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Translating Maghregraphic Poetry: An Introduction

[Art by Mohamed Shaba'a (1935-2013, Morocco. Image from as-Safir] [Art by Mohamed Shaba'a (1935-2013, Morocco. Image from as-Safir]

Many factors motivated my decision to translate this small selection of poems into English. First of all, my growing awareness of the dearth of Maghrebi literary production in English prompted me to think more critically about translation and its effects on the reception of this literature in foreign academic settings. Moreover, I understood over the years that the small number of Maghregraphies available in European languages (and English specifically) is a reflection of the exclusion of Maghrebi literature from Arabic literary canons. The marginal position that Maghrebi literature occupies in the Arabic canon carries over into the translators’ selection and anthologizing decisions. Until recently, Arabic authors from the Maghreb were overshadowed by their Egyptian and Levantine counterparts in Arabic literature. Translation went along with this tendency and very few translators attempted to reverse this general practice until the last twenty years of the twentieth century when circumstances permitted the emergence of Maghrebi literature as a distinctive category. These problems aside, existing translations, as I will demonstrate in the following introduction, are not even close to covering the vast literary and poetic output produced in the Maghreb. They do, as a result, leave a lot of room for the production of additional translations to account for the diverse poetic experiences which, according to Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour, “have been not only passively neglected but often actively ‘disappeared’ or written out of record.”1

The Maghreb as a literary space is a victim of its geographic location. The five Maghrebi countries (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia) occupy a liminal position between Africa, Europe, the Atlantic and the Middle East. This liminality, instead of being advantageous to Maghrebi writers, is a source of double exclusion from African and Middle Eastern literary scenes. Kayode Atilade rightly attributes African literary scholars’ attitudes toward Maghrebi literature to ignorance about the region’s literature and its presumed “cultural orientation”—Islam—that distinguishes the Maghreb from the rest of Africa.2 Atilade writes that among African literary scholars

The opinion is that since the Maghrebian world tends more towards the Arab in its features, its literature, which is a mirror of every society, consequently, should not be classified as African literature, but rather as Arab [sic] literature.3

While African scholars, or to be more specific, the ones to whom Atilade is referring, see the multi-layered Maghrebi literature through the prism of Islam and Arabness, influential Middle Eastern critics have often held the attitude that the Maghreb is not Arab(ic) enough. Colonial legacies have exacerbated these intellectual positions, regardless of the facts of geography and the pivotal roles the Maghreb played in the historical intellectual and military movements that shaped Africa, al-Andalus and the Middle East. Consequently, African literature, in scholarly language, usually means only the literature produced in sub-Saharan Africa, whereas Middle Eastern literature starts only in Egypt and goes eastward, thus eliding the Maghreb from a larger literary frame. It is within this context that Abdelkader Cheref concludes that “Maghrebi literature as a discrete literary canon began to be acknowledged.”4

Although the Maghreb as a complicated literary space is gaining more currency in American universities, its decades-long lag in Anglophone academia has limited the translation of its literary output into English. This, however, does not mean that all Maghrebi writers have experienced this dilemma in the same degree. Joris and Tengour write that even when financial support for translation was available, the resources “have been squarely devoted to Parisian, Beiruti and Cairene authors.”5 Paris-based Maghrebi authors, such as Tahar Ben Jelloun and Assia Djebar, whose works managed to gain global circulation through the penetration of wider distribution circles, have been widely translated into English since the 1990s if not before. Many locally based authors and poets, on the other hand, remain un-translated, and thus unknown to the English-speaking readership. In this way, the French language has become the “intermediary” language that facilitates both translation and circulation of post-colonial Maghrebi writings. Where translations exist, they are mostly rendered from French, which, as a result, excludes an important corpus of writings in classical and dialectical Arabic(s) as well as in Berber in all its varieties. This lag, however, is being remedied thanks to the increase in the number of Maghrebi academics in European and American institutions and the recent translation efforts undertaken by Arabists, such as Roger Allen. As for poetry, the publication of the fourth volume of Poems for the Millennium, specifically dedicated to North African poetry, is a significant contribution to the field of Maghrebi poetics, aesthetics and translation studies.

