The Translation of Arabic Poetry Bridge or Barrier?

Robin Ostle
St. John’s College, University of Oxford


This paper raises some of the fundamental questions which surround the translation of Arabic poetry into English. It examines the objectives and motivations for such efforts of translation and considers the range of target readers such as students of the Arabic language and the relatively small numbers of general readers who have an interest in poetry and who may wish to have some acquaintance with poetry in Arabic.

More radically, the paper suggests that the mission of the translation of Arabic poetry should be nothing less than to provide sources of innovative creativity for English poetry. This was the case between 1780-1820 when the great Arabist translators of the Romantic period such as Jones, Carlyle, Lyall or Ruckert found in Arabic poetry the means of renewing their own literary tradition. Goethe himself was the most important of the European Romantics to find such inspiration in translations of ancient Arabic poetry. But somehow as the 19th century went on, this vital bridge between the poetry of two literary traditions seems to have been lost.

The final section of the paper presents extracts from ancient Arabic poetry accompanied by two versions of English translation: one by the distinguished Arab poet Walid Khazendar and one by myself, the English Arabist. The very different styles of the translations are considered, in order to suggest which of the two is most likely to provide an English poet with sources of inspiration and innovation from the Arabic into English poetry, thus re-creating the bridge between the two literary traditions which existed during the early decades of the Romantic period in Europe.