Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation


root: ء-د-ب / noun / plural: آداب / definition: literature

The shift from simplified pieces of writing in Arabic textbooks to your first encounter with an Arabic novel can will be intimidating. You’ll likely note (amidst your “mild” panic at the sheer amount of words between your hands that you’ll have to mentally decipher) the mass of completely alien vocabulary that almost renders your grammar of knowledge invalid when it comes to understanding. Almost.

So, to help alleviate any trepidation you may be feeling, I thought it might be useful to take a short excerpt from a piece of Arabic literature and go through the vocabulary and grammar word-by-word (similar to my headline analyses).

For this step-by-step translation, I’ll be going through an excerpt from the famous Arabic novel مَوسِم الهِجرة إلى الشَمال (Season of Migration to the North) by الطيّب صالح. This passage is from the very end of the book:

كان ذهني قد صفا حينئذ، وتحددت علاقتي بالنهر، إنني طاف فوق الماء ولكنني لست جزءاً منه، فكرت أنني إذا مت في تلك اللحظة فإنني أكون قد متُّ كما ولدت، دون إرادتي. طول حياتي لم أختر ولم أقرر. إنني أقرر الآن أنني أختار الحياة. سأحيا لأن ثمة أناساً قليلين أحب أن أبقى معهم أطول وقت ممكن، ولأن عليّ واجبات يجب أن أؤديها، لا يعنيني إن كان للحياة معنى أو لم يكن لها معنى. وإذا كنت لا أستطيع أن أغفر فسأحاول أن أنسى، سأحيا بالقوة والمكر. وحركتُ قدمي وذراعي بصعوبة وعنف حتى صارت قامتي كلها فوق الماء. وبكل ما بقيت لي من طاقة صرخت، وكأنني مُمثل هزلي يصيح في مسرح: “النجدة. النجدة”. ـ

Note: for the sake of my sanity (and yours), I’ve decided to split this step-by-step translation across two separate posts after realising quite early on how (very, very…) long this is going to be. So this is part 1 and I’ll hopefully post part 2 soon!

To make this more manageable, we’ll go through it one small chunk at a time:

كان ذهني قد صفا حينئذ


root ك-و-ن, form I, past tense, 3rd person, masculine verb

كان is often translated as “was” or “used to”, but here, as it’s followed in the clause by another past tense verb (صفا), it’s best translated as “had”, in the sense of “had done”

it’s in masculine conjugation because the subject (ذهني) is masculine


root ذ-ه-ن, noun

ذِهْن means “mind”

it’s followed by the possessive suffix ـي meaning “my”

so ذِهْني = my mind


قَد followed by a past tense verb simply emphasises the past tense

sometimes it’s translated as “already”, but it’s often not translated at all


root ص-ف-و, form I, past tense, 3rd person, masculine verb

صفا / يصفو means “to be or become clear”

again, the conjugation is masculine as the subject is ذهني


root ح-ي-ن

حِينَئِذٍ means “then” or “at that time”

So, putting the first clause together:

كان ذهني قد صفا حينئذ

my mind had become clear at that time

(note: I am leaving these intermediate translations fairly untouched at the moment just for clarity, at the end, we can make them sound more natural)

Next clause:

وتحددت علاقتي بالنهر


the initial و means “and” (remember this is always attached to the following word with no space left between them)

root ح-د-د, form V, past tense, 3rd person, feminine verb

form V of this root (تَحَدَّد / يَتَحَدَّد) means “to be determined/defined”

the verb is in feminine conjugation, تَحَدَّدَت, because the subject (علاقتي) is feminine

note: at first glance, this conjugation may not be obvious—how do you know it’s not first person past tense or second person singular when there are no vowel markings?

while those conjugations would also end in the ت, the key here is the definition of the word: this verb (as is the case for form V verbs) is intransitive

this means that the verb takes no object, so it can’t be “I/you determined something”; rather, it is “something was determined” (this will, of course, also become clear with the context)


root ع-ل-ق, noun

عَلاقة means “relationship”

the final ـة is a tell-tale sign that this noun is feminine, hence the conjugation of تحددت

the possessive suffix ـي is added, meaning علاقتي = “my relationship”


the بـ prefix here means “to” or “with”, which we can determine due to the previous word (i.e. علاقتي بـ = “my relationship with/to”)

