The poetry of the Arab world is still relatively unknown in the West, due to political, religious, and geographic distance. However, Jaafar Al Aluni, translator of the Syrian Lebanese poet Adonis into Spanish, says “reading verses by a figure the stature of Adonis makes us overcome those borders and build intercultural bridges.”
A perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Ali Ahmad Said Esber, better known as Adonis, is the most famous Arabic-language poet in the world and is attending the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL) this year as a guest of Vaso Roto, his Spanish-language publisher, which has offices in Mexico City and Madrid.
Born in 1930, Adonis was raised in a small farming village that lacked opportunities for formal education. He learned to read from the Quran. At age 14, he recited a poem to Shukri al-Quwatli, then the new president of the recently established state of Syria, who, apparently moved, reportedly said to him, “What do you want us to give you, child?” The young Adonis asked to be sent to school.
And so began a path that would change Arabic literature and its relationship to the world. An activist for peace and diversity, Adonis was imprisoned in Syria for supporting socialism in the 1950s, moved to Lebanon, and finally took refuge in Paris, where he continues to live. His nonreligious positions on social issues have brought him death threats from extremist groups—he lives in La Gambetta, a secure tower in Paris’s La Defense district—yet he remains fearless. It is astonishing to think that a child who read his first poems from memory in front of his class, as he did not yet know how to write, would one day find himself so popular that he was able to fill a soccer stadium in Baghdad with 50,000 people for a reading of his work.
Vaso Roto has been able to bring Adonis’s astonishing catalog to Spanish-speaking readers. The publishing house made it a mission to translate poetry in some of the most complex and challenging languages in the world into Spanish. The idea is to present poetry as a form of prayer, to present the aesthetics of the word, to rethink the why of things, and to draw beauty from conflict.
“We want to put the East in dialogue with the West, the North with the South,” says Vaso Roto founder and publisher Jeannette L. Clariond. “Many times we think about wars, and we don’t ask ourselves about conflicts that could have been started through misinterpretations or language barriers.” The name of the house translates into English as “broken glass,” and the intention has always been “to let the word break the glass and let the divine become human so that we can hear each other,” she adds.
Clariond believes that through poetry and translation, many of the conflicts that exist in the world can be understood and overcome. “It is by publishing a book that one learns to rethink cultural clashes and make sense of the times in which we live,” she notes.
Translating Adonis has been a highly complex task, and his work is a cornerstone of a growing catalog of works by great Arab writers that Vaso Roto has translated and published in Spanish, including titles by Abbas Beydoun, Najwan Darwish, and Joumana Haddad.
“We want all voices to be heard: Shakespeare and his English tradition, Dante with the tradition of Italian poets, Cervantes and his influence on the Spanish language, the indigenous traditions of each country, and the dynasties that have nurtured the whole world, such as the Chinese and Persian, which we continue to read and quote in the 21st century,” Clariond says.
Adonis fits this publishing agenda perfectly. His latest book, Entre lo fijo y lo mudable (Between the Fixed and the Mutable), is a clear-sighted reflection on how the religious vision of Arab culture influences literature, language, poetry, and even the notion of the individual.
At 92 years old, Adonis is not new to Mexico. In 2016, Vaso Roto published a translation of his collection Zócalo, about the poet’s earlier travels to Mexico City. During this visit to Guadalajara, he plans to meet with his Latin American readers. “Mexico is essential to Adonis’s work,” says Al Aluni.
Adonis will offer a talk, accompanied by Clariond, at FIL on Saturday, December 3, entitled, “Poetry in the Arab World: Between the Fixed and the Flexible.” In it, he’ll address aspects of the Arab literary tradition, as well as the current state of literature written by Arab women.
Adonis’s poems seek to unite East and West so that they can listen to each other, and explore the meaning of Arab culture, its relations and connotations, and the role played by religion in the history of its literature and civilization.
Pedro Jimenez is the communications and marketing coordinator for Vaso Roto.