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Arabic Stories and Poetry Translation Workshops

Arabic Stories and Poetry Translation Workshops

‘It was and it was not…’: Translation in Action (from Arabic into English)
Various dates in May and June

Marina Warner (Birkbeck, University of London)
Wen-chin Ouyang (SOAS, University of London)

In conjunction with the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, Birkbeck. Directed by Steve Willey.

Workshop Topics and Dates

 Workshop 1: May 11 The writer Hanan al- Shaykh will discuss her work.

Topic: The Wiles of Women. Poetry and Stories from The 1001 Nights (2:30 to 5:30 pm, SOAS, B104)

Public reading. 6.30-8.00 pm (SOAS B104)

Workshop 2: May 25 The writer Hoda Barakat will discuss her work; with her translator Marilyn Booth, Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor in the Study of the Contemporary Arab World, Oxford.

Topic: Mad Love. Nizami, The Seven Pavilions: The Tale of Leila and Majnun.   (2:30 to 5:30 pm, SOAS, SWLT)

Public reading, 6.30-8.00pm (SOAS SWLT)

Workshop 3: June 6 Singing Girls. Poetry, stories, satire and elegy in the songs of the Abbasid qiyan

2.30 pm June 6 2017

Birkbeck , Room 102, 30 Russell Square

 Julia Bray is Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford, and the first woman to hold what is one of the most ancient Chairs in this country. She is a scholar and translator of Classical Arabic literature, exploring its social uses and its cultural meanings, especialy in relation to medicine and the arts. A member of the editorial board of the Library of Arabic Literature (a series modelled on the Loeb Classics), she is the Volume Editorand co-translator,of Consorts of the Caliphs by Ibn al-Sa’I (ed. Shawkat Toorawa), a 13th century account of women poets and philanthropists in the Abbasid era.  With Wen-chin Ouyang, she edits Edinburgh Studies in Classical Arabic Literature.

Wafa Tarnowska is a storyteller, author,  and translator from Arabic and French.  Her publications include retellings of the Arabian Nights, and The Seven Wise Princesses, inspired by the Persian romance of Nizami.


Ahdaf Soueif is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and translator from Arabic (including Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah). Her  acclaimed novels include  In the Eye of the Sun (1993) and  The Map of Love (1999), which was on the Man Booker Prize short list,  has been translated into 21 languages and sold over a million copies.  She is an activist and commentator in the Middle East, and writes regularly for the Guardian; her collected essays have appeared in Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground (2004)  and Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (2012), which was reissued two years later as Cairo: A City Transformed.   She is the Founding Chair of PalFest . 

Topic: Singing Girls. Poetry, stories, satire and elegy in the songs of the Abbasid qiyan (Birkbeck , Room 102, 30 Russell Square)

Workshop 4: June 27 -  Islamic Sicily or Siculo-Arab Literature: Poems of Ibn Hamdis and others, and fables from Ibn Zafer, Solwan or the Waters of Comfort

14:30-17:30, SOAS, Room S118 Paul Webley Wing, Senate House, North Block.
18:30 – 20:00 Public Reading, SOAS, Khalili Lecture Theatre

Tamim al-Barghouti Is a Palestinian poet, columnist and political scientist. He is known for his command of classical Arabic forms and prosody in the tradition of public recitation; his poetry has drawn audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands. His long poem, ‘In Jerusalem’, mingling classical and vernacular expression, has won him the name, in the Palestinian press, ‘The Poet of Jerusalem’. The poem describes an aborted journey to the city; it has been performed in Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, Amman, Beirut, Muscat, Berlin, The Hague, and Vienna, among other places. Poems by Tamim al-Barghouti have had millions of views on various TV Channels as well as on the internet, winning the poet an exceptional celebrity status in the Arab World.

The reception of his work among audiences from various backgrounds and age groups testifies to the vitality of the centuries-old tradition of public Arabic poetry Tamim is the son of Mourid Barghouti, author of Midnight and Other Poems, and the memoir I Saw Ramallah (trans. Ahdaf Soueif); his late mother is the novelist and scholar Radwa Ashour. In Jerusalem and Other Poems: Written Between 1996-2016, translated by the author, with Radwa Ashour and Ahdaf Soueif, will be launched today.