النَهَر: root ن-ه-ر, noun

النهر has the definite marker prefix الـ meaning “the”

and نَهَر simply means “river”

All together:

وتحددت علاقتي بالنهر

and my relationship to the river was determined

Third clause:

إنني طاف فوق الماء ولكنني لست جزءاً منه


this word is made up of two components: إنَّ + ني

إنَّ introduces the main clause, it isn’t usually translated but at times you’ll find it translated as “indeed”, “truly”, etc

إنّ is followed by either a noun or a pronoun suffix denoting the subject

here, the first person ـني suffix is used meaning “I”


root: ط-ف-و, form I active participle (اسم فاعل)

طافٍ means “floating”

it may not look like the typical form I active participle in the فاعل form, and that’s because the final root letter, و, is a weak letter

in short: when it is indefinite and in the nominative or genitive case (i.e. مرفوع or مجرور) it will be written طافٍ and when indefinite and in accusative case (منصوب) it will be طافياً—when definite or feminine, a ي will be present (i.e. الطافي and طافية, respectively)


root ف-و-ق, preposition

فَوْقَ means “above” or “on top of”


root م-و-ه, noun

ماء means “water”

with the definite الـ prefix, الماء = “the water”


three components here: وَ + لـكِنَّ + ـني

و = “and”

لكنّ = “but” or “however”

the ـني pronoun suffix (like we saw above with إنني) = “I”

while the و prefix is translated as “and” in many contexts, we wouldn’t do so in this case where it is connected to the لكنّ (because “and but” wouldn’t make sense)

so ولكنني = “but I”


root ل-ي-س

لَيْسَ = “to not be” or simply “not”

لَسْتُ is the first person conjugation, i.e. “I am not”


root ج-ز-ء, noun

جُزْء = “a part”

it ends with اً as it’s in the accusative case (منصوب) due to it being the object of لست


two components: مِن + هُ

مِن = “from” or “of”

هُ = “it”; this pronoun suffix is masculine because it refers to الماء, “the water” (this suffix can also mean “he”, but it obviously doesn’t here as it’s referring to an inanimate thing)

we can work out that منه translates as “of it” here because of the immediate context (i.e. you’d say “a part of something”, not “from“)

So we have:

إنني طاف فوق الماء ولكنني لست جزءاً منه

I am floating on top of the water but I am not a part of it


فكرت أنني إذا مت في تلك اللحظة فإنني أكون قد متُّ كما ولدت، دون إرادتي


root ف-ك-ر, past tense verb, first person conjugation

this could actually be either form I (فَكَرْتُ) or II (فَكَّرْتُ) as both carry the same meaning and would be written the same way without the vowel markings

فكرت = “I thought/considered”


أنَّ + ـني

أنَّ = “that”

ني suffix again refers to the subject = “I”

therefore, إنني = “that I”

note that the “I” might not always be mentioned immediately after the word “that”, as the suffix just introduces the subject of the clause (have a look at the translation below to see what I mean)


إذا is a conditional particle (أداة الشرط)

إذا + past tense verb = if

إذا introduces the condition/الشرط (e.g. “if I went home“) and a فـ prefix usually introduces the result/جواب الشرط (e.g. the second part of “if I went home, I would feel better“)

so expect to come across a ف later in the sentence


root م-و-ت, form I, first person verb—and it’s in past tense because, as we just mentioned, إذا has to be followed by a past tense verb

ماتَ / يَموت = “to die”

مُتُّ is the conjugation here, meaning “I died”


في = a preposition meaning “in” or “at”


تِلْكَ is the demonstrative pronoun meaning “that” for the singular feminine (i.e. it is the feminine version of ذلك)

it’s feminine because it’s referring to the following word:


root ل-ح-ظ, noun

لَحْظَة = “moment” or “an instant”

notice the ـة at the end—this word is feminine

الـ is the definite prefix

so تلك اللحظة = “that moment”

I thought it would be useful to note here that this differs from the phrase تلك لحظة (i.e. without the definite marker on لحظة), which would mean “that is a moment”


فـ = this is the prefix we said would introduce the result of the conditional sentence

and we’ve discussed إنني previously, which we can simply translate as “I”


this is the present tense, first person conjugation of كان which we had at the very start

this verb has many meanings, so the context would need to be considered when you translate it

here, the best way to translate it would be “(I) would have (done something)”


as mentioned near the start: an emphasis for the past tense


مُتُّ = “(I) died”, as mentioned earlier


كَما = “as”


root و-ل-د, passive of form I, past tense, first person

وُلِدْتُ = “I was born”


