Voices of Arabia: A Collection of Poetry of Place.
Reviewed by George Hutcheson

Voices of Arabia: A Collection of Poetry of Place, selected, introduced and translated by T. J. Gorton.
London, Eland Books, 2010. Pb, 128 pp, ISBN 978 906011 20 8. £6.99.

Eland Press, highly regarded for their extensive list of travel books, produces an attractive series of small volumes under the label Poetry of Place, providing selections of verse relating to geographical or cultural areas—several of which, happily, are concerned with regions of particular interest to ASTENE members. These include Andalus (dealing with Moorish Spain), Berber Odes, Istanbul, Desert Air (a compendium of poetry from Coleridge to Cavafy, Goethe to James Elroy Flecker) and Voices of Arabia, the selection under consideration.

Classical Arabic poetry emerged from an earlier oral tradition in the period from about ad 600–1000, and is comprehensively recorded. An early anthology of translations into English, which is still available, dates from 1881 (W. A.Clouston), but most recent compilers appear to prefer to use their own translations. The conversion of Arabic into English is generally considered to be difficult, and the creation of ‘poetry’ from these interpretations even more so. The possibility of replicating metre and rhyme is not readily attempted.

T. J. Gorton, a scholar of Arabic for many years, makes it clear at the outset of Voices of Arabia that he has made no attempt to mould his translations into what we would consider ‘poetry’—his aim has been to convey ‘… most of the main literal meaning of the original’. Some of his translations use modern English/American colloquial speech—for example, in some lines by Abu Nuwas, Gorton’s interpretation reads:

But when she played hard to get, I said: ‘Give in!’ She said: ‘With a face like that, how could I love you?’

The esteemed scholar Bernard Lewis’s rendering of the same lines is

When she persisted in coldness I said to her, Grant me your love, and she replied: With such a face do you expect love from me?

Gorton’s approach clearly allows for pacey, vibrant readings of the translations; that of Lewis is a more subtle decipherment.

After a brief reference to pre-Islamic verse—which is generally regarded as the recorded, oral poetry concerned with desert travel and tribal affairs —the predominant concern of the collection is with the Ritha or elegiac poetry. A ‘court’ society was emerging, with religion, affairs of the heart and the grape providing rich source material for the poet. The poet’s influence could be considerable, with possible exile or elimination as the result of any inappropriate references—either overt or allusive. The possibility of ambiguity has to be borne in mind by both the translator and the reader. The resulting writings can be bawdy, erotic or ethereal as well as tender, inspiring and elemental. Gorton’s selection and translations are extensive and contain examples reflecting all of these characteristics from the widely available known poets including Abu Nuwas, Al Mutanabbi, Ash Shanfara, Farazdaq and Jarir. His preference is to depict human life and passions.

Voices of Arabia In terms of creating a mind-picture of the milieu in which the works are set, the interpretations do suffer, it seems to me, from the use of idiomatic English. This is largely and usefully offset by the compiler’s miniature pen-portraits of the poets, which go a long way to ease the reader into the necessary atmosphere that does not emerge from the translations. A surprising amount is known about the writers and their world, and readers will surely be encouraged to further explorations in this fascinating world of literature—although not, perhaps, necessarily following Gorton’s exhortation (in the case of one poet) to learn the language for the pleasure of reading the poetry in its original Arabic. Would that we had the time and ability to undertake such a challenge!
A small quotation may be used, perhaps, to hint at the sensibility of the collection:

By my life, a Bedu girl around whose tent The wind blows freely front and back, Is dearer to me than your over slender maid, Who breaks into a sweat if she puts down her fan.

George Hutcheson