English Poetry and Modern Arabic Verse
Ghareeb Iskander’s English Poetry and Modern Arabic Verse unravels the workings of the creative translational projects of early Arab modernist poet-translators, which revolutionised the Arab literary scene in the mid-twentieth century onwards—a fundamental contribution to Arabic literary and translation studies that is valuable for students and academics alike.
By Salma Harland
Iskander, Ghareeb. English Poetry and Modern Arabic Verse: Translation and Modernity, I.B. Tauris, 2021, pp 192.
- * The first book to conduct detailed close readings of a seminal selection of Anglo-American modernist poems in Arabic translation that revolutionised the Arab literary and cultural scenes in the mid-twentieth century
- * Unravels the workings of the creative translational projects of early Arab modernist poet-translators
- * Adopts a Foucauldian discursive approach that places the selected translations in their situational, verbal, and cognitive contexts
- * Examines Arab, American, and world authors rarely considered together
Many have written about the influence of Anglophone modernist authors on the Arab literary scene in English, most notably Muhammad ‘Abdul-Hai’s Tradition and English and American Influence in Arabic Romantic Poetry: A Study in Comparative Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1982), M. M. Badawi’s Modern Arabic Literature and the West (Cambridge University Press, 1993), and Jeffrey Einboden’s Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature in Middle Eastern Languages (Edinburgh University Press, 2013). In English Poetry and Modern Arabic Verse: Translation and Modernity (I.B. Tauris, 2021), however, London-based Iraqi poet-translator Ghareeb Iskander takes the topic to a new level. Rather than sweeping surveys, Iskander’s English Poetry and Modern Arabic Verse conducts in-depth comparative analyses of a seminal selection of Anglo-American modernist poems in Arabic translation. In careful painstaking detail that is never pedantic, Iskander adopts a Foucauldian discursive approach that places the selected translations in their situational, verbal, and cognitive contexts, carefully unravelling the workings of the creative translational projects of early Arab modernist poet-translators, which revolutionised the Arab literary and cultural scenes in the mid-twentieth century.
Iskander starts the book with an erudite Introduction that critically draws on a wide array of views on poetics and translatability, including those of al-Jaḥiẓ, Friedrich Hölderlin, Mik͟ha’īl Na‘aima, André Lefevere, Stephen Railton, Harold Bloom, among others. Some were strong proponents of the untranslatability of poetic language, while others saw translation as a means to both fertilising and vitalising the target language, literature, and culture. Iskander is evidently committed to the latter position. On the one hand, translating Anglophone modernist literature led to a direly-needed major overhaul of Arabic poetics. On the other hand, translating ‘other’ literatures gave Arab modernists a sense of freedom both on literary and socio-cultural levels as well as a means to channel their political concerns. By the end of the Introduction, Iskander lays out his methodology, which leads to the first chapter of the book.
Chapter 1 (titled “The Arabic Waste Lands”) offers a cross-linguistic comparative reading of three major Arabic translations of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land made by four Arab modernists in the 1950s. Iskander argues that Arab modernists drew on Eliot’s own views on the nature and importance of cross-cultural translation—as presented in the latter’s prose writings—as well as on their own socio-historical backgrounds to produce innovative and authoritative translations of The Waste Land, which they saw as a manifesto of modernity. Iskander then lays out wonderfully nuanced cross-linguistic analyses of the Arabic translations of Eliot’s poem produced by Adūnīs and Yūsuf al-K͟hāl (published in the Lebanese journal Shi’r in 1958), Lūwīs ‘Awaḍ (published in the same journal in 1968), and Tawfiq Ṣāyigh (1950s; published posthumously in 2017). In doing so, he divides the chapter into three sections: situational, verbal, and cognitive contexts. Iskander expounds on the parallelism between the personal and socio-historical backgrounds that gave rise to Eliot’s poem and to the Arab modernists’ particular affinity to Eliot and his works, critically analysing their poetic translations, before reflecting on the impact their translational projects had on the Arab literary scene in the mid-twentieth.
Chapter 2 (“Translating Whitman’s Song of Myself into Arabic”) follows the same structural organisation as Chapter 1, this time focusing on three Arabic translations of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. Although the Arab Romantics of al-Rābiṭah al-qalamiyyah (the pen league)—also known as ’Udabā’ al-Mahjar (littérateurs of the diaspora)—were the first to explore Whitman’s works in the first three decades of the twentieth century, it was only later in the 1950s, after the early Arab modernists had absorbed, canonised, and integrated Eliot into Arabic poetry, that they came across Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Iskander points out. This among other socio-political contextual differences reflected on the Arab modernists’ reception and, in turn, translations of Whitman’s Song of Myself. Following the same methodological model of the previous chapter, Iskander parses the situational, verbal, and cognitive contexts that shaped three seminal translations of Whitman’s Song of Myself produced by poet-translators Jabrā Ibrahīm Jabrā (in 1953), Yusuf al-K͟hāl (in 1958), and Sa‘dī Yusuf (in 1976) as well as the influence of these textual engagements on modern Arabic poetry formally and thematically.
In Chapter 3 (“Al-Sayyab’s Translational Contribution”), Iskander rightfully dedicates the entire chapter to the translational project of Iraqi poet-translator Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb (1926–1964) as a case study of early Arab modernists. Drawing both on al-Sayyāb’s prose works and poetic translations, Iskander investigates the impact of al-Sayyāb’s discursive Arabic translations of T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” Ezra Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” Edith Sitwell’s The Shadow of Cain—among other modern world poetic works—on his own poetics, which greatly influenced the Arab literary scene in the mid-twentieth century. Iskander argues that al-Sayyāb’s uniquely discursive involvement with these texts not only changed the classical Arabic metrical system to one of free verse, but helped start a whole new poetic movement that did not shy from transferring and transforming what was thematically and stylistically regarded as foreign discourse. Al-Sayyāb and other Arab modernists, thereby, welcomed world poetry through their discursive translational engagements as a means to revive and enrich Arabic culture, poetics, and even political expression.
This book is not just a valuable resource for academics and students of Arabic, literary, and translation studies. It is not just a model of how authors from so many national and political backgrounds can converge. It also illuminates many aspects of the literary, socio-cultural, and political atmosphere that revolutionised modern Arabic verse in the mid-twentieth century.