Adonis, Selected Poems. Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010.
Adunis (1930-) is one of the most influential and dominant Arab poets of the modern era and a perennial Nobel contender since the late 1980s. A number of his individual works have been ably translated into English in previous decades by Mirene Ghossein and Kamal Boullata, Samuel Hazo, and Shawkat Toorawa. More recently, Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard translated his most powerful and enduring work, Aghani Mihyar al-Dimashqi (Songs of Mihyar the Damascene) (1961). However, a panoramic work of selections spanning Adunis’s entire oeuvre and development since the late 1950s is still lacking in English. This current selection by Khaled Mattawa was an ambitious attempt to remedy this conspicuous gap in the Anglophone world, but does it succeed? It received critical acclaim and was awarded the 2011 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation and the 2011 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in the U.K. The judges of the latter deemed the translation “stunning. . . destined to become a classic” and praised its accuracy. Award-winning translator and poet Fady Joudah praised the translation as well, writing in his blurb “[t]here is no doubt this selection will prove to be the standard by which all translations, readings, and studies of Adonis’s poetry in English will be judged. . . unparalleled by any available translation, old or recent, of Adonis’s work in English.”
Translation Review asked me to review the book last year and I proceeded to read the translation alongside the original Arabic poems. The staggering number of mistakes and misreadings was quite shocking. What follows is the full version of my review which could not be published in its entirety in TR due to word limits. A serious conversation about the criteria and methods by which literary translations from Arabic are evaluated in the Anglophone world is long overdue.
Scope and Selection
The poems were selected from fourteen individual works published between 1957 and 2008. Together they fill almost four hundred pages. Adunis’s early and mid-career works are still as powerful today and have stood the test of time, but even ardent fans would agree that his later works, those written in the last two decades, lack verve and are somewhat disappointing. The exception is the multi-volume al-Kitab (The Book), a poetic journey through Arab history and culture narrated by its greatest poet, the 10th century al-Mutanabbi. Adunis began working on it in the mid 1970s and published the first of its four volumes in 1995. Mattawa decided not to include any excerpts from al-Kitab because “no small sample. . . would offer an adequate sense of the work’s scope.” (p. xxiv) This is not very convincing. There is no doubt that al-Kitab is complex and challenging, but a representative excerpt or excerpts would have enriched this volume. The first two volumes of al-Kitab have been translated and published in French by Seuil. Selections from three of Adunis’s later works (Prophesy, O Blind One (2003), Beginnings of the Body, Ends of the Sea (2003), and Printer of the Planets’ Books (2008)), all written in the last decade or so, take up a hundred pages; almost one fourth of the whole book. Some of this space could have been better served by featuring further selections from earlier and more enduring works. One would also expect a bibliography of the original Arabic works and editions the translator used but there is none. This was not remedied in the paperback edition of 2012.
The translator’s short introduction includes a few glitches. For instance, there is a confusing sentence on p. xvi: “It should be noted that Adonis, true to his artistic instincts, never quite adhered to the seemingly programmatic aspect of his vision for Arabic poetry- such as his advocacy of the use of dialect. His language is a of a high literary calibre. . . ” Did Adunis not adhere to his own vision? The truth is that Adunis never advocated the use of dialect in poetry. His position on the issue caused a major rift with Yusuf al-Khal (1917-1987), the poet with whom he had cofounded the journal Shi‘r. This rift eventually led to Adunis`s departure from the journal. Similarly, the names of many major classical Arab poets are mistransliterated; “Abu Nawwas” (ix, 396) should be “Abu Nuwas,” “al-Mutannabi” (pp. ix, xix, xx, xi) should be “al-Mutanabbi,” “al-Ma`ari” (pp. xix, xxi, 274, 395) should be “al-Ma`arri.” So are classical terms such as “al-Mu`tazala” (p. xii) (group of rational thinkers) which should be “al-Mu`tazila.” Even the title of Adunis’s most famous collection is incorrect; “Ughniyat” should be “Aghani Mihyar al-Dimashqi” (The Songs of Mihyar of Damascus).” (p. xvi) On their own these might appear to be merely minor errors. But given the translator`s consistent misreading of short vowels in the original Arabic, it seems to be part of a more serious problem.
