Dr Salwa Gouda – Arabic Poetry in Translation
Guest editorial

Dr Gouda LE Arabic Poetry September 2023

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Live Encounters Arab Poets in Translation August 2023

Arabic Poetry in Translation, guest editorial by Dr. Salwa Gouda.
She has translated the twenty-three Arab poets’ previously unpublished work from Arabic to English.

Cairo, Egypt. ca. 1550
Cairo, Egypt. ca. 1550

Poetry is one of the essential resources of the Arabic culture and personality. It is one of the most important facets, which identifies the Arabs as a distinct civilization. From the very earliest stages in the Arabic literary tradition, it has reflected the deepest sense of Arab self-identity, of communal history, and of aspirations for the future. Poetry has never had an effect on a nation as it did on the Arab nation. A single sonnet of praise could raise an entire tribe to the highest level of glory, honor and fame. Whereas a disparaging verse could throw it into the abyss of disgrace and shame. It has the power to ignite wars and to send armies to the battlefields. Within this tradition, the role of the poet has been of
major significance. They are honored and are held in high esteem.

The kings and caliphs used to lavish them with gifts and titles. Many of them had their own poets who chronicled their achievements. The Arabs also took part in poetry gatherings in pre-Islamic times. This was known as Suq Ukaz, where poets from different places met to recite their poetry in a cultural festival supported by their rulers.

In the Arab world, poetry is heard every day and everywhere. Vernacular poetry, classical poetry, prose poetry are recited at weddings, funerals, schools, and other social gatherings. Reading Arabic poetry is like reading an alternative history of love, exile, death, nostalgia, longing, grief, mystery; things that have been carried around for centuries and which are not culture-specific. It addresses every person on earth regardless of all kinds of distinctions. The beauty of Arabic poetry is also mirrored in the beauty of the structure, meanings and melody. Like all creative arts, Arabic poetry has been influenced by the changes that have occurred in the world, as it receives them, interacts with them, and develops its cognitive and formal tools as a result.

Arabic poetry is also affected by the translations of world poetry, which had started early a century and half ago. As reading poetry in translation will not only allow us to find affinities with poets internationally, but also surreptitiously influence our writing, shaping us into more informed, more ethical, and more connected writers. Translation also introduces semantic and aesthetic components that has renewed the Arabic poetic discourse, which emanated from the employment of myths, symbols, places, masks and cosmic philosophical opinions. Arabic poetry has been influenced by the translations of the poetry of Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Emily Dickenson, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Saint-John Perse, Kavafis and others.

Another important issue to be mentioned is that translation of poetry is not an easy task as the translator should be aware of the source language as well as the target language’s culture, syntax, grammar and poetic tradition. The translator must know the poetic structure, which makes poetry’s sentences and its lines stand as a whole. As the components, which constitute the aesthetic values of a poem have a meaning only when they are correlated with other types of meanings in the text. This is the reason behind the early debates about the translatability and untranslability of poetry. In my opinion, it is possible and needed. We, as humans belonging to one human civilization and different cultures need to know and read each other for the sake of peace, tolerance, mutual understanding, and acceptance.

Depending on what I mentioned before about the importance and the influence of translation, I have a tendency to continue bringing Arabic poetry into international recognition by translating it into English. Translation brings the poem’s assertion from its current micro language to the macro world stage. In addition, poetry translation can offer countless benefits to the recipient culture.

This special edition from Live Encounters Poetry and Writing is devoted to Arabic poetry in translation as it includes the translated poetry of twenty-three prestigious poets from different Arab countries including Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, and Palestine who put their insights, hearts, souls, and individual music on well-articulated poetic forms. They tackle universal cosmic themes of loss, disillusionment, collectivism, individualism and societal changes with an apparent Sufi world vision. The goal is to continue our task of translating Arabic poetry, as we need Arabic poetry to be read and recognized.

Finally, special thanks is due to Mark Ulyseas of Live Encounters for his belief in the power of poetry. My thanks extend to the great Egyptian poet Ahmad Al-Shahawy for his support of the idea and his constant encouragement.

© Dr Salwa Gouda

Salwa Gouda is an Egyptian academic at The English Language and Literature Department in Ain-Shams University. She is a PhD holder in English literature and criticism. She received her education at Ain-Shams University and at California State University in San Bernardino. She has published many academic books including Lectures in English Poetry, Introduction to Modern Literary Criticism and others. She also contributed to the translation of The Arab Encyclopedia for Pioneers including poets and their poetry, philosophers, historians and men of letters.

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