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Ezra Pound. 

Selections from The Cantos of Ezra Pound.

Translated into Arabic by Hassan Helmi. Cairo: The National Center for Translation, 2014.

            review by Sumaya M. Alhaj




Translating Ezra Pound’s works is a great challenge that has been generally eschewed by Arab translators.  It is unfortunate that Arab critics usually refer to modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot, without acknowledging Pound’s role in laying the foundations of modernism in the movement of imagism in the early twentieth century. There are different reasons why Arabic scholarship refers only briefly to Pound, or even excludes him when investigating modern poetry. First of all, the complicated style that Pound uses in his poetry is an obstacle, since it is difficult to translate.  He, for instance, is influenced by several sources, such as Greek mythology, Chinese characters, Japanese haiku, and French symbolism. Moreover, he uses different languages in his poetry, which makes translation even more demanding. Another reason is that Arab critics and poets find modernism per se an intricate concept; hence,  poets fail to write poetry that corresponds to its demands. For Pound, however, “[i]t is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works” (Literary Essays 4). Avoiding Pound's oeuvre is thus one basic reason why modernism has become further complicated to Arab critics and readers, for his achievement is a threshold to modernism and its aftermath.

By translating selected Cantos, Hassan Helmi presents a very significant work that is highly necessary in Arabic scholarship. His book, Selections from The Cantos of Ezra Pound, was published in 2014 by The National Center for Translation, Cairo, which is the most prestigious translation center in the Arab World.  The Center also published Helmi’s Selections from the Poems of Ezra Pound, (2016).  In the first section of Selections from The Cantos of Ezra Pound, Helmi wrote a preface that introduced Pound’s imagism to the Arab reader.  Then, in a second section, he culled twenty-seven Cantos out of 120 for translation. Helmi prefers to annotate the ambiguous lines of the translated Cantos, especially those lines that are written in different languages, or that allude to mythology. Though The Cantos is not annotated, it is highly beneficial to add such glosses for Arab readers, who are generally unfamiliar with his allusions.  Such annotations, moreover, make the book not only a translation of The Cantos, but also a guide to reading the book.

Helmi’s preface, however, fails to unravel the philosophy of Pound’s Cantos and its connection not only to imagism, but also to vorticism, which is the crystallization of Pound’s notion of the image. Helmi should have been aware that the dilemma of (post)modernist Arab critics and poets is represented in the lack of an understanding of Pound’s principles of imagism, which are mainly found in his letters and critical works. Therefore, Helmi’s choice to write a preface in a vague poetic language is unsuccessful. Helmi’s style interweaves the theoretical, the mythological, and the poetic languages, and creates a confusion between what Pound thinks as a critic, and what he writes creatively as a poet. There are several places in the preface where Helmi’s voice is mingled with Pound's; thus, it becomes unclear whether Helmi is stating his dictum or quoting Pound’s perceptions. The lack of accuracy and proper citation lead readers to think that some notions are the translator’s critique, while it is obvious to anyone who has read Pound’s works that the ideas are Pound’s.

Helmi, for example, copies Pound’s definition of the image, (page 36), without citation, or acknowledgment. Pound stated that an image is “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instance of time” (Literary Essays 4). Helmi, however, merely translates the definition and embeds it in his preface, without directing the reader’s attention to the fact that this is originally Pound’s definition that was decisive in changing the whole perspective on what poetry is. Helmi also translates Pound’s oft-quoted poem “In a Station of the Metro,” which can be considered as “the epitome of Imagism” (Smith 20), or the “one image poem,” as Pound himself calls it (Gaudier-Brzeska 88), and he uses it in the course of the argument, without citation. Helmi says “and thus, the faces in the crowd, eventually, seem Petals on a wet, black bough (Helmi 36).  Pound’s well-known poem says:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

     (Personae 53)

Helmi, therefore, explicitly uses Pound’s words blurring his authorship. He, furthermore, does not refer to the influence of the Japanese haiku, which has to be highlighted, especially when this poem is quoted, to prepare readers to appreciate it, in spite of its extreme brevity. 

Here, Helmi falls in the predicament of confusing intertextuality with plagiarism. This confusion, however, usually happens when writing poetry which includes allusions and intertextuality that synchronize the voice of the poet with other influential voices in external sources. The problematic issue of intertextuality becomes essential in modernist poetry, which assumes readers to be knowledgeable enough to spot the references. Helmi is perhaps confused by Pound’s advice to poets in his essay “A Retrospect,” where he says: “Be influenced by as many artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it” (Literary Essays 5). Pound, however, addresses poets in his tips, since he believes that poetry is a vortex, “the point of maximum energy” (Gaudier Brzeska 81), an energy that interweaves different voices and arts. The preface, contrariwise, has to be academic rather than poetic; that is to say, Helmi misses Pound’s point by mixing his theory as a critic with his poetic voice.

Another issue that is worth discussing when translating Pound’s Cantos is whether one can select specific Cantos for translation, or they should be considered as one work. According to Richard Gray, it is controversial “[w]hether The Cantos are a great, single poem or a series of magnificent fragments” (Gray 81). Helmi randomly culls specific Cantos in his translation, without explaining the basis of his choice, or even recognizing that the 120 cantos should be considered as one epic.  He, for example, excludes “Canto VI” from his translation though it starts with: “What you have done, Odysseus,/ We know what you have done. . .” (VI/21), which connects this canto to the previous ones including Odysseus (Three Cantos III and Canto I). Though Helmi obviously selects some of the famous cantos for translation, he does not enlighten readers about the criteria of his choice. He does not, for instance, follow the selection published by Faber & Faber in Selected Cantos of Ezra Pound (1967) which includes the poet's own choices. Helmi, moreover, does not refer to any previous Arabic translations of The Cantos.      

Finally, it is significant when one translates The Cantos to highlight some vital points regarding Pound’s critical perception beforehand. Explaining the principles of imagism and vorticism, for instance, will make it easier for readers to appreciate The Cantos as a long imagist and vorticist poem. The preface thus has to unravel the entanglements of Pound’s influences, the establishment of imagism, his later interest in vorticism, and his long experience of writing The Cantos, which was left incomplete at his death. Nonetheless, Helmi should be credited not only for his insightful translation of the selected Cantos, but also for giving Pound the attention the great poet deserves, as Helmi is one of the few who actually brought Pound to the Arabic literary scene through his translations and his critical works.



Gray, Richard. American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976.

Helmi, Hassan, trans. Selections from The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Cairo: The National Center for Translation, 2014.

Pound, Ezra. Personæ: The Collected Poems of Ezra Pound, New York: Liveright, 1926.

_____ Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. London: Faber and Faber, 1954.

_____ Selected Cantos of Ezra Pound, London: Faber and Faber, 1967.

_____ Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. New York: New Directions, 1970.

_____ The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1972.

Smith, Paul. Pound Revised. London: Croom Helm, 1983.