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As - Sayyab: A Censored Poet & Translator

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The Iraqi poet Badr Shakir As-Sayyab , like many world geniuses, died untimely in 1964 after a long suffering with a chronic disease. His short life (1925/1926 – 1964 ), however, was meaningful from the literary perspective. As-Sayyab was able to revitalize the Arab poetry by revolting against the classical form and content of poetry. His resources for doing so were the local traditions and the achievements of such acclaimed poets as T.S. Elliot, Edith Sitwell, Ezra Pound, Nadhim Hikmat , to name only a few.

Poor, ill and stricken by the unhealthy social and political atmosphere of Iraq in the 4th – 6th decades of the twentieth century, As-Sayyab made a number of choices which were all censored by the then thought police of Iraq. As a poet, his poetry were often censored and criticized, and he had consequently to mask his themes and thoughts in symbols. Viewing his time as being devoid of any spiritual values and controlled by iron and gold, As-Saayab resorted to symbols to enrich his world and to attack the non-poetic world of his time (As-Sayyab quotd in Abbas,p.187).Elsewhere (Balata : 189-190), As-Sayyab openly states his reasons for employing legends and myths in his poetry : " perhaps I am the first contemporary Arab poet to use myths as symbols . The political motive was the main reason that urged me doing so. When I wanted to resist the royal and Saidi [1] rule through poetry, I employed symbols - which the men of Noori As-Said were not able to understand – as a cover for that purpose. I used symbols for the same reason in Qassim's rule [2] . In my poem " Sirius in Babel" , I bitterly criticized Qassim and his administration without their notice. Moreover, I criticized that regime in my other poem "The City of Sinbade". When I wanted to express the failure of the July Revolution in achieving its original aims, I replaced the Babylonian name of "July" by the Greek "Adonis", which is just a copy of it".

As a translator, As-Sayab's translations were censored under different pretexts. In 1955 As-Sayyab translated some twenty poems which were published in a book entitled " Selected Poems from Modern World Poetry". T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Edith Sitwell, Stephen Spender,  John Fletcher and C. Day Lewis were among the translated poets. Other poets were from Spain, Greece, Chile, Italy, France, Belgium, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Turkey and India. Commenting on the book, Balata (84) contends that " in 1955, As-Sayyab was preoccupied with translation. He did not want to write new poetry that would put him in clash with then authorities. It seemed that his translations were symbolically open for they contained a number of thoughts on prisoners, laborers, nationalists, poor people, suppression and exploitation. Thus he was arrested in Al-Kadhimain Police Station for seven days , and Mr. Mahmood Al-Ibta defended him. As the judge was convinced that translator was innocent , he fined him five Iraqi Dinars according to the 1323 Ottoman Publishing Law for not mentioning the name of the publishing house".

That was not the only attack on the book. Abbas (238) mentions that the "Al-Thakafa Al-Wataniya" (literally : The National Culture) magazine attacked the translation in its issue of November 1955 . The magazine accused As-Sayyab of translating some fascist and Nazi poets like Pound and some spies of the Intelligent Service like Stephen Spender (Al-Ali,1995:20)!

Fearing censorship, prosecution and party retaliation, As-Sayyab in the period in which he divorced the Iraqi Communist Party published namelessly some chapters of Richard Crossman's book "The God that Failed". The book talks about the experience of six (Richard Right, Arthur Koestler, Inacio Celloni, Lewis Fisher, Stephen Spender and Andre Gide) literary figures talking of their change of their thoughts on communism (ibid.). [3]

As-Sayyab also did some translations for the American Franklin publishing enterprise. He translated S. Eifert's " New Birth of Freedom", Walter Farley's " The Black Stallion" and some chapters of Forester & Falk's " American Prose and Poetry". Additionally, he did some reviewing work for the enterprise. The translator's work for Franklin was severely criticized and some seized the opportunity of under reputing him. [4]