Moreover, four hundred pages of poetry, some of which has references to, and is in conversation with, figures from Arab-Islamic history and Islamic mysticism, produces only four pages of notes. This is way too meagre and could have been expanded to illuminate the context and intertexts of many a poem for the benefit of the reader. One example, out of many, is when Adunis includes a line from al-Ma`arri (973-1058):
جسدي خرقةٌ تُخاطُ إلى الأرض"
"فيا خائطَ العوالمِ خِطْني
[My body is a rag being sewn to the earth/O you who sew the worlds, sew me]. This is rendered as follows “The body is a rag dragged on earth/Walls of the world, support me,” (p. 278) which is way off the mark. “خائط”[one who sews] becomes “حائط” “wall” and "خطني” [sew me] becomes “support me.” A note on al-Ma`arri’s poem and the particular notion of man’s return to dust would have helped the reader.
When Adunis embeds lines from the 8th century `Abdulrahman al-Dakhil in his poem, which are in quotation marks in the original, the reader is not alerted and left to think they are Adunis’s. More importantly, they are misread:
غنيتُ عن روضٍ وقصْرٍ شاهق"
بالقفْر والإيطانِ في السرادق
فقل لمن نام على النمارق
"إن العُلى شُدّت بهمٍّ طارق
A good translation would be something along these lines: [I have no need for/ I have dispensed with gardens and high palaces for the desert and making a home under tents/ Tell him who sleeps on soft cushions/ That sublimity is bound to striking unease.] The stock theme here is that of the typical disdain for the comforts of sedentary life and the valorization of rugged life. This is lost because “غنيتُ عن” (I have no need for, I have dispensed with) is misread as "غنّيتُ” (I sang) and "قفر" (desert, empty space) becomes “wretchedness.” This is how Mattawa translates the lines above:
”I sang of gardens and a towering palace
while in wretchedness, in attics hid.
Tell him who used to sleep on soft cushions
that the heights are being punished by a star.” (p. 68)
The same occurs in “Body” (p. 125) from “Singular in a Plural Form”:
ظاهري منتثرٌ لا أملك منه شيئاً"
"وباطني مستعرٌ لا أجدُ له فيئاً
There is no note to indicate that these are lines from al-Tawhidi (930-1023) embedded within Adunis` poem. Here, too, the meaning is completely lost. Instead of "My exterior is scattered and I possess none of it/ My interior burns and I can find no shade for it", we get the following: “my surfaces spread and I own none of them/ my insides reduced no place in them for me to live.”
The Qur’anic references and metaphors Adunis employs are also often mistranslated. For example, in “Concerto for 11th September” (p. 303) “سندس الله” is translated “cedars of God,” but “سندس” means “silk brocade” and appears three times in the Qur’an. Likewise, the famous Lote tree of the Qur`an (53:14) “سدرة المنتهى” becomes “cedar.”
Beyond missed references to pre-modern poetry, there are many, many mistakes that have to do with misreading words. The short vowels indicating pronouns are often misread. Even if not written and they usually are, they are easily deduced from syntax, context, or meter if need be. For example, in “They Say I’m Done For,” (p. 6) “ظمئتُ” [I have become thirsty] is translated “You have become thirsty,” because the translator reads it “ظمئتِ.” In the same poem, “عافني” [left me, deserted me] is misread as “عافاني” “healed me.” So for: "إذا شوكها عافني/تخطّفني زهرها" which should be [When her thorns desert me/her roses capture me again] we get “And when her thorns heal me/her roses capture me again.”
In “Singular in a Plural Form” (p. 162) the following lines:
أيّها النغمُ أخرجته اللذةُ ألحاناً سُرَّت بها"
عشقتها وطربتْ إليها
ورتّبت الأوتار الأربعة إزاء الطبائع الأربعة:
. . .
"وأجرتِ الإيقاع في أنهار لا تُحْصى
[O music rendered by ecstasy into melodies with which it was overjoyed/It loved and was delighted by them/It arranged the four strings according to the four humors. . ./and had the rhythm flow in countless rivers]
The subject of the verbs is "اللذة" “ecstasy,” but somehow it becomes “I” in the mistranslation:
“music released by pleasure as melodies that guided me/I loved them and delighted in them/I arranged the four chords according to the four types . . ./ and I ran the rhythm through countless rivers.”
