A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why is so Little of Al-Mutanabbi Translated Into English?

My first reaction to the question in the title was "Why do so few people choose to vacation in North Korea?" because Mutanabbi is a difficult poet to read even for native Arabic speakers. But my snark isn't fair because he is also widely considered the greatest poet after the age of the Mu‘allaqat. *I'm obviously not a native speaker, as was made plain some 40 years back when I took a CASA program course at AUC in Cairo on the poetry of Mutanabbi. With the possible exception of an undergrad course I once took on Ludwig Wittgenstein because it had a title that concealed its real subject, I have rarely felt so out of my depth.

The question is raised by The Egypt Independent and linked to with some comment by Arabic Literature (in English). I suggest you read both.

An earlier post in the series, which I linked to, noted the difficulty of translating James Joyce into Arabic. The issues are not dissimilar, though they go in opposite directions, and the only real parallels between Joyce and Mutanabbi are that both men loved words and played beautifully with them. (I would think it would be difficult to translate Shakespeare for the same reason, but he's popular in many languages.)

As the Italians say, traduttore, traditore,  "translation is treason": (and to prove my point, I just mistranslated it: literally it's "Translator, Traitor."

So for you students of Arabic reading this: therre's an Everest still waiting to be climbed. Translate Mutanabbi.

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