It is noteworthy that censorship and police thought are all the more acute in conservative and repressive regimes such as Saddam Hussain's. In such "systems' of administration, no author or translator , dead or alive is exempted from censorship. As-Sayyab poem "Song of Rain" was long published and translated in the 1980s by the Iraqi Cultural Centre ( by Basima Bizigan & Elizabeth Fernea) in London. Some important lines of that masterpiece were deleted just because they criticized the Iraq of the 1950! . The italicized lines below are omitted in the translation, and they are incorporated from another translation to demonstrate  their invaluable position in the text:

I can hear the palm - trees drinking rain.
I can hear the villages moaning, and
Battling, with oars and rough axes,
65 The storms of the Gulf and the thunder,

There is hunger in Iraq
And corn is scattered to feed
The locusts and ravens in harvest time
In the fields the mills go round and round,
Grinding grain and stones,
Grinding men.
      Rain… [5]

How many tears we shed the night we
70 Excusing our sorrow by saying, ‘ It’s only the
Since the days of our childhood, the sky
Was always cloudy and dark in winter,
75 And the rain beat down.

We starve each year when the soil
Breaks forth into shoot;
Not one year has gone by
Without hunger in the land. [6]

Each drop glows
80 Red or yellow, from the petals of flowers
Each tear of the naked and hungry,
Each drop of blood shed by slaves,
Becomes a smile awaiting a new mouth,
Or a nipple pink from the sucking
85 Of the newborn child
In the world of a new tomorrow, the world
that will offer life.
Rain …
Rain …
Rain … [7]

Finally, censorship - often admitted and defended by all for one reason or another- is relative to the extent of conservatism and freedom a society enjoys. It is very much active and widespread in totalitarian systems of rule. The translator, like any intellectual, in such societies develops a higher sense of self-censorship. In historical and political books, the translator makes a full use of prefaces and footnoting just to defend himself against any charge which may be leveled against ( Al-Ali,2005:forthcoming). And while "slight" modifications are being advised for and done by translators for the benefit of the text, a sensitive reader may see them damaging for the text like the one above.


Abbas, Ihsan (1969). Badr Shakir As-Sayyab : Astudy of his Life & Poetry.Beirut: Dar Athakafa.

Al-Ali, Kadhim (1995). Badr Shakir As-Sayyab as a Translator. Bulletin of the College of Arts.

-------------------- (2001) . The Song of Rain: The Poem and Three Translations. Basra : Dar As-Siraaj.

-------------------- (2005). The Return to Marshes, The Return to Translation: Translation & Culture under Totalitarianism.

Balata, Isa (1987). Badr Shakir As-Sayyab: His Life & Poetry. Beirut: The House for Public Cultural Affairs.

[1]  The adjective Saidi is used in reference to Noori As-Said a prime minister in the royal Iraq who formed a number of cabinets. The man was severely attacked for his alleged association with the west. He was assassinated in the 1958 July Revolution while running away in women's cloak.

[2]  Abdul-Kareem Qassim , a colonel , led the 14th of July 1958 Revolution that ended monarchy in Iraq. He was assassinated by the Baathists.

[3]  It is important to mention that As-Sayyab published at the same time some articles entitled "I was a Communist" in Al-Huriyya ( literally , the Freedom) newspaper.

[4]  The deposed Saddam Hussein's regime poet Sami Mehdi is a bitter critic of As-Sayyab saying that his translation competence and his (foreign) cultural background are ill-founded on the rumor that he graduated of the English department of the High Teachers House, taught English for some high schools , and translated some books for Franklin (Megdi,1993:176).

[5] These and following italicized lines are added from another translation by Nadi Bachai. It is worth pointing out that the original text speaks of mills rather than operated by mules were operated by men. The men are not fed properly, and as such they are grinded in the end.

[6] The original text specifies Iraq rather than the translator's "in the field".

[7]  There is a third translation, and the author who is presently a Ph.D. candidate in translation is working on the responses of non Arab fluent speakers of English to these translations .He would very much appreciate colleagues responding to full texts at

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