In “Home” (p. 8) “بَعْدُ” [still] is misread as “بُعْدٌ” “dimension/distance,” but is rendered “horizon.” Thus:
حكاية الأشباح في بيتنا"
"بعدُ على شفاهنا تخطرُ
[The story of ghosts in our house/still crosses our lips] becomes something quite different: “The story of ghosts in our house/a horizon that crosses our lips.”
In the same poem, “تقحّمي عنف المصير” [storm/plunge into the violence of fate!] is given the opposite meaning by the translator: “do not dare your fate.”
In “To A Soothsayer (p. 13)، “ما أُكِنُّ” [What I hold/harbor/cherish] is mistaken for “ُما أكون” and translated “all that I have been.” In “Obscure Distances” “كمدى لم ينجل” [Like a horizon yet to appear/to be visible] is misread “a horizon unharvested.” In “A Priestess” (p. 18), the word “منجَم” [mine] is translated “stars” “نجوم، أنجُم”.
في جبهتي كاهنةٌ أشعلتْ"
بخورها واسترسلت تحلمُ
"كأنما جفونها منجمُ
Instead of [In my forehead, a priestess burned/her incense and began to dream/as if her eyelids were a mine] we have “as if her eyelids were stars.”
In describing the revolutionary figure of Mihyar in “Psalm” (p. 23), Adunis writes:
"لا أسلافَ له. وفي خطواته جذوره "
[He has no ancestors and his roots are in his steps]. This becomes its exact opposite “He has no offspring, no roots to his steps.”
In “He Carries in His Eyes” (p. 30), a poem about the creative powers of Mihyar “لألأة” [glitter] is misread as “لؤلؤة” [pearl] and the meaning of the poem is disfigured by another mistake when “جِبِلّة” [nature, disposition, constitution] is confused with “جَبَل” and translated as “mountain.” This is the Arabic:
يأخذ من عينيه"
لألأةً؛ من آخر الأيام والرياح
شرارةً؛ يأخذ من يديه
من جزر الأمطارْ
"جبلّة ويخلق الصباح
[From his eyes he takes/a glitter, from the end of days and winds/ a spark, from his hands, from the islands of rain, he takes he takes a shape, and creates the morning]. Mattawa has: “He carries in his eyes/a pearl; from the ends of days. . . from the islands of rain/a mountain and creates dawn.”
In “Morning Trees” (p. 63) “ْكَم” [how much/many?] is confused with “كما” [as].
شجرٌ يابسٌ كمْ وعدْنا"
"أن نظلّ سريرين، طفلين في ظلّه اليابس
[Dried up trees, how often did we promise/to remain. . . ] becomes :“Dried up trees, as I’d promised/two beds as before.”
In ”Tree of Melancholy” (p. 65) “صدأ” [rust] is confused with “صدى” [echo] in the following:
قبل أن يصبح الكلامُ
"صدأ يتناسلُ في قشره الظلامُ
[Before speech becomes/rust in whose peel darkness copulates]. The translator has: “before speech becomes/echoes/copulating among the rinds of the dark.”
In “Season of Tears,” (p. 69) where the original Arabic is:
تصيحُ: يا دمشقْ"
موتي هنا واحترقي وعودي
"تصيحُ: لا موتي ولا تعودي
The second line is obvious [Die here, burn and return] as is the response in the third line “لا تعودي” [do not return], but the translator misreads “وعودي” [and return] as one word: “my promises” and has “die here and let your promises burn.”
In “Tree” (p. 73), “قفر” [wasteland, desolate] is misread as “فقر” “poverty.” The same mistake occurs on p. 127 where “تلك هي أدغال الهجرة ورايات القفر” Those are the jungles of migration and the flags of desolation] becomes “These are the jungles of migration and the flags of poverty.”
In “ A Woman and a Man” (p. 81), “سريرة” [soul, inner self] is confused with “سرير” “bed,” so:
"ونزلتِ تحت سريرتي وكشفتِني"
[You descended beneath my soul and revealed me] becomes “You slid under my bed.”
In “Rage” (p. 85), the original Arabic is:
في ضفتيه حناجر
أبراج زلزلة، ورعدٌ
Which should be: [The Euphrates rages/daggers in its banks/towers of quacking and thunder/and the waves are horses]. But the translator misreads “حناجر” and has “daggers” “خناجر” instead and gives us “fortresses” for “أحصنة” [horses]. Were it even the case, the plural for “fortresses,” would be “حصون.”
