Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #3


root: ق-ص-د / noun / plural: قَصائِد / definition: poem

You may remember me mentioning Badr Shakir al-Sayyab previously, when I used a quote from a poem of his to exemplify one of the Four Synonyms for “to Begin to” in Arabic. And—unsurprisingly, I suppose, considering my dissertation was centred around his poetry—al-Sayyab’s works were the very first thing that popped into my head the moment I thought of using a poem for the next post in the literature translation series.

For those of you who are just coming across his name for the first time, al-Sayyab (1926–1964) was a famous Iraqi poet who was credited with being a pioneer of the Free Verse Movement.

In this post, we’ll be going word-by-word through an excerpt from what is al-Sayyab’s most well-known poem: “أُنشودة المطر” (often translated as “Rain Song” or “Hymn of the Rain”). I’ve picked out a few lines from the middle of the poem:

وعبرَ أمواجِ الخليجِ تمسحُ البروق

سواحلَ العراقِ

،بالنجومِ والمحار

كأنها تهمُّ بالشروق

Let’s deal with this translation in three parts. First:

وعبرَ أمواجِ الخليجِ تمسحُ البروق


two components here: وَ + عَبْرَ

و simply means “and”

عَبْرَ is a preposition (حرف جرّ) meaning “across”/”over”/”through”


root: م-و-ج

أَمْواج is the plural form of the word مَوْج, meaning “waves” or “seas”

this word is مجرور (i.e. it ends in a kasra) because it comes directly after a preposition, عبرَ

أمواج is the first word in a two-word, definite إضافة (genitive/possessive construction)


root: خ-ل-ج

خَليج means “gulf” or “bay”

the definite article prefix الـ is present, so: الخَليج = the Gulf

(the specific gulf being referred to here is الخليج العربي a.k.a. الخليج الفارسي—the Arabian/Persian Gulf)

as الخليج is the second word in the إضافة phrase, it is also مجرور, hence the kasra at the end

together, أمواج الخليج means “the waves/seas of the Gulf”


root: م-س-ح

form I, present tense, 3rd person, singular feminine verb conjugation

مَسَح / يَمسَح means “to wipe over” or “to wash”

the subject of تَمسَحُ is the following word, البروق—which is a non-human plural and therefore treated grammatically as the feminine singular—hence, the feminine singular conjugation of this verb is used


root: ب-ر-ق

بُروق is the plural of the word بَرْق which means “(flash of) lightning”

the الـ prefix indicates definiteness—but note that it is not always translated as “the” (you can check out the first post in this translation series for an explanation of “zero article” words)

seeing as البروق is the subject of the verb, it would be مرفوع (in nominative case) and therefore take a damma at the end: البُروقُ

So a rough translation of the first line would be:

وعبرَ أمواجِ الخليجِ تمسحُ البروق

and across the waves/seas of the Gulf (the) flashes of lightning wipe over (…)

(as with the previous translation posts, we’ll leave these intermediate translations untouched until we can view the excerpt as a whole)

Next two lines :

سواحلَ العراقِ

بالنجومِ والمحار


root: س-ح-ل

سَواحِل is the plural of ساحِل meaning “coast” or “shore”—so سواحل = “coasts”/”shores”

this noun is in an إضافة with the following word, and this two-word noun phrase (سواحل العراق) is the object of the verb تمسح which we dealt with above

as it is the object, the word سواحل is منصوب (in accusative case) and therefore ends in a fatha (remember only final words in an إضافة can take tanween, or a الـ prefix, or a possessive suffix)


العِراق (from the root ع-ر-ق) = “Iraq”

so سواحل العراق means “the coasts/shores of Iraq”

العراقِ ends in a kasra because it is the second word in the إضافة


components: بِـ + الـ + نُجوم

بـِـ is a preposition meaning “with” or “by”

الـ = definiteness marker

the noun نُجوم, from the root ن-ج-م, is the plural form of نَجْم which means “star”

نُجوم is مجرور due to the fact that it directly follows a preposition


components: وَ + الـ + مَحار

و = “and”

الـ = definiteness marker

مَحار comes from the root ح-و-ر and means “oysters”/”shellfish”

Putting those lines together:

سواحلَ العراقِ

the shores/coasts of Iraq

بالنجومِ والمحار

with stars and oysters

Now for the last line:

كأنها تهمُّ بالشروق


components: كَ + أَنَّ + ها

كَأَنَّ means “as if/though”

and the ها pronoun suffix refers back to البُروق, “flashes of lightning” (remember that the non-human plural البروق is treated as feminine singular)

so we can translate كأنها as “as though they”

Edit: Check out the post Comparing the Grammar of Arabic Comparison Particles for more about كأنّ and lots of similar particles!


root: ه-م-م

form I, present tense, 3rd person, singular feminine verb conjugation

again, subject of this verb is البروق, hence the conjugation

هَمَّ / يَهُمُّ, when followed by بـ, as it is in this context, means “to be about to”


components: بـ + الـ + شُروق

as we just discussed, the function of بـ is connected to the meaning of the verb

الـ is the definite prefix

and شُروق from the root ش-ر-ق, is the مصدر (verbal noun) of the form I verb meaning “(for the sun) to rise”/”to radiate”

The last line all together:

كأنها تهمُّ بالشروق

as though they are about to rise/radiate

Now for the whole (rough) translation:

وعبرَ أمواجِ الخليجِ تمسحُ البروق

and across the waves/seas of the Gulf (the) flashes of lightning wipe over (…)

سواحلَ العراقِ

the shores/coasts of Iraq

،بالنجومِ والمحار

with stars and oysters,

كأنها تهمُّ بالشروق

as though they are about to rise/radiate

Doesn’t sound too poetic at the moment, does it? Let’s try to clear up the translation now:

وعبرَ أمواجِ الخليجِ تمسحُ البروق

and across the Gulf’s seas lightning flashes sweep

سواحلَ العراقِ

the shores of Iraq

،بالنجومِ والمحار

with oysters and stars,

كأنها تهمُّ بالشروق

as though verging on a new dawn

And there we have it!

I hope these step-by-step translations are useful and good for getting some exposure to Arabic literature.

See you on my next post, إلى اللقاء!

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4 thoughts on “Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #3

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