Michael Karam on translating Nizar Qabbani

Michael Karam


on translating Nizar Qabbani


I chose to translate a Qabbani poem because of how much his name and works remind me of my early schooling in Lebanon. While he is not as famous in America, I hope this is a step toward a growing fascinated audience. Because Arabic is a gendered language, it is clear that the speaker is a woman, a fact which gets lost in English. Because the word “passion” (الهوى) and the speaker’s lover both use the same set of masculine pronouns, a reader of the original cannot properly identify to whom or to what the speaker is referring. In English, these two nouns use different pronouns (“it” and “he,” respectively), requiring the translator to decide when “passion” was the antecedent and when it was the lover. The original, like most modern poems in Arabic, uses ellipses heavily, which I don’t enjoy as much in an English poem; I opted for longer spaces instead.

about the author

Nizar Qabbani (1923–1998) is a timeless Arab poet known for his sensual and romantic verse. A lawyer by training, he spent more than twenty years working as a diplomat. In addition to his two dozen volumes of poetry and his contributions to the Lebanese newspaper Al Hayat, his poetry has been sung in lyrics by Lebanese and Syrian vocalists, popularizing his work. People, young and old, in Lebanon — he lived in Beirut for a while — and Syria, his home country, sing along to these familiar tunes. Qabbani writes of romantic and political despair and advocates for Arab nationalism and social freedoms for women.

about the translator

Michael Karam (Penn C’17) is a translator, writer, and poet living and working in Brooklyn, New York. Michael grew up in Lebanon, between a small apple-growing village and a Beirut suburb. He is fluent in Arabic and French, knows some Spanish, and has recently taken up knitting. He currently works in marketing and fundraising for a non-profit news organization, The GroundTruth Project, which supports emerging journalists reporting on under-covered stories around the world.