In “A Mirror for Beirut” (p. 100), “أُمّة” [nation] is misread as “أمَة” “slave girl,” so:
"في أنين نجمة أو أمّة تموت"
[in the wailing of a star or a dying nation] becomes “In the moans of a star or a dying slave girl.” In the same poem, “صرّة في الحزام/من ذهب” [ a purse/bag of gold in the belt] becomes “a navel above a belt/made of gold.” "صُرّة" [purse] is misread as "سرّة" [navel] and “من ذهب” [of gold] is attributed to the wrong noun.
In “This is my Name” (p. 107), where the references are clearly erotic, “حوضك” [your pelvis] is translated “your pool,” which is incorrect and incongruous. Later, the beautiful image in “سائقين الغيوم كقطيع من الأحصنة” [Driving clouds like a herd of horses] becomes “herds of fortresses” because “أحصنة” is mistranslated. The plural of “حصن” [fort] is “حصون.”
On p. 114, “كلّ ليلٍ” Every night is my witness” is mistranslated as “all night is my witness.” “كل الليل”
In “I am not ash or wind” (p. 120), “طفلٌ يشبُّ” [a child grows up] is translated “a child whose hair grays” whic would only be correct if the original had “.”يشيب”
In “Peace” (p. 121) “هداية” [guidance] is misread “هدية”[gift], so “جرحي هدايةٌ” [my wound is (divine) guidance] becomes “my wound, a gift.”
In “Singular in a Plural Form,” (p. 129) straight forward syntax is misread and the following:
"لماذا حين دخلتِ أخذت الحقول تشتعل وكانت يداي أوّل النار"
Which should be [Why did fields start to catch flames when you entered and my hands were the first fire?] is translated as follows: “When you entered/why did you take the burning fields even though my hands were the/first fire?” The verb أخذ, in combination with other verbs, means “to begin/start to,” but it is translated literally here and its subject is confused. The same mistake is repeated on p. 133 when "أخذتْ أشكالٌ تروح وتجئ" [Shapes started to come and go] is translated “I took shapes that came and went.” The subjects are confused here too.
On p. 131, for "ما بعد المسافات أنت وما بعد المفازات" [You are beyond distances, beyond deserts], the translator has “victories” for "مفازات" !
On p. 134, "اجعليني على خزائن جسدك واستودعيني" [Let me guard the coffers of your body and entrust me] is misread and the translator has “Hire me to guard the coffers of your body and store me,” because “استودعيني” is misread. A few lines down, in “أيتها السفينة اجنحي” [O ship, run ashore] “اجنحي” is translated literally: “O ship, take wing.” Later in the same poem, for "تنمّيتُ فيكِ" [I grew inside you] the translator has “I wished into you.” "تنمّى" [to grow] is confused with "تمنّى" [to wish]. On p. 137, "تحيّينا أجراس الرغبات" [The bells of desire greet us] is misread as “The bells of desire enliven us” because تحيّي [greet] is misread as "تُحْيي" [to bring to life, to resurrect]. The same mistake happens on p. 138. On p. 140, “أقرأ كتاب كُنْهِكِ” [I read the book of your essence] is misread when the translator confuses ْكُنه [substance, nature. essence] with "كاهن/كهّان" [priest]? "لأعرف حتم اليأس" [I know the inevitability of despair] becomes “I know the seal of despair,” because "حتم" is confused with "ختم" [seal].
On p. 144, “محجّات” [paths] is misread and the translator translates it “rationale,” so "عبرت محجّات الخدر" [crossed the paths of stupor] becomes “crossed all rationale for stupor.” On p. 145, "وداعاً للجسد الذي واثبه وساور أعضاءه" [Farewell to the body he pounced on and whose limbs he conquered] becomes ”Goodbye to the body with whom he leapt and that has now walled its limbs.” “ساور” [to conquer] is somehow translated as “walled itself”!
On p. 148, “الحوض” is mistranslated as “pool” again in a passage that is clearly erotic:
أسمع للحوض صهيل الأفراس"
"ألمح للسرّة امتداد السهوب
[I hear horses neighing in the pelvis/ I glimpse flatlands extending in the navel]. This is translated “In the pool I hear horses neighing.”
A few lines down ” ّللأفق بخور المني [The horizon has the smoke of semen] becomes “The horizon is the smoke of hope.” “مَني” [semen] is confused with “مُنى” “hope.”
