Extreme Translation

Ahmad Almallah’s debut collection, Bitter English, is an exploration of identity and poetic form.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Lauren Rebecca Thacker

Ahmad Almallah, lecturer in English and Arabic

Brooke Sietinsons

Ahmad Almallah, lecturer in English and Arabic, giving a poetry reading at age five. 

Courtesy of Ahmad Almallah

Ahmad Almallah says that Bitter English, his debut poetry collection, was five years in the making. But in many ways, the book is the result of a decades-long journey. Almallah, a lecturer in English and Arabic, came to the U.S. from Palestine in 2000 intending to study engineering as an undergraduate. His plans changed and he went in a more creative direction, studying communications and film, only to change course again and pursue a doctorate in Arabic literature. He secured a tenure-track position as a professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College, but he found that academia didn’t allow him the time to pursue the writing that was increasingly important to him. “I was just stuck on this idea of wanting to become a poet,” he says.

Coming to Penn provided an opportunity. Almallah moved to Philadelphia with his wife, Huda Fakhreddine, Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and their young daughter. “It was a strange time for me because I felt like I really needed to write,” he remembers. “And I decided that whatever writing I was doing in Arabic was not reaching its potential.” 

He decided to pursue yet another change—writing in English. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to exile myself into English,’” he says. “The title is Bitter English because it wasn’t an easy decision. I felt a sense of loss and guilt. But the tensions between the languages played out in a very generative way.” 

Bitter English is full of poems that explore how different aspects of Almallah’s experiences—as a son, father, husband, immigrant, scholar, and witness to his mother’s Alzheimer’s and contemporary events—relate to and complicate one another. He considers the collection “an act of extreme translation,” where the Arabic poetic tradition plays out in relation to the English tradition. 

“The Bookcase,” reprinted here, grapples with the concerns about identify that play out across the book. 

“I wrote ‘The Bookcase’ very early,” Almallah says. “I even published a version in a completely different form, a more stripped-down and lyrical version. But the alienation of the speaker isn’t quite captured in the lyrical version. I was thinking about the sense of being in between places and lan-guages, and in this version, I try to render that in a very real way. I’m still conflicted about which is better. I do that a lot—experiment with revisions as a way of exploring the possibilities of a text.”

Bitter English was published by University of Chicago Press in 2019.