دُونَ = “without”


إرادة is a noun derived from the root ر-و-د and it means “will” or “desire”

ـي is the possessive suffix so إرادَتي = “my will/desire”

Now we have:

فكرت أنني إذا مت في تلك اللحظة فإنني أكون قد متُّ كما ولدت، دون إرادتي

I thought that if I died at that moment, I would have died as I was born, without my will

Next sentence:

طول حياتي لم أختر ولم أقرر


طُولَ is a preposition meaning ” during” or “throughout” from the root ط-و-ل


حَياة = “life”

again, the ـي is the possessive suffix meaning “my”

thus, حياتي = “my life”


لَم is a negation for the past tense

it’s followed by a present tense verb in the jussive case (i.e. مجزوم)


root خ-ي-ر, form VIII, present tense jussive (المضارع المجزوم), first person

أَخْتارُ = “I choose”

because it’s in the jussive case due to the لم, there must be a sukoon ( ْ )on the final letter

however, Arabic doesn’t ordinarily allow for there to be a long vowel followed by a letter with a sukoon; therefore, the long vowel sound (ا) is deleted, leaving us with أَخْتَرْ

together, لم أختر = “I did not choose”


a combination of و and لم, both previously discussed

as the و is linking two negative statements, we can translate it as “nor”


root ق-ر-ر, form II, present tense jussive, first person

أُقَرِّر = “I decide”

so لَم أقررْ = “I did not decide”


طول حياتي لم أختر ولم أقرر

throughout my life I did not choose nor did I decide

And now for the last sentence we’ll be going through in this post:

إنني أقرر الآن أنني أختار الحياة


we’ve already discussed that إنّ introduces the clause and isn’t usually translated, and that the ـني suffix introduces the subject of the clause as “I”


أُقَرِّر = “I decide”, as before


الآنَ = “now”


we’ve encountered these last three words before as well:

أَنَّني = “that I”


أَخْتار = “I choose”


الحياة = “life”

note: although the definite marker الـ is often translated as “the”, there are many cases where it will be omitted

in English, we can have nouns with no definite or indefinite article i.e. zero article (like here, where we’d say “I choose life“)

in Arabic, those zero article nouns we use in English usually carry the definite الـ prefix

Putting the last sentence together:

إنني أقرر الآن أنني أختار الحياة

I decide now that I choose life

The whole translation so far:

كان ذهني قد صفا حينئذ، وتحددت علاقتي بالنهر، إنني طاف فوق الماء ولكنني لست جزءاً منه، فكرت أنني إذا مت في تلك اللحظة فإنني أكون قد متُّ كما ولدت، دون إرادتي. طول حياتي لم أختر ولم أقرر. إنني أقرر الآن أنني أختار الحياة

My mind had become clear at that time, and my relationship to the river was determined, I am floating on top of the water but I am not a part of it, I thought that if I died at that moment, I would have died as I was born, without my will. Throughout my life I did not choose nor did I decide. I decide now that I choose life.

As you can see—because I’ve been translating quite literally—there are some parts which seem inconsistent or awkwardly constructed. For example, we go from past tense (“my mind had cleared”) to present tense (“I am floating”) to past tense again (“I thought”) all in one sentence. Now that we’re looking at a larger piece of text, we can adapt the translation in places:

At that time, my mind had become clear, and my relationship to the river was determined. I was floating on top of the water but I was not part of it. I contemplated that if I had died in that moment, I would have died as I was born, without any will of my own. Throughout my life, I had not chosen nor had I decided. I have decided now that I choose life.

(to be continued…)

I don’t know about you, but I’m slightly exhausted after that post (my ever-slowing laptop which doubles the amount of time it takes to write a post doesn’t help)…

Anyway, I really hope this was clear and useful—as always, do let me know if you have any questions, and also let me know if you like this step-by-step translation format!

Hopefully we’ll meet again soon for part two of this translation… إلى اللقاء!

(Edit: part two is now available here!)

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8 thoughts on “Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation

  1. Thank you for your effort to make Arabic texts user friendly for those of us, who are not as fluent in Arabic YET as we’d like to. 🙂

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