Kareem James Abu-Zeid shares the secret behind his award-winning poetry translation


The biennial Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation was awarded to the collection of poetry Exhausted on the crosswritten by Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish and translated by Egyptian-American editor, writer and scholar, Kareem James Abu-Zeid.

Commenting on the work, Rosalind Harvey, president of the jury, said: “In its direct and stripped lines, the collection shows both the limits and the necessity of language, inviting us to ask ourselves, together, how we can cross and go beyond Suffering.”

Meanwhile, Abu-Zeid says the prize, named after the poet Maguire, who was “a champion of international poetry”, was a huge honour.

“Najwan and I have devoted a tremendous amount of time and creative energy to Exhausted on the crossas did the entire NYRB Poets team, and it is very gratifying to be recognized for our work by such an esteemed panel of judges.

Exhausted on the cross was selected from a shortlist of six books including poets from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Korea, Mauritius, Mexico and Syria. Darwish and Abu-Zeid, who have worked together for 13 years, will split their winnings of £3,000 ($3,460).

Abu-Zeid is no stranger to accolades, having received both the 2017 PEN Center USA Translation Award and the 2018 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship.

However, having his translation of Najwan Darwish Exhausted on the cross shortlisted for four awards in two countries is unprecedented.

“I’ve been recognized for my translations before, but this is the first time I’ve had four different awards – three in the US and one in the UK – to recognize a single book in some way or other. ‘another one. It’s great for the book, which of course makes me very happy,” says Abu-Zeid.

Darwish, a Palestinian writer who lives between Haifa and his hometown of Jerusalem, was described by the New York Book Review as “one of the greatest contemporary Arab poets”.

When selecting the Exhausted on the cross for its shortlist, the 2022 National Translation Award judges described Darwish’s second volume of poetry aspoignant, raw, unwavering and deeply human, imbuing the pain and suffering of the occupation and the human condition with a gripping lyricism”.

They added: “Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s unforgettable translation in its austere, clean, yet melodic register invites us into the complexity of Darwish’s poetry, the flexibility of his Arabic and the uncompromising vision of resistance in the face of to the oppression that beats at the heart of this wonderful book.

Abu-Zeid is a longtime admirer of Darwish’s writing, having spent over a decade translating his work. “Honestly, I love all of Najwan’s work,” Abu-Zeid said. The National. “I feel like his poetry just keeps getting better.

“His work resonates both spiritually and politically with me. There is a variety of themes and styles, and also tone, so I always learn something new.

The translator says he appreciates the nuanced ways in which history and politics appear in Darwish’s work.

“Things are almost never black and white in her poetry, although she never hesitates to speak out forcefully against injustice. And although he is truly a Palestinian poet, he is completely against all forms of nationalism.

Although he focuses on events and issues specific to Palestine, Abu-Zeid claims there is a “universal” feel, which seems to transcend time and space.

Of the eight books published by Darwish, translated into more than 20 languages, Abu-Zeid believes this particular strand stands out the most in Exhausted on the cross.

Several of Najwan’s collections are more rooted in a specific place and time. He has a collection from a long period spent in London; and another centered on the city of Akka [Acre]; and another anchored in Grenada.

“Haifa repeatedly emerges in Exhausted on the crossbut there are many more journeys through space and time in this book – present-day Gaza, medieval Baghdad, Samarkand, Nepal, Aswan and so on – geography and time are constantly slipping.

One of the poems included in the collection, My vanquished banner, bed: “If I could come back, I wouldn’t come under any other banner / I’d still kiss you with both severed hands / I don’t want wings in heaven, I just want your graves by the river / I want eternity at the breakfast table with bread and oil / I want you — land, my vanquished banner.

The famous Chilean poet Raul Zurita describes the poem “in its devastating beauty”, not only as one of the most defining moments of Darwish’s poetry, but “the writing of our time”.

Zurita says: “Expelled from their ancestral land, under constant siege and persecution, women who have lost everything—their homes, their neighborhoods, their children—present to the reader…that in this land of victims and perpetrators, displaced and missing, all the rest of us are survivors.

“Weary… on a cross made of rubble and death, love and shame, we glimpse the limits of an immortality from which we cannot escape, an immortality which condemns us to death. Yet, by reading this poetry, one can come to love this condemnation and thus love the whole earth – our defeated banner.

'Exhausted on the Cross' is Darwish's second collection to appear in English following his book, 'Nothing More to Lose', also carefully translated into English by Abu-Zeid.  Photo: New York Review Books

Exhausted on the cross is Darwish’s second collection to appear in English after his book, Nothing to losewas also translated into English by Abu-Zeid.

This earlier collection vividly describes events such as the 2008 Israeli air raids on Gaza: “The earth is three nails / and mercy a hammer: / Strike, Lord / Strike with the planes”.

However, his new collection merges this with what Abou-Zeid calls “a certain weariness of the mind – the boredom of endless occupation, but also the inherent suffering of the human condition itself”.

“There is no more speedy crucifixion,” says Abu-Zeid, “and certainly no resurrection in glory on the third day.”

The works come and go with the tides of a uniquely Palestinian experience of humanity; carried upward by waves of hope, before crashing down in inevitable despair.

“Those who hang / are weary, / so pull us down / and give us rest,” the titular poem begins, then descends into “Lord, / sharpen your knife / and give your sacrifice its rest.”

Abu-Zeid says Darwish’s work draws on a wide range of traditions, including pre-Islamic poetry, the music of Umm Kulthum, contemporary Iranian cinema, classical and modern Chinese poetry, the history of Latin American art and literature, among others.

“Unlike most authors I’ve translated, we work closely together,” says Abu-Zeid.

Of their winning formula, he says: “Our guiding criterion with translations is almost always: ‘Does it work well as poetry in English?’ in addition, of course, to accurately conveying the meanings of Arabic.

Abu-Zeid attributes his success to a “holistic” approach to translation. “I’ve seen so many translations of great poetry that translate all the words correctly, regardless of the general context, and the result is almost absurd.

“You could say that a poem produces a set of effects: semantic, sonorous, emotional, spiritual. The work of literary translation is to try to reproduce these effects, as far as possible.

“Some questions I always ask myself – and they are very important for Najwan’s poetry: How does the poem touch home? What is the feel of this poem? What impression or feeling does this leave on the reader?

“After all, what good is a word-for-word translation if all the power of the original is lost?”

Although his translations begin with a technical process of understanding the different possible meanings of a poem in Arabic, “after that it becomes much more creative,” he says.

“The best solutions always come to me from a space of silence… It’s not about fighting; it’s about finding a flow. Rather than an “intellectual struggle” with the text, he describes this phase as an “empathic or spiritual engagement” with it.

“For me at least, literary translation is definitely an art, and maybe a meditation, but definitely not a science.”

Scroll through the images of rare Arabic manuscripts and books on view at this year’s Sharjah International Book Fair below

Updated: November 01, 2022, 7:00 p.m.

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