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh
Is Writer-in-Residence for Refugee Hosts, (a 4-year interdisciplinary project funded by the AHRC-ESRC He teaches Arabic at the University of Oxford. His recent poems and articles include ‘Writing the Camp and ‘The Camp is Time’ (Refugee Hosts, 2016, 2017), ‘At the Feast of Asylum’ (GeoHumanities, 2016), and ‘Thresholds’ (Critical Quarterly, 2014). ‘If this is my face, so be it’ (Modern Poetry in Translation, 2016), featured in Jenny Holzer’s public light projection artwork at Bispetorv (Aarhus, Denmark), as part of the 2017 European Capital of Culture Program, and (since late May) in a new projectionat the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. His poetry has also appeared in The Absence of Paths, as part of the Tunisian Pavilion exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Yousif’s latest translations of Nazih Abu-Afash (with Kate McLoughlin) are published in Modern Poetry in Translation (2015) and Asymptote (2017).

Final workshop in September/October will showcase the work completed over the summer.


16 places for CHASE PhD students; 10 places reserved for independent translators and scholars, for a total of 20 for each workshop.


A: The workshops will adapt methods used for bringing Greek tragedy to an Anglophone reader and apply them to Arabic literature.

With the help of scholars of Arabic literature, who are interested in the wider transmission and enjoyment of their subject, students will work alongside poets, dramatists, translation theorists, and writers of fiction, in order to revision (‘awaken’) Arabic literary texts for contemporary readers/audiences.

It has become customary, for example, for a poet with no Greek or Anglo-Saxon to re-inhabit a myth or a legend and bring it to vigorous new life– famous examples include Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, Simon Armitage’s King Arthur, and the inspired contemporary revoicings of Ovid by Timberlake Wertenbaker and Kate Tempest. By contrast, the riches of classical and traditional literature in Arabic have in some sense been kept from those who cannot read or understand the language. The complexities of Arabic prosody and the vast range of genres and expressions of the Arabic and Persian narrative and poetic corpus seem to preclude access to all but scholars. Workshop participants will explore means and ways to make this literature accessible beyond the specialist circle.

The joint workshops themselves will examine how stories, motifs, characters, images travel across borders and migrate into new host cultures, moving into different languages, different genres, and on to different registers.

 B: The workshops also set out to investigate collaborative exploration and discussion for translation/literary recreation in itself. Can the workshop model be a stimulus to the making of fresh, vigorous reawakened material from unfamiliar contexts and languages the writer-translator does not always know? The group sessions will provide the scope to be innovative about participation and collaboration for literary creativity.

Translators of the writers taking part will be present to discuss their task. However the project differs from strict translation, as applies to the work of contemporary Arabic novelists. The workshops are focusing on canonical/ancient/medieval/traditional material and its varying expressions because in this era of hostility to cultures associated with Islam, it is more important than ever to explore the riches of their vast literature and to understand the mutual entanglement of literary traditions.

These workshops will continue the project Stories in Transit, which undertakes nourishing storytelling and creativity in refugee communities. The project began in Oxford in May 2016 and Palermo in September 2016 and May 2017, and is a collaboration between Birkbeck, the University of Palermo, and the NGO Bibliothèques sans Frontières.

The material will include songs and squibs by medieval women poets, romances from Persia, the lyric poetry in Tales of the 1001 Nights, animal and other fables from Solwan, or The Waters of Comfort by Ibn Zafer from Sicily, written in the l2th century, or materials participants themselves propose.

Participants will attend all four workshops at which the visiting speaker and translator will address a text or group of texts; a general discussion about them will follow, leading to a choice of subject to develop work on over the summer and a reunion in the autumn to review the fruits of the workshop.  These will not aim to give faithful versions of the originals, but transpose them, sometimes even into a different form – eg poem to drama, story to song – the reawaken them and communicate them to readers and audiences today.

Bookings for this training are now closed