Contemporary Arabic Poetry in Contemporary Translation

Prior to 2001, Arabic literature—despite its vast history and broad geographies—would have counted as a fairly “minor” literature in terms of its English-language translations. But after the attacks of September 11, the Arab world was suddenly of acute interest to the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world. Enrollment in Arabic language courses shot up by approximately 127% in U.S. colleges and universities between 2002 and 2006, and for the first time Arabic became one of the ten most studied languages in the U.S. The subsequent Iraq War, as well as the events of the Arab Spring and their ongoing aftermaths, meant that attention on the region continued to grow. These political realities have had a profound impact on Arabic literature in English translation. As Marcia Lynx Qualey’s ArabLit website recently noted, at least thirty books of Arabic literature are coming out in English translation this year alone—a remarkable number, given how difficult it is to publish literature in translation in the English-language marketplace.

Yet Arabic poetry has generally lagged far behind prose in terms of translations and availability, despite the very political role poetry has historically played in the Arab world—which dates back even to the pre-Islamic period, when poets were the mouthpieces and spokespersons of their tribes. Furthermore, many of the translations of Arabic poetry that have come out in English have tended to be—with some notable exceptions—line-for-line and even word-for-word translations that sound stilted at best. In attempting to be perfect mirrors of the literal meanings of the source texts, such translations have frequently lost the force and impact of the original Arabic poetry. Thankfully, this situation has been changing in recent years, and perhaps even in recent decades.

The dearth of Arabic poetry in translation when compared to prose, as well as the more creative approaches that translators of Arabic poetry have started to take in their work, are two reasons behind why I am truly delighted to present this special section of contemporary Arabic poetry in translation. This section features the work of nine different poets who hail from six different Arabic-speaking nations, as well as the work of eight remarkable translators. Given the vastness and diversity of the Arab world (at present, the Arab League comprises twenty-two countries), it would be foolish to call such a selection “representative.” However, this section is wide-ranging and diverse in its themes, forms, and modes of language, and offers the English-language reader a small sampling of the poetry currently being written in Arabic.

Several of these poetic voices are still relatively new to English readers (though certainly not to Arabic readers): Asmaa Azaizeh of Palestine, Soukaina Habiballah of Morocco, and Rania Mamoun of Sudan. This section also includes the work of several long-established poets who have cast lengthy shadows—in the most positive sense of that image—over the present-day landscape of Arabic poetry: Adonis (Syria), Ahmed Fouad Negm (Egypt), and Saadi Youssef (Iraq). Finally, there are those poets who fall somewhere in between these two poles: Najwan Darwish of Palestine, and Youssef Rakha of Egypt. There are also two poems by Sania Saleh of Syria, who represents a unique case that I will briefly discuss below.

Given the fact that two of the nine poets are deceased, this selection also seeks to expand what exactly we consider “contemporary.”1 Ahmed Fouad Negm passed away in 2013, yet his potent political poems are still sung at political rallies in Egypt, as well as among Egypt’s numerous political prisoners. There is a continued aliveness and vitality to Negm’s poetry that seems unextinguishable, and very contemporary—and this is doubly so because he is perhaps the best-known poet to ever write in Egyptian dialect, rather than the Modern Standard Arabic favored by the vast majority of authors across the Arab world. As for the Syrian poet Sania Saleh, she passed away over thirty-five years ago now, in 1985. But her poetry was largely overlooked in her lifetime and was overshadowed by that of the prominent poets and critics in her family: her husband Muhammad al-Maghut, her sister Khalida Said, and her brother-in-law Adonis. Saleh’s poetry is currently receiving renewed attention and is undergoing a renaissance of sorts thanks to the work of many different critics. It is also finally receiving new life in translations. I felt that her work, too, could be considered contemporary, as it is only just now beginning to attract the readership it deserves, both in Arabic and in translation.

In a certain sense, the label of “international” poetry applies here just as much as that of “Arabic” poetry. Although the works of all of these poets are rooted firmly in the Arabic language, their lives have not always been rooted in Arab soil. Saadi Youssef, for example, has spent most of his life in exile from Iraq, and is now based in London. Adonis has made his home in Paris since the 1980s. Rania Mamoun—one of the younger poets in this selection—is currently based in the U.S. And other poets included here—such as Najwan Darwish and Yousef Rakha—have spent significant amounts of time outside their native countries.

Translation itself is a form of international co-creation, and I should note here that this special section features the work of eight remarkable translators, and that the present section would not be possible without their efforts. Six of them—Elliott Colla, Marilyn Hacker, Khaled Mattawa, Robin Moger, Yasmine Seale, and myself—are already very established in the field, while two—Ahmed Hassan and Mariam Hijjawi—are relative newcomers to literary translation into English. All of them have produced translations that stand as poetry in their own right, despite the linguistic and cultural gulfs that exist between Arabic and English, and I believe this is one of the highest compliments that can be paid to a translator of poetry. The greatest joy I had in curating this selection was having an excuse to be in touch with so many colleagues whose work I have long admired from afar. Like the poets featured in this section, the translators also either hail from or reside in very different corners of the globe: Egypt, France, Libya, Palestine, South Africa, Turkey, the UK, and the U.S. It was largely the choices of the translators that shaped the contours of this special section on contemporary Arabic poetry: they, just as much as the Arab poets themselves, are the authors of this section.


1. On June 12, 2021, while the present issue of Shenandoah was in the final phase of production, the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef passed away in his home in the village of Harefield in the London Borough of Hillingdon. This special section on contemporary Arabic literature is dedicated to his memory.

Kareem James Abu-Zeid, PhD, is an award-winning translator of poets and novelists from across the Arab world and beyond, and has translated over a dozen full-length books from three different languages. His most recent translation is Najwan Darwish’s Exhausted on the Cross (NYRB Poets, 2021). He is also the author of the book The Poetics of Adonis and Yves Bonnefoy: Poetry as Spiritual Practice (Lockwood Press, 2021).