Retranslating the Poetry of Ibn Arabi – with Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger

Retranslating the Poetry of Ibn Arabi – with Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger
The city of Damascus, Ibn Arabi’s final resting place, with Mount Qasioun in the background. His mausoleum lies at the foot of the mountain / Louai Beshara / AFP via Getty Images
They’re like constellations of poems that seem to turn around a pole.

Ibn Arabi was a 12th-century philosopher, poet and “one of the great spiritual teachers of the Muslim world.” Both his philosophical works and his poetry have been translated countless times, most recently by Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger in their highly experimental 2022 collection “Agitated Air: Poems After Ibn Arabi.” In this podcast, the two join New Lines’ Lydia Wilson to talk about their unique and innovative approach to co-translation. 

The project started “like a conversation. But also, in a way, like a game.” Each would translate a selected poem separately before swapping these first attempts and then retranslating or rewriting in response. They would then repeat the process until, according to the book’s introduction, “we are exhausted, and the process begins again.” On the page, each poem in the original Arabic is followed by not one single translation but many possible interpretations. “There was something wonderful about the freedom that we had to kind of ‘open up’ the poems, rather than pin them down with a single reading,” explains Seale.

Moger agrees: “It’s nice to have a space just to let yourself go all the way, and see how far it can go.” But this unorthodox approach wasn’t purely a personal exercise. It, too, was inspired in part by Ibn Arabi himself, whose own work circled around consistent ideas in an attempt to get ever-closer to truths he admitted were ultimately inexpressible. “So what we were doing, in a way, was mirroring some of those ideas,” says Seale, “drawing out something that was already in the Arabic poems, rather than imposing a kind of game from the outside.” 

Produced by Joshua Martin

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