November 22, 2017
Kareem James Abu-Zeid wins $25,000 from NEA for the translation of a masterwork of Arabic literature
by Simon Reichley
The NEA has recently awarded Kareem James Abu-Zeid a $25,000 grant, which will support work on a contemporary, poetic translation of the Al-Mu’allaqat or “The Hanging Poems,” an important collection of seven (or ten) pre-Islamic poems, most likely assembled by the eighth century Arabic scholar and anthologist Hammād al-Rāwiyah. According to legend, the poems were originally transcribed in gold, and hung like tapestries in the Ka’Bah in Mecca.
Ḥammād (whose name can be translated as “Hammad the Transmitter,” which… is dope) was born c. 639 in Kufa, at the time the capital of the Rashidun Caliphate, presently an important center of Shia religious life in modern-day Iraq. The earliest of the poems is commonly dated to the early sixth century, while the latest dates to just before the dawn of the Islamic era. In the world of Arabic literature, the poems have a huge cultural and historical significance, as important to a contemporary understanding of pre-Islamic Arabic culture as the works of Homer are to an understanding of the Hellenic world, or the Chanson de Roland to Charlemagne’s Europe.
While the collection has been translated at least four other times into English (the earliest being in 1903, in The Seven Golden Odes of Pagan Arabia (1903) by Lady Anne and Sir Wilfrid Scawen Blunt), Abu-Zeid told Jesse Chaffee at Words Without Borders that none really conveyed the poetic quality of the original, though he admits that some were servicable academic translations. The danger in any straightforwardly literal translation is always, as Abu-Zeid says, that one will produce a translation that has “has kept all the meaning but killed all the poetry.”
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.