On p. 149, "اخترطها بلسماً ورأب صدوعه", which is [He fashioned her into a balm and mended his fissures] becomes the bizarre “He mapped her into an elixir and surveyed his illnesses.”
He accompanied her with his breaths and enthroned her/He mapped her into an elixir and surveyed his illness
On p. 150, the pronouns are confused again when the verb is misread in تدهده" في نفقٍ/انتسب إلى بيت العنكبوت" [He rolled into a tunnel/belonged to a spider’s web] which becomes “She traps him in a tunnel/ a species of a spider web.” A few lines down, “الحبّ كمأة وتعاشيب” [Love is truffles and grass] becomes [love is like water and grass]. It seems that the translator thought “كمأ” [truffles] is كماء [like water], but it would have been written differently. On p. 151, وبين نشوة الدوّار وشفا هلاك ٍ غير" مرئي" [Between the the ecstasy of the vortex and the verge of an invisible demise] becomes “and between the ecstasy of sunflowers/and the lips of an invisible demise]. "دوّار" [vortex, whirl] becomes ”sunflower” and "على شفا" [on the verge] is translated literally “on the lips.”
On p. 153, “استطالات” [extensions, elongations] is mistranslated twice as “what I foresaw.” On p. 156, “االعصر” is translated as “afternoon” when it is surely “epoch.“ On p. 158, for "افترستهُ أحوالهُ" [his circumstances devour him] we get “his surroundings devour him,” perhaps because the translator mistakes "أحوال" [the plural of حال] for the plural of حول [around].
On p. 160, “أرّخ” [chronicle, date] is translated “release” "أرخِ"! On p. 163, “نفترش الأرض الظامئة” [We lie on the thirsty earth] is translated “We lie on the dark earth.” On p. 166, “تزيّني/ واستهويني” [Adorn yourself/ and seduce me] becomes “Adorn yourself/and become my air.” On p. 166, “ the فـ is misread as a قـ in ”كنتُ صادفتُ نفسي فيكِ” [I had come across myself in you], which is translated “I had befriended myself in you.”
At times crucial words are left untranslated, so in “The Beginning of Poetry,” (p. 181) the first line: “أجمل ما تكون أن تخلخل المدى” [The most beautiful thing for you is to shake the horizon]. “تخلخل” is untranslated and we get something quite different and lacking: “The best thing one can be is a horzon.”
In “The Beginning of Encounter” (p. 187), the first line is “A man and a woman,” so the dual is central to the poem’s structure and narrative. Still, “أيّنا” [Which one os us] is confused with “أين” “where.” Thus, “أّينا الغيمة المقبلة/أيّنا دفتر الحزن؟” [Which of us is the coming cloud? Which of us is the book of sorrow?] becomes “Where is the oncoming cloud,/where is the book of sorrow.”
In “The Beginning of Pronunciation” (p. 191) “قلوع” [sails] is confused with “forts” “قلاع”:
ونقول: الشواطئ مهجورة/والقلوعْ/خبرٌ عن حطام"
Instead of [We say: The shores are abandoned/and the sails/tell of wreckage], we get ”and say: the beaches are abandoned/and the forts/tell the story of destruction.“
In ”The Beginning of Speech“ (p. 193), a beautiful poem about an imagined encounter between the poet and the child he once was, two words are mistranslated:
جمعتنا باسم هذا الورق الضارب في الرّيح، الأصولُ"
"غابة تكتبها الأرض وترويها الفصول
[We were brought together by origins/in the name of these leaves flying in the wind/Then we separated/A forest written by the earth and narrated by the seasons]. Mattawa has the following: “We were brought together by good manners/and these sheets now flying in the wind/then we split,/a forest written by the earth/watered by the season’s change.” “الأصول” is “good manners” in colloquial Arabic, but it is grossly incongruous here and the poem’s context obviously calls for “origins.” The other misreading has to do with “ترويها” which can mean “watered,” but I would go with “narrated.
* All Arabic excerpts from Adunis, al-A`mal al-Shi`riyya al-Kamila (Complete Works) (Beirut: Dar al-`Awda, 1988) and Adunis, al-A`mal al-Shi`riyya (Damascus: Dar al-Mada, 1996).
[A shorter version of this essay appeared in Translation Review, vol. 85, no. 1, 2013]