Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #5

شَمس

root: ش-م-س / noun / plural: شُموس / definition: sun


Welcome back! For our fifth post in the literature translation series, we’re taking a look at an excerpt from the famous novel رجال في الشمس (Men in the Sun) by the Palestinian writer غسان كنفاني (Ghassan Kanafani).

The novel begins as follows:


أراح أبو قيس صدره فوق التراب الندي، فبدأت الأرض تخفق من تحته: ضربات قلب متعب تطوف في ذرات الرمل مرتجة ثم تعبر إلى خلاياه


You probably know how we do things by now: we’ll break the literature excerpt down into smaller chunks for the word-by-word analysis and then we’ll put everything back together at the end for the complete translation. Ready?

Here’s the first part:

أراح أبو قيس صدره فوق التراب الندي

أراح

root: ر-و-ح

form IV verb, past tense, masculine singular

أراحَ / يُريح = “to let (something) rest”

so أراحَ = “he let (something) rest”

the subject of this verb is the next phrase

أبو

this word is in an إضافة phrase with the next one which—together—form a tekonym

tekonyms are common amongst Arabs—it’s when someone is referred to using the name of their child

so these nicknames begin with أَبو (father) or أُمّ (mother) and form an إضافة phrase with the following name to give the meaning “father/mother of …”

the word أَب is actually part of a special group of nouns called الأسماء الخمسة (The Five Nouns)

these special nouns end in a long vowel which changes according to the case: و for مرفوع (nominative/subject), ا for منصوب (accusative/object), ي for مجرور (genitive)

the word أبو here ends in و (i.e. it’s مرفوع) because it is the subject of the verb أراحَ

قيس

قَيس is a name

so, أبو قيس means “the father of Qays”

however, these tekonyms aren’t usually translated literally and we’ll often see them left as “Abu…” or “Umm…” in translated literature—we’ll do the same here

so far we have أراح أبو قيس = “Abu Qays let (something) rest”

remember that the verb is in the masculine singular conjugation to match its subject

صدره

root: ص-د-ر

noun

صَدْر = “chest”

the ـه at the end is the possessive pronoun for “his”

hence صَدرَهُ = “his chest”

the fatha on the final letter of صدر (indicating the منصوب case) is present because the word is the object of the verb أراحَ

فوق

root: ف-و-ق

preposition

فَوْقَ = “above” or “on top of”

التراب

root: ت-ر-ب

noun

تُراب = “soil”, “earth”, or “ground”

the prefix الـ is added to indicate definiteness

this word would be مجرور (in genitive case—i.e. الترابِ) because it comes directly after a preposition

الندي

root: ن-د-ي

adjective

نَدِيّ = “damp” or “moist”

the adjective is masculine and definite (note the الـ prefix) to match the noun it describes, التراب


Let’s piece this first part together for a rough, intermediate translation:

أراح أبو قيس صدره فوق التراب الندي

Abu Qays let his chest rest above/on top of the damp/moist earth/ground


Moving on:

فبدأت الأرض تخفق من تحته

فبدأت

two components here: فَـ + بدأت

the فَـ prefix means “so” or “and”—it usually indicates a cause-and-effect relationship or a small amount of time between two things happening

as for the verb:

root: ب-د-ء

form I verb, part tense, feminine singular

بَدَأَ / يَبدَأ = “to begin/start”

as we explored in the post Four Synonyms for “to Begin to” in Arabic, this verb can be followed by another verb in the present tense to give the meaning of “to begin to”

here, the present tense verb following بدأت is تخفق which comes after the subject, الأرض

we’ll see why this verb is in the feminine conjugation below

الأرض

root: ء-ر-ض

noun

the word أَرْض means “earth” or “ground” and it is feminine, hence we see the feminine بَدَأَت as the verb as opposed to the masculine بَدَأَ

الـ is the definite prefix

تخفق

root: خ-ف-ق

form I verb, present tense, feminine singular

خَفَقَ / يَخفِق = “to tremble/vibrate/throb”

as we mentioned, بَدَأَتَ plus this present tense verb, تَخفِق, form a verb “duo”—together, بدأت تخفق means “began to tremble”

so, if we include the subject of this verb duo, بدأت الأرض تخفق means “the earth began to tremble”

note that the tense of this two-verb construction depends on the first verb, بدأت—which is in the past tense

من

preposition

مِن = “from”

this word needs to be understood as a phrase with the following word

تحته

تَحتَ = is another preposition

but here, مِن تَحتِ as a phrase means “from beneath” or “under”

the object pronoun ـه “him” is present at the end of تَحتِ, which refers back to أبو قيس

together, مِن تَحتِهِ = “under/from beneath him”

note: we pronounce the object pronoun ـه with a kasra here rather than its usual damma because it’s preceded by a kasra

the pronoun suffixes ـهُ + ـهُم + هُما + هُنَّ all change their damma to a kasra when they come after either a kasra or a ي

e.g. في + هُما gives us فيهِما, and على + هُم gives us عليهِم, etc


Putting those few words together, we get:

فبدأت الأرض تخفق من تحته

so/and the earth/ground began to tremble/vibrate/throb beneath him

note: from this little context, I already prefer the word “beneath” as a translation for من تحته in this sentence—but maybe I’ll change my mind later, when looking at the full translation


Next part:

ضربات قلب متعب تطوف في ذرات الرمل مرتجة

ضربات

root: ض-ر-ب

noun, plural

ضَرْبة = “a beat”, ضَرَبات is the plural

the meaning of this word is clear because of the two-word إضافة phrase it’s in: ضربات قلب, see below

