Unsuited by Fred Holland translated by Fatima Al Matar

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Write Out Loud's Paul Blackburn approached Fatima Al Matar (pictured), a poet from Kuwait currently living in Coventry, with proposal for a Cross Cultural Poetry project.  As a result of discussion, two blogs were produced which should be read together (this one first).

Initially, she worked with English poet, Fred Holland, to produce a version of his poem "Unsuited" in Arabic, and versions of the poems in both languages can be found below.

More importantly, she then explains the problems she encountered with the translation process with particular reference to differences between the two cultures.

After further discussion with Paul, for the second blog she took a poem, 'I wish I can live life' by Abu Al Qassim Al Shabbi, a Tunisian Poet (1909 – 1934), and translated it into English. She then used this translation to develop some of the themes identified in this blog and describes the different styles of Arabian poetry. See http://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=9760




Unsuited by Fred Holland


Alas we are not suited, you and I.

It would not last a minute, not a day

would pass but I would hate you, make you cry,

or strike you in some bitter quarrel, say,

about the way you laughed or ate or walked,

or I would be revengeful, jealous, dumb,

no friends would come, and if we talked,

it would be coldly over bills or some

decision to be made against our will

and better judgment. True, I might recall

how once we loved when that was still

a joy, but only to destroy it all.

Better to leave me now, while this desire

Gnaws the earth, celibate, denied, on fire.




الا تكافؤ



اه وا أسفاه

لسنا متكافئين انا و أنت.

لن تطول دقيقة 

لن نستمر يوم  واحد

دون ان أكرهك , أدفعك للبكاء

أو أن أنهال عليك بشجار مر

عن اسلوبك بالضحك , بالأكل أو المشي,

أو  أن أكون معك ساعيا للثأر, غيورا, أحمق

يتحاشوننا الأصحاب

و إن تحاورنا

فهو حوار بارد يدور حول الفواتير

أو قرار ضد رغبتنا  أو  إرادتنا

صحيح انني قد أسترجع كيف أحببنا يوما

عندما كان الحب لايزال بهجة

و لكنني كنت سؤدمره حتما

أتركيني الان أفضل

ما دامت الرغبة الجامحة

تقطع الأرض عضا و حسرة

راهبيا \\ صوفيا


مشتعلا بالنار.


فريد هولاند



Challenges in translating an English poem into Arabic:

For this cross cultural poetry project I have asked my dear friend and poet Fred Holland for permission to translate his poem ‘Unsuited’ included in his poetry collection ‘In Guarded Conversation’. Here are some of the difficulties/challenges I was faced with:

  1. Meaning of words and expressions:
  • I had to double check meaning of words to make sure I understood the correctly especially in the context in which they were used.
  • Expressions such as “Alas!” (first line of the poem) are not available in the formal Arabic language, however, this differs according to the various informal dialects found in each Arabic country.
  • “but I would hate you make you cry” the word but in the beginning of the sentences can not be translated literally as it will not give the same meaning which the poet had intended and thus was replaced with the equivalent of “without”.
  • “make you cry” also was not easy to express in Arabic; as I had to use a very different verb than “make”,  I used “push you to cry”
  • The expression “say” (the end of the fourth line) has no equivalent in the Arabic language there is a letter that can be linked to words to indicate the giving of examples which I have used to translate this sentence.

   2. Literal translation led to loss of meaning:

  • When I tried translating some words literally I felt the meaning, the music and the feeling of the poem was lost, e.g. the word 'unsuited' (the title) if I had written the exact equivalent in Arabic it would sound like objects not being suitable such as clothing, the term when used for a couple will not give the meaning which the poet intended and thus was replaced with  'incompatible'.

   3. The forming of a sentence:

  • All English phrases/sentences read to an Arab upside down! The Arabic sentence always starts with a verb and not the noun, e.g. “Not a day would pass” (second/third line) cannot be translated without changing the place of the verb “pass” and having it in the beginning in order to make sense of the sentence.  

   4. Genderising:

  • Every word (noun/verb/adjective) has a gender in Arabic and thus words were changed in order to indicate gender.

   5. Cultural ambiguity:

  • Even though I have translated the phrase “no friends would come” (seventh line) an Arab reader will wonder why it was put there, and would question whether a line such as this one would serve the poem at all, mainly because relationship in the Arab world are very personal and private, looking beyond the relationship on to how friends would feel almost never happens.
  • In many instances in the poem the sentences were short, summarised, as if the less the poet had to explain the better the quality of the poem. I find in Arabic poetry there’s almost a need to explain, to extend description (as describing and the beauty of description is highly appreciated in Arabic poetry) to give the reader a clearer picture of what the poet intends to say rather than the minimalist approach often used in English poetry.


Fatima AL Matar http://www.writeoutloud.net/poets/fatimaalmatar


◄ Oh ! Ma ville natale

I wish I can live life by Abu Al Qassim Al Shabbi translated by Fatima Al Matar ►


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Ann Foxglove

Tue 6th Apr 2010 15:45

A beautiful sad honest poem, wonderfully read.

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Fatima al.matar

Tue 6th Apr 2010 00:31

Thank you Cynthia :)

Isobel, thank you for your comments, yes obviously poetry is born from the poet's experiences and ideologies and thus reflect his/her culture whether conservative or liberal it will have some indication in the poem...
I agree with you, listening to french people speak makes me melt! I am learning the language and am constantly blown away by it. Finally, a recording of my voice reading the poem will be posted by Paul soon.
thanks again to both of you for showing interest.


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Cynthia Buell Thomas

Sat 3rd Apr 2010 11:45

I left a comment too, but I'm not sure where it is. Is there another 'place' on here? I also complimented Fatima on her efforts, and her inclusive notes.

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Fri 2nd Apr 2010 11:15

Following a comment from Paul, I now realise that the footnotes are the most important part of this blog; the understanding of cross cultural differences that make translation so difficult.
Having read through those more thoroughly, I can see that the Arabic version must be very different indeed.
What struck me in particular was the fact that the impact of a relationship on outer friendships was not something that would be considered or identified with, within the arab world.
This led me on to thinking also about the differences between the sexes and of just how women and men interract within both cultures. This must have a huge impact on the nature and validity of such translations. Thank you for bringing this to our attention - fascinating stuff.

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Fri 2nd Apr 2010 10:22

This is an interesting project. What a shame you can't get more feedback on how well you translated it. I have recently written something in French which I might post at some point. It is nigh on impossible for me to translate it into English in a poetic yet meaningful way though. Or maybe the poem/song is naff to start off with. French is such a beautiful language that you could listen to the ingredients on a can of dog meat and not fail to be moved. You should perhaps consider attaching sound to translations like this, so people can at least hear the flow.

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