Posted by on September 22, 2014 in Blog

By Kristyn Acho
Fall Intern, 2014

Khaled Mattawa, University of Michigan Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant last week.

Professor Mattawa is among a group of 21 scholars and artists who were named 2014 MacArthur Foundation Fellows.

Mattawa writes his own poems, and he also translates contemporary Arabic poetry. He will receive a $625,000 stipend to continue his translations and to begin large projects.

In an interview with the MacArthur Foundation, Mattawa shared his translation of an excerpt from the poem “A Song of Temptation for Nothing,” written by the Syrian poet Adonis:

I do not believe in the minds of the crowd/ I believe in light –/ radiating and penetrating, pointing toward a direction

By translating this poem, and so many others, Mattawa has considerably increased the American public’s exposure to prominent Arabic poets.

“I’ve connected two people: a poet and a reader, that had it not been through translation would not have happened,” he said. “To see that happen is always greatly moving and rewarding. There were many great Arab poets that were not available in English, so it seemed important to bring them to the American reader.”

Translating poetry into a new language is an exceptionally difficult undertaking.

“You can’t change the adjectives just because you want to,” Mattawa explained. “You’re being very mechanical, but you’re hoping to capture the same spontaneity that you have in a poem written in its native language.”

Mattawa left Libya in 1979 to immigrate to the United States. His poetry often explores themes of self-reflection, identity, and memory.

“I think memory was very important to my work as a structure, that the tone of remembrance, or the position of remembering, is very important, was a way of speaking when I was in between deciding to stay and not stay, and I had decided to stay,” he told Blackbird.

In addition to his academic successes, Mattawa founded the Arete Foundation for Arts and Culture. This non-governmental organization exposes Libyan youth to art on an international scale.

Mattawa holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a Master of Arts and Master of Fine Art from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a Ph.D. from Duke University.

He is the author of four books of poetry, including, Tocqueville (New Issues Press, 2010), Amorisco (Ausable Press, 2008), Zodiac of Echoes (Ausable Press, 2003) and Ismailia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow Press, 1996). He is also the author of the critical study, Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet's Art and His Nation (Syracuse University Press, 2014).

Mattawa has translated nine books of contemporary Arabic poetry by Adonis, Saadi Youssef, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, Hatif Janabi, Maram Al-Massri, Joumana Haddad, Amjad Nasser, and Iman Mersal. He has co-edited two anthologies of Arab American literature.

Radio host and producer, Jad Abumrad was the last Arab American to win a MacArthur Fellowship. Read our 2011 interview with Abumrad here.