Poems by Becky Thompson

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How to Cite: Thompson, B. & Mhiri, M. B. (2022) “Poems by Becky Thompson”, Absinthe: World Literature in Translation. 28(0). doi:

Translator’s Reflection

Translating the poetry of Becky Thompson from English into Arabic may seem counter-intuitive considering that both of us are US academics and our primary audience is Anglophone. Yet, long before she compiled her 2022 collection, To Speak in Salt, Thompson’s enthusiasm to conduct poetry workshops with refugees, who did not speak much English, was so inspiring to me. Thompson was keen to make world poetry available to people in transit (in China, Thailand, and Greece) and encourage people to write and read in their own languages during the workshops. Her generosity inspires my desire to extend a similar hand to people forced to leave their homelands, in hopes of building bridges and expressing human solidarity with them. My translation of Thompson’s poetry into Arabic, the language that a large segment of the dispossessed of today’s world claims as their native tongue, is hence an extension of the same sense of community and solidarity that inspires Thompson’s work— that is, her activism with and on behalf of the refugees along with her poetry. In the end, we want Thompson’s poems to reach both Arab refugees and broader Arab audiences, whose stories, struggles, and hope Thompson’s poetry captures so lovingly, ever so gently, and deeply.

“Ahmad Talks to His 13-Year-Old Brother,” with its original cape-shape form and its series of direct commends, exhorts Ahmad to hold his head high, to take pride in his cultural heritage, and never to give up hope. In terms of poetic style, the commands lend themselves well to translation into Arabic because the Arabic tradition is replete with exhortation poetry. I could cite multiple examples, both from pre-Islamic and from neoclassical poetry, of poems exhorting a knight or a tribesman to accomplish expected feats of courage and nobility, to come to the rescue of a damsel in distress, or to honor the codes of hospitality and goodwill. Similarly, in the poetry of such modern bards as Ahmad Shawqi, one encounters such well-known lines as the one in which the poet urges his audiences to honor teachers as the successors of prophets for what they do to refine the minds and moral character of generations of knowledge seekers. I found inspiration in those poetic models, and I tried to capture this Arabic poetic idiom in my translation of Thompson’s poetry. I may have even taken some poetic license—with Thompson’s permission— when translating the following lines: “Learn / how to be a barber. Wherever you go / men will need their hair cut.” My Arabic translation adds a new meaning that may have not been originally there, but one that Arabic readers will readily recognize and appreciate because it evokes the same cultural pride that Thompson evoked in the preceding line. My Arabic translation of those lines goes as follows: “Learn the trade of the barber. Wherever you land / men’s towering heads will bend down to you.”1 They literally bend their heads for a haircut and metaphorically bow in respect and admiration, acknowledging the nobility of Ahmad’s cultural pedigree.

By contrast, translating a narrative poem like “We Leave Magnolias in a Fountain” is not an easy undertaking. My goal was to preserve the economy, directness, and simplicity of the English-language original without resorting to literal translation and without scarifying the subtle lyricism of Thompson’s poetic voice. It is my hope that I managed to remain faithful to the original English poems and also appeal to Arab readers, who will encounter a unique contemporary American poetic voice that feels their pain and stands in solidarity with their unwarranted predicament and especially their courage.

Ahmed Talks to His 13-Year-Old Brother

Remember you are Superman, with a hurt-proof cape. Don’t forget your aunt

nicknamed you balloon— he who will float above danger. Learn to draw a map

of Syria in ink on paper cups. Don’t look at the sea if it makes you sad. Look

at the sea and remember you made it. Be the song you sang on the raft.

Don’t run from ghosts. Use your backpack as a pillow, a seat, a table.

Carry your prayer rug inside. It’s okay to let the rug double as a bed.

Eat meals with the young Palestinians. They’ve been through this

longer than you have. Keep ironing your shirts even though you

gotta stand in line. Know your people are proud. Remember

why they sent you first. Don’t trade your toothpaste for

cigarettes. Well maybe sometimes. Don’t sell your

kidney to anyone. Ever. Remember your uncle

before the sniper. Be tall. Know you come

from a people of maps and stars. Learn

how to be a barber. Wherever you go

men will need their hair cut.

Don’t drink bleach.

Don’t drink bleach.

نصائح أحمد لأخيه ابن الثلاثة عشرة ربيعا

تذكّر أنك سوبرمان وأنّك تملك عباءته الخارقة. لا تنسى أن عمتك أطلقت عليك لقب البالون الذي يسمو

.مرتفعا فوق كل الأخطار. تعلّم كيف ترسم خريطة سوريا بالح برعلى الكؤوس الورقية

ولا تنظر باتجاه البحر إذا كان ذلك ينشر الحزن في نفسك. بل اُنظر إليه متذكرا أنّك نجوتَ

من أذاه. كن مثل الأنشودة التي أنشدتها وأنت على الزورق. ولا تفزع من أشباح

.الماضي. اِتخذ من حقيبتك وسادة ومقعدا وطاولة، واحمل داخلها سجادة الصلاة

ولا بأس إن افترشت تلك السجادة للنوم أيضا. تقاسم الرغيف مع أولئك الشبّان

الفلسطينيين، فهم قد ح۬بروا هذا المصير أطول منك. ولا تتوقف عنكَي َّ قمصانك

حتى وإن كنت ستقف بها في صف توزيع الطعام. كن واثقا أنك سليل شعبٍ أبيّ

وتذكر لماذا دفع بك أهلك للهروب قبلهم. لا تقايض معجون أسنانك ببعض

السجائر وإن فعلت، فلا تدأب على ذلك. ولا تبعْ كليتك لأي أحد أبدا وتذكّر

استبسال عمك في مواجهة القنّاص. واِرفع رأسك

.وأعلم أنك من أمة قد ح۬برت علوم الخرائط والنجوم

ثمّ تعلم صنعة الحلاقة، فإنك حيثما حللتَ

.اِنحنت لك هامات الرجال

.لا تتجرّع سائل تبييض الملابس

!لا تفعل ذلك

We Leave Magnolias in a Fountain

The two haiku she sends:

A UNHCR report: the average person needs 2,000 calories per day to survive. So officials distribute 1,900.

Just enough less to keep you on edge?

Who do you borrow calories from? The baby? The elder?

The full-breasted woman?

He shows a photo of his wife, her gardenia petal nails scrubbing his oxford-button shirt.

Their container is white tin on the outside, white tin on the inside, no insulation. No electricity. No internet.

No rugs. No windows. No sky.

We’re lucky. We are here.

أزهار الماغنوليا في نافورة


  1. Editor’s note: The line breaks in the Arabic translation differ from those in the English original.
  2. إشارة الى الشاعرة الأمريكيّة من أصل فلسطيني نعومي شهاب ناي