabic language from being lost in translation?
FG: Classical Arabic literature is one of the few literatures in the world that has continued to be read and recited more than a millennium from the time of its inception. If you are Arabic-speaking, you can read the verses of Majnun on Layla that were written in the late seventh century in our twenty-first century without the help of a dictionary.
There are, of course, certain terms and images that are culturally specific or have certain associations and connotations that other cultures may not share. In such cases we use explanatory notes at the end of our book as well as an introduction that explains specific aspects of the culture and the trajectory of the poet. We also presented selections of Qassim Haddad’s poetry that span 40 years, so the reader can enter into his imaginative universe and witness its development.
JV: I always think the wisdom and the beauty of antiquity deserve special places in any reader’s literary explorations. Think of the great Indian classics, like The Panchatantra. Or Asian mythic tales like the Epic of Gilgamesh. What do you learn exactly? For one, you see how the human mind bears similarities across cultures, as well as across centuries. The deepest concerns in these works tend to be immediately recognizable.
If you get lucky and if the translation gods are with you, some delicacies seep through the sieve of the second language. You can’t get them all. Work and a wisp of good fortune—in translation, that’s the method and the hope.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.