Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #4

اِستِعارة

root: ع-و-ر / noun / plural: اِستِعارات / definition: metaphor


And… we’re back with the fourth post in the literature translation series! This time, we’re going through an excerpt from another poem: مَسرَح (Theatre) by الصادق الرضي (Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi), whose poetry I previously mentioned in this post.

Initially, I was going to pick an excerpt from another of the poet’s poems, but then I came across his beautiful metaphor for العالم (“the world”) in these lines:


الذي يتسرَّبُ من بين الأصابعِ كالأحلامِ

تَذْروه الروحُ

وتمتصَّه — أنتَ — كالرائحة


As usual, we’re going to break this excerpt down for the word-by-word translation, and then put everything together at the end to smooth things out.

Let’s start with the first line:

الذي يتسرَّبُ من بين الأصابعِ كالأحلامِ

الذي

as noted, this excerpt is referring back to a previously-mentioned word in the poem: العالَم (“the world”)

it’s important to know that this whole excerpt is a relative clause – something I talked about in some detail in Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #2

considering the relative clause is describing a definite noun (as we can tell from the الـ prefix on العالم), the clause must begin with a relative pronoun—which is exactly what الذي is

a relative pronoun is something we’d often translate as “that”, “which”, “who” etc. in sentences like “the house that he built”

الذي is the singular, masculine relative pronoun, and it takes that form in order to match what it’s describing, العالم, which is also singular and masculine

يتسرَّبُ

root: س-ر-ب

form V verb, present tense

تَسَرَّبَ / يَتَسَرَّبُ = “to seep through” or “to flow”

the verb is in its singular masculine conjugation because its subject is العالم

من

preposition

مِن = “from” or “through”

بين

preposition

بَينَ = “between”

this word can actually be interpreted in two ways, but based on how the poet himself recited it in the poem (“بَينَ”), I mentioned it as a preposition here (prepositions have a fixed منصوب/accusative form)

the other way that this could be interpreted is as a noun “بَينِ”, meaning “separation”

the noun would be مجرور (in genitive case) because it follows a preposition (“مِن”)

الأصابعِ

root: ص-ب-ع

plural noun

إصْبَع = “finger”, أَصابِع is the plural form

this word has the definite الـ prefix—but as we’ve mentioned in previous translation posts (like this one, press ctrl+F and search for “zero article”), we don’t necessarily translate it as “the”!

this word is مجرور, seeing as it follows the preposition بَينَ

note: if we were dealing with بَين as a noun, الأصابع would still be مجرور as the two words would form an إضافة (possessive construction) meaning “the separation/spaces of the fingers”

كالأحلامِ

components: كَـ + الِ + أحلام

كَـ is considered a preposition (حرف جرّ), and it means “as” or “like”—we covered this particle and seven others in the post Comparing the Grammar of Arabic Comparison Particles

الـ = definite prefix

as for أحلام:

root: ح-ل-م

plural noun

حُلم = “dream”, and أحلام is the plural

أحلام is مجرور here because it follows the particle كَـ

so كالأحلام = “like dreams” (as we can see, this is another example of a “zero article” word in English, we don’t translate the الـ as “the”!)


So let’s put that first line together with a rough translation:

الذي يتسرَّبُ من بين الأصابعِ كالأحلامِ

which seeps through between (the) fingers like dreams


Next line:

تَذْروه الروحُ

تَذْروه

components: تَذْرو + ـهُ

root: ذ-ر-و

form I verb, present tense

ذَرا / يَذرو = “to blow/carry away” or “to scatter/disperse (something)”

تَذرو is in the singular feminine conjugation because its subject is the following word الروح which is grammatically feminine (usually)

the object pronoun suffix ـهُ is masculine as it refers back to العالم

so تذروه means “blows/carries it away”

الروحُ

root: ر-و-ح

noun

رُوح = “soul” or “spirit”

the word is مرفوع (in nominative case) because it is the subject of the verb

الـ = definite prefix

note: I think this line is very interesting, and one of the reasons behind that is that روح comes from the same root as ريح (“wind”)

if we look at the verb, تذرو, it’s often used in reference to the wind carrying or dispersing something like pollen or dust—interesting imagery right?


Putting together the second (very short) line now:

تَذْروه الروحُ

the soul carries it away


Onto the third and final line:

وتمتصَّه — أنتَ — كالرائحة

وتمتصَّه

components: و + تمتصّ + ـهُ

let’s look at تَمتَصَّ first:

root: م-ص-ص

form VIII verb, present tense

اِمتَصَّ / يَمتَصُّ = “to lap/soak up” or “to suck in”

تَمتَصّ is conjugated in the second person, singular, masculine form—i.e. “you”

what’s unusual here is the mood of the verb: it’s the subjunctive (المضارع المنصوب) instead of the default indicative (المضارع المرفوع)—i.e. the verb is written تَمتَصَّ rather than تَمتَصُّ

there’s no particle before the verb that would change its mood to المضارع المنصوب (like the particles أنْ and لَن and لِـ), so we have to assume that the mood is indicating something about the nature of the verb

المضارع المنصوب usually tells us that the action described by the verb is intended, doubted, hoped for, or necessary

so, for example, we could interpret تَمتَصُّ as forced to soak up or hoping to soak up—we’ll look at the full translation to determine what might be intended here and whether that will affect the translation

looking at the other components now:

وَ = “and”

ـهُ = the object pronoun, referring back to العالم again

overall, وتمتصَّه = “and you soak it up”

أنتَ

أنتَ = the second person, singular, masculine pronoun meaning “you”

كالرائحة

components: كَـ + الـ + رائحة

كَـ = “as” or “like”, as mentioned earlier

الـ = definite prefix

as for رائِحة:

root: ر-و-ح (the same as the word روح we encountered previously)

noun

رائِحة = “fragrance” or “perfume”

so كالرائحة = “like perfume”


The final line, altogether:

وتمتصَّه — أنتَ — كالرائحة

and you soak it up — you — like perfume


Okay, so now let’s look at the whole rough translation:

الذي يتسرَّبُ من بين الأصابعِ كالأحلامِ

which seeps through between (the) fingers like dreams

تَذْروه الروحُ

the soul carries it away

وتمتصَّه — أنتَ — كالرائحة

and you soak it up — you — like perfume


Rough translations are never pretty.

Here’s my tidied-up version:

الذي يتسرَّبُ من بين الأصابعِ كالأحلامِ

which seeps from between your fingers like dreams

تَذْروه الروحُ

swept by your soul

وتمتصَّه — أنتَ — كالرائحة

and — you — you drink it in like perfume


Translation notes:

  • I decided to change “the fingers” and “the soul” to “your”—tying in with the second person address in the last line
  • I changed the second line to a passive construction, with العالم as the non-present subject—personally, I think it flows better this way
  • I wanted to keep the emphasis on “you” in the last line and the pauses created by the dashes—so I simply moved around the structure a little to maintain the same effect
  • In the same line, I swapped “soak it in” for “drink it in”—“drink” sounds less passive, as if you’re filling your lungs with the perfume
  • And finally, I decided not to add anything to specify the nature of the verb تمتصّ—some things are better left to the reader’s interpretation!

That’s just one take on the translation!

I highly recommend you to check out Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi’s poems if you’re interested in Arabic poetry, he uses such beautiful and lively imagery.

I recently bought an Arabic-English bilingual poetry collection of his and in this post I mention two websites where you can read and listen to his poetry. (Here‘s the link to the poem we went through in this post—worth a listen!)

I hope this post was useful. As always, if you have any questions or comments, do leave them below.

!مع السلامة


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