In addition to under-translation, Maghrebi literature, both prose and poetry, is victim of a predominantly one-way translation process. Because of the unbalanced way the international literary space is “governed” and canons are set, local authors struggle to acquire a Western legitimation of their works.6 Translation plays a quintessential role in this process. Abdelfattah Kilito has provocatively written that because Arabic works had a hard time to be translated into foreign languages (50), translation endows authors whose works get translated with a sense of existence (“Je suis traduit, donc je suis” [I am translated, therefore I am.”]7) Nevertheless, this need to exist in European languages transforms translation into a one-way street wherein existence of his/her work in foreign languages becomes the yardstick by which an author’s literary success is measured. Consequently, endeavors to translate Maghrebi literature from French into Arabic or Berber or between inter-Maghrebi languages have been either nonexistent or negligible for a long time. Whereas writers like Abdellatif Laâbi and Rachid Boudjedra translated or participated in the translation of their works into Arabic, authors, such as Assia Djebar and Mohammed Kheir-Eddine, were only available in French for decades. Lately, however, homegrown initiatives, such as the Algerian publisher, Sédia, strive to democratize access to local literature written in the former colonizer’s language through a serious endeavor to translate them into Arabic. Sédia has already published Assia Djebar’s Nulle part dans la maison de mon père under the title Bawwābat al-dhikrayāt. Tarik Editions in Morocco have also published multiple franco-graphic books into Arabic.8 Translation efforts, like Sédia’s and Tarik’s, will result in a subversion of the hegemonic position of French as an intermediary language, expanding the readership base of these works locally and in the rest of the Arabic-speaking countries. Arabizing and Berberizing Maghrebi literature written in foreign languages will be a powerful way to reclaim the multiple identities of this not-always-easy to navigate Maghrebi and Amazigho-Arabic literary context.

While the translation of Maghregraphies remains wide open for innovative initiatives, Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four is Joris and Tagour's monumental contribution to the translation of Maghrebi poetry into English. This magnum opus assembles poems and poeticized prose from antiquity to contemporary times. Not only were the two anthologists set on including poets throughout North Africa, but they also carefully represented all languages (Berber, Latin, Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish...) and ethnicities (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Arab, Black, White...) that left their imprint on its literature as well. Furthermore, the book includes Andalusian poetry as part and parcel of Maghrebi poetics. However, such a stupendous compilation engenders problems inherent to its own making. Its readers, ultimately, face two major problems: first, Maghrebi poetry is so loosely defined that it includes experiences that are only tangentially connected to the Maghreb. While the editors’ inclusive approach is commendable, elaborating more specific criteria would have consolidated the notion of Maghrebi poetry and poetics. The editors, however, state that mere dispelling of the local people’s “unease” vis-à-vis their heritage and paving the path for other scholars to “look deeper into these hidden and buried histories” would be an achievement.9 In short, the anthology includes Maghrebi poetry and poetry about the Maghreb, rather than distinguishing between the two as separate entities. The second concern, which is pertinent to translation, is the editorial decision to include translations of translations in the final volume. Notwithstanding the fact that it is hard to find skilful translators from Berber into English, re-translating Berber texts from French into English is an unusual choice. This observation does not aim to insinuate any value judgment on the quality of the translations, but it seeks to raise questions about the degree of attrition and impoverishment that happens to the original text in its inter-linguistic journeys.

Translation theory was a major concern for the 9th century Basran polymath Abū ʿUthman ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kināī al-Baṣrī, known as al-Jahiz. The latter’s translation theory expounded in Kitāb al-ḥayawān underlines the fact that a translation either replicates the quality of the original or surpasses it.10 Yet, when it comes to the translation of poetry, al-Jahiz’s position becomes somewhat strange, since he propounds the impossibility of rendering Arabic poetry into other languages.11 This extreme take on translation would only make sense if it is understood within al-Jahiz’s intellectual and political context. The very definition of poetry as “discourse that is metered, rhymed and conveys meaning” warranted such a position.12 Therefore, al-Jahiz is right to underline that poetry, as Arab literary critics of his time defined it, is lost in the process of translation from Arabic into other languages. According to this conceptualization of poetry, the latter ceases to be when the rhyme and the meter of the original cannot be reproduced in the target language. Additionally, the context of shu‘ūbiyya, which pitted minorities and non-Arabs against the Arabs during the Abbasid era, may have probably pushed al-Jahiz’s Arab pride to the extreme (mafākhir). Al-Jahiz goes even as far as to require the total overlap of the translator’s skills with those of the author of the original text for the latter’s intimate intricacies to be conveyed.13 While al-Jahiz’s theory was necessary in his context and time, the very definition of Arabic poetry and poetics today has undergone a tremendous change, which endows translation with different functions and exposes it to other challenges. The linguistic and cultural realities of postcolonial Arab societies along with the rebellion against the Arabic poetry canon since 1930s require a position that is more embracing of translation and better attuned to the realities of hybrid and multilingual settings, like the Maghreb.

Translating Arabic and Maghregraphic poems into English is better carried out through a foreignizing approach.14 By adopting this approach in my translation of this selection of poems from the Maghreb, I have tried to reproduce the economy of the Arabic language, which uses a minimal number of words to convey very condensed meanings. Additionally, Arabic has a reflexive verb structure that English language cannot accommodate, but I tried to produce it on multiple occasions in the text by resorting to compounds. Furthermore, while I managed to keep some partial puns, as in “words and swords,” others are lost because English simply cannot replicate the same word-play. Finally, sentence structure will often feel unfamiliar to native speakers of English, but the meaning should be comprehensible. Where I needed to make syntactic decisions, I consciously made the Arabic original prevail. The poets included in this selection barely use punctuation. The latter seems to be seen by the poets as a sort of syntactical shackles that constrain the fluidity of their intellectual ramblings. Consequently, reading these poems induces a chaotic experience that demands the reader’s full attention to make sense of poetic works whose foreignness is a fundamental trait of their poeticity.

