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20 questions for: Brian Powell (#16)

Episode #16 of my series “9273 roots”: 20 questions for the man who works for one of the best translation companies for Arabic: Brian Powell

Last updated: 4 months ago

Lisān al-‘Aarab (لسان العرب), the famous dictionary of Classical Arabic, contains 9273 roots (and 4,493.934 words). A huge playground for people who are passionate about Arabic such as…

Brian Powell


The man who works for one of the best translation companies for Arabic

Brian Powell
Picture credit: Brian Powell

How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn't know you?

My passion for literature became a passion for languages. My passion for languages became a career, and I'm now a professional Arabic translator.

For the past seven years, I've been the translation manager for Industry Arabic, a translation firm specialized entirely in Arabic translation. In that time, I've learned more Arabic than I ever expected to know, worked with some wonderful colleagues, and been driven half-crazy by the sheer number of untranslatable expressions between English and Arabic.

What was your first Arabic grammar book?

The famous al-Kitab fii Ta'allum al-Arabiyya that most universities in the US tend to use.

What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?

The Kitab al-Aghani (كتاب الأغاني) by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani.

What is the story and who was Abu al-Faraj?

Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Isfahani (أبو الفرج الأصفهاني‎), also known as Abul-Faraj (897 – 967 CE), was a scholar and historian. He was born in Isfahan ( – present-day Iran) and it is said that he was a descendant of Marwān II, the last Umayyad caliph of Syria, which explains why he was connected to the Umayyad rules in al-Andalus. Nevertheless, he spent most of his life in Baghdad.

Now what about his famous work – the “Book of Songs”? The so-called Kitab al-Aghani (كتاب الأغاني) – which literally means “Book of Songs” – is a collection of Arabic chants and Arab and Persian poets and singers from the 7th – 10th centuries. It covers cities such as Mecca, Damascus, Isfahan, Rey, Baghdad and Basrah. The book is more or less a collection and description of Arab civilization, starting in the pre-Islamic Jahiliyya period up to the time of Abu al-Faraj (i.e., 10th century). It is said that Abu al-Faraj had spent around 50 years to create his great work (around 10,000 pages).

How much time does a native speaker of English need to master Arabic?

In my case it took about 5 years.

What is your favorite Arabic word?

برزخ (barzakh), mainly for its significance in the thought of the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, where it refers to the realm of imagination where spiritual realities interact with corporeal forms.

Which Arabic word do you like least?

شعاع (shu'a') meaning “ray.” Mainly because I find it almost unpronounceable, and it's an ugly-sounding word for a beautiful thing.

Brian grew up in Alabama, a state in the southeastern region of the United States. Alabama's capital is Montgomery.
picture credit: pixabay (12019)

Which Arabic dialect do you like best?

Egyptian Arabic.

One of the best things about Arabic in general is its incredible richness, its wealth of vocabulary and expressions.

Egyptian Arabic is no exception in this regard, but due to the infusion of foreign borrowings in the dialect (from Coptic, Turkish, Greek, Italian, French, English, etc.) and their adaption to Arabic rhythms, the solemnity and gravity of Classical Arabic gets transformed into a zanier, more humorous sort of expressiveness. Egyptians relish this quirkiness and love to play on it. They have an almost Elizabethan exuberance in language for language's sake.

What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?

ضرب كرسي في الكلوب

Literally, it translates as “hurl a chair at the lamp.” It basically means to ruin something, a situation, event, etc. The idea is that if you want to ruin a party, you throw a chair at the lamp in order to break it and leave everyone in the dark.

Industry Arabic (Brian is a partner of this translation company) – offers SCHOLARSHIPS to Arabic students for advanced language study. You can apply here: https://www.industryarabic.com/scholarship

What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?

The famous line from al-Mutanabbi:

الخَيْلُ وَاللّيْلُ وَالبَيْداءُ تَعرِفُني وَالسّيفُ وَالرّمحُ والقرْطاسُ وَالقَلَمُ

Night and horses and the desert know me, as do sword and spear, paper and pen

What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?

قال بعض الفقهاء: كلام العرب لا يحيط بِهِ إِلاَّ نبيّ.
وهذا كلامَ حَرِيٌّ أن يكون صحيحاً. وَمَا بلغنا أنّ أحداً ممن مضى ادعى حفْظ اللغة كلِها.

A legal scholar once said, ‘Only a prophet is able to have a perfect command of the Arabic language.' This is bound to be true since, as far as we know, no one has claimed to memorize this language in its entirely.

Remark: This is taken from Ibn Faris (al-Sahibi fi Fiqh al-Lugha). Ibn Faris was a famous grammarian of the grammar school of Kufa.

What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?

“Leo's [my astrological sign] need to learn how to dance.”

Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?

Richard Francis Burton, Wilfred Thesiger, and Patrick Leigh Fermor. They're old-school scholar-adventurers that have been an inspiration for my own travels.

Who were these three men?

  • Richard Francis Burton (1821 – 1890) was a British explorer, translator, writer, orientalist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. He became famous for his travels and explorations in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. Some claim that he spoke 29 European, Asian, and African languages.
  • Wilfred Thesiger (1910 – 2003), also known by his Arabic name Mubarak bin (مُبَارَك بِن لَنْدَن‎, the blessed one of London), was a British military officer, explorer, and writer. Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After the Second World War, Thesiger traveled across Arabia, lived for some years in the marshes of Iraq, and then traveled in Iran, Kurdistan, French West Africa and . His most famous book is Arabian Sands. Critics called his book “a memorial to a vanished past, a tribute to a once magnificent people”.
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915 – 2011) was a British author, scholar, soldier, and polyglot who played a prominent role behind the lines in the Cretan resistance during the Second World War. He was widely regarded as Britain's greatest living travel writer during his lifetime. One of his most famous books is A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube.

What was the last great meal you had?

A feast of meshwiyyat at Abou Eid in Cairo's Bulaq neighborhood, with an old friend I hadn't seen in years.

What is your favorite city? 

Cairo, although Istanbul may now be giving it a run for its money.

Cairo is Brian's favourite city.
Picture credit: pixabay (Simon)

Which book would you give to a dear friend?

A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

What is your all-time favorite movie?

Lawrence of Arabia.

What music do you listen to?

Bob Dylan, George Brassens and Umm Kulthum.

Brian Powell
Brian Powell has lived in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
picture credit: Brian Powell.

When were you happiest?

February 11, 2011.

Remark: This is the day (Egyptian Revolution/) when the head of the Egyptian regime, Hosni Mubarak, was removed from power after 18 days of protests.

What is your greatest fear?

Flying, ironically enough.

What is your life motto?

Do what you tell yourself you're going to do.

Brian Powell, thank you for your time.

CALL FOR SUGGESTIONS: Who should we interview soon?

Do you know an interesting person who has a special relationship with the Arabic language? Then click yes below and tell us why we should interview this person!

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