قلب

root: ق-ل-ب

noun

قَلْب = “heart”

so ضَرَبات قَلب = “heartbeats”

note that this is an indefinite إضافة phrase—we can tell because the final word in the إضافة doesn’t have any indicators of definiteness, like الـ or a possessive suffix

متعب

root: ت-ع-ب

adjective (passive participle/اسم مفعول of form IV)

مُتعَب = “tired”

this adjective is describing قلب, and therefore is also masculine, singular, and indefinite

we just translated ضربات قلب as “heartbeats”—but to be explicit in the fact that متعب “tired” refers to the heart and not the beats themselves, we might have to translate differently

for now, we can say that ضربات قلب متعب = “beats of a tired heart”

تطوف

root: ط-و-ف

form I verb, present tense, feminine singular

طافَ / يَطوف = “to move around” or “to float/drift”

the subject of this verb is the ضربات—seeing as the noun is a non-human plural, it’s treated as the feminine singular in terms of grammar, hence the feminine singular verb conjugation

so why is this verb in the present tense when the sentence so far has been in the past?

this portion of the sentence is describing and giving more detail about the first part

in English, we wouldn’t translate this type of description using a simple present tense verb like “moves/floats”, instead, we’d use the present tense progressive like “moving/floating”

for example: we would say “he walked outside, searching for a rose” instead of using the past tense (he searched) or the simple present tense (he searches)

in Arabic, in contexts like this, we’d simply use the present tense

في

preposition

في = “in”

ذرات

root: ذ-ر-ر

noun, plural

ذَرّة = “atom” or “particle”, ذَرّات is the plural

this word is in an إضافة with the next one

الرمل

root: ر-م-ل

noun

رَمْل = “sand”

الـ is the definite prefix

putting this إضافة phrase together, ذرات الرمل, we can see that a logical translation would be “grains of sand” (as opposed to “particles”)

as I’ve mentioned relentlessly in previous step-by-step translation posts, the الـ prefix isn’t always translated as “the”

“zero article” words in English (i.e. those without any definite/indefinite marker in a certain context, like “sand”) often appear in Arabic with the definite marker الـ

we’ll decide whether “the” will appear in the translation when we look at the wider context

مرتجة

root: ر-ج-ج

adjective/adverb, (active participle/اسم فاعل of form VIII)

مُرْتَجّ = “trembling/shaking”

the feminine ending ـة is present because this adjective is referring back to ضربات, a non-human plural

but is this adjective really an adjective in this context? (no!)

how is this adjective functioning as an adverb, and how do we know that it is doing so?

you can’t see it, but the word would actually be pronounced مرتجّةً, i.e. have the adverb-typical fathatayn ending

we can tell that it’s not functioning as a typical adjective because it’s not next to ضربات in the sentence

مرتجة is actually describing the verb related to ضربات, which is تطوف, and not the noun itself—this is what makes it an adverb

i.e. it’s the movement that’s “trembling” and not the heartbeats


Let’s see how that will affect the translation of this part:

ضربات قلب متعب تطوف في ذرات الرمل مرتجة

beats of a tired heart moving around/floating, trembling, in the grains of sand


Last bit of the sentence:

ثم تعبر إلى خلاياه

ثم

connective

ثُمَّ = “then”

تعبر

root: ع-ب-ر

form I verb, present tense, feminine singular

عَبَرَ / يَعبُر = “to cross” or “to go through”

it’s in the same conjugation as the previous verb (تطوف) because the subject is still ضربات

إلى

preposition

إلى = “to”

خلاياه

root: خ-ل-و

noun, plural

خَليّة = “cell” (like within the human body), خَلايا is the plural form

the ـه at the end of the word is possessive pronoun for “his”

so خَلاياه = “his cells”


Putting that last bit together, we get:

ثم تعبر إلى خلاياه

then going through to his cells


It’s finally time to look at the whole rough translation we’ve built up:

أراح أبو قيس صدره فوق التراب الندي، فبدأت الأرض تخفق من تحته: ضربات قلب متعب تطوف في ذرات الرمل مرتجة ثم تعبر إلى خلاياه

Abu Qays let his chest rest above/on top of the damp/moist earth/ground, so/and the earth/ground began to tremble/vibrate/throb beneath him: beats of a tired heart moving around/floating, trembling, in the grains of sand then going through to his cells


Let’s make this translation sound at least half-decent now:

أراح أبو قيس صدره فوق التراب الندي، فبدأت الأرض تخفق من تحته: ضربات قلب متعب تطوف في ذرات الرمل مرتجة ثم تعبر إلى خلاياه

Abu Qays rested his chest on top of the damp ground, and the earth began to throb beneath him: beats of a tired heart trembling through grains of sand then permeating his cells

Translation notes:

  • We gave تراب and أرض the translations of both “earth” and “ground” earlier. I decided to use “earth” for أرض because it made more sense to me that the “earth” (which is more strongly associated with life) would be described as throbbing, rather than the “ground”
  • Instead of using the verb “moving around” followed by the adverb “trembling” (which sounded awkward), I just used “trembling” as a verb
  • “going through to his cells” was hardly an elegant construction (word-for-word translations are often far from any sort of grace), so I changed the verb to “permeating”

That’s it!

I hope this was useful, feel free to leave any comments or questions you have below and I’ll see you on my next post (when I’m hopefully less tired and my eyelids won’t be closing as I type!).

!تصبح على خير


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