This selection of North African poems represents my own biases as a reader. The poems, in addition to being among my favorite, are rooted in Maghrebi linguistic diversity and display the rich ways in which these poets address substantive local and trans-local issues in their experimental poetics. Although I decided not to include Ali Sidki Azaiku's foundational Berber text, Timitar (Signs/Imprints), I believe that Fatema Chahid's poems catch the breath and the breadth of Berber activists' poetry in Morocco. Salah Boussrif's poetic collections are a poeticization of philosophical and mystical themes. Boussrif's academic background and critical readings of literature and society find their way into his poems wherein themes of spirituality, language and wandering are recurrent leitmotivs. Mohammed Bennis, Morocco's most translated Arabic poet, invites us to reflect on Writing in an intensely compact poem. Abdellatif Laâbi’s Two Hours on the Train is, it seems to me, the nectar of a wise activist's struggles against one of the most brutal, authoritarian regimes in Africa. Not only is Laâbi an activist/poet, but he is also the creator of one of the most profound cultural projects in post-independence Morocco through his now defunct Souffles/Anfās magazine (1966-1973). Mohamed Bentalha, who recently declined the 2015 Morocco Poetry Award, is a towering figure of Arabic poetry, who unfortunately remains under-translated. Bentalha’s poems contain a unique engagement with Greek mythology and history. Finally, Chahid, a Berber woman composing poetry in French, embodies the aesthetics of both love and resistance or “word and sword,” as she calls it in one of her poems.

The late Mohamed al-Sghair Oulad Ahmed is probably the unrecognized heir of Abū al-Qāsim al -Shābī. His poem, I Have No Problem, is significantly topical, speaking to current events in the Maghreb and the Middle East. Oulad Ahmad, both in his poetry collections and public readings, embodies the age-old function of the poet as agitator and taboo-breaker. The directness and lucidity of the language of his poem provokes readers to perceive the imbrication of the sacred and the profane. Because of its contestatory tone, blasphemous spirit and direct address to the sacred, Oulad Ahmed’s poem must have had a hand in his accusation of apostasy. Oulad Ahmed, nevertheless, continues his ghazwas against obscurantist and reactionary tendencies transgressing the religiously guarded taboos from the other side of this life.

[This is the introduction a selection of translated poems. The translated poems will be published on Jadaliyya in installments in the coming few weeks]

1. Joris, Pierre, and Habib Tengour, eds. Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four: The University of California Book of North African Literature. Vol. 4. California: University of California Press, 2012, 3.

2. Atilade, Kayode. "Maghrebian Literature and the Politics of Exclusion and Inclusion." Journal of Pan African Studies 7, no. 3 (2014), 121-122.

3. Ibid.

4. Cheref, Abdelkader. Gender and Identity in North Africa: Postcolonialism and Feminism in Maghrebi Women's

Literature. Vol. 94. IB Tauris, 2010, 13.

5. Joris, Pierre, and Habib Tengour, eds. “Poems for the Millennium,” 8.

6. Casanova, Pascale. The world republic of letters. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, 154.

7. Kilito, Abdelfattah. Je parle toutes les langues, mais en arabe. Paris: Sindbad, 2013, 50.

8. I believe that Assia Djebar’s notion of franco-graphie, which she defines as a type of writing that carries the personal imprint of the writer in all its diverse complexities, could be broadened to develop a concept that encapsulates the richness of Maghrebi writing. Maghreb-graphie could be then be understood as the total sum of experiences that go into the Maghrebi author’s writing. These “graphies” contain Berber, Arabic, French, Mediterranean, African and Islamic elements which translation should strive to convey.

9. Joris, Pierre, and Habib Tengour, eds. “Poems for the Millennium,”4.

10. Lakhdar Souami, trans. Jahiz: le Cadi et la mouche. Paris: Sindbad,1988, 115.

11. Ibid., 115.

12. Allen, Roger. The Arabic Literary Heritage: The Development of Its Genres and /criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 106.

13 Lakhdar Souami. “Jahiz: le Cadi et la mouche,” 116.

14 Johan Gottfried Herder (1992) emphasizes the interlinguistic learning that translation facilitates (74). Not only does translation, according to Herder, convey meaning from one language to another, but it also facilitates the expansion of the language into which a text is translated (74). This take on translation stands in opposition to the French traditional school in which the translator strives to erase the traces of the original text. Herder, therefore, sees much interest in the deterritorialization translation effectuates within the receiving language (74). Herder's compatriot, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1992), asserts that “[t]here are three kinds of translation”3 (75) before underscoring his bias for “the translator who attaches himself closely to his original” (77). Goethe goes on to extoll the merits of the translation endeavors that privilege the original language by highlighting the stylistic and rhetorical as well as metrical transformations this approach brought to the German language (77). See Lefevere, André, ed. Translation/history/culture: A sourcebook. London/New York: Routledge, 2002.


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