Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #6

شاعِر

root: ش-ع-ر / noun / plural: شُعَراء / definition: poet


For today’s addition to the literature translation series, I’ve chosen some lines from a poem that really had an impact on me the first time I read it.

And that’s because the poet’s words are not confined to a poem. Instead, they unsettlingly foreshadow his own unfortunate death.

I first heard about the young Sudanese poet Abdel Wahab Yousif (عبد الوهاب يوسف)—also known as Latinos (لاتينوس)—in this ArabLit article, where we read that he tragically drowned in the Mediterranean in 2020.

Of the 81 people in the Europe-bound rubber boat, 45 migrants and refugees lost their lives when it sank off the coast of Libya.

Shortly before his death, Abdel Wahab wrote the following lines:


أن تموت في عرضِ البحرِ
حيث الموج يصطفق بصخب في رأسكَ
والماء يأرجح جسدكَ
.كقارب مثقوب 

As we translate, you’ll see why these lines are so harrowing.


As usual, we’ll break the extract down for the word-by-word, literal analysis, and then we’ll put everything together at the end for the final translation.

Let’s begin with:

أن تموت في عرضِ البحرِ

أن

أَنْ is a particle familiar for most of us, but its placement here is slightly unusual

we usually find أن after certain verbs or adjectives, meaning “that” or “to”—for example:

  • حاوَلَ أن يَفهَمَ = “he tried to understand”
  • يُمكِنُ أن يكونَ مُفيداً = “it’s possible that it’s useful”
  • من الطَّبيعيّ أن تَتَوَقَّعَ ذلك = “it’s natural to expect that”

or, we encounter أن introducing a subordinate (dependent) clause as a subject, where it needs another component to be a standalone sentence:

  • أن تكونَ قَويّاً مُهِمّ جِدّاً = “to be strong is very important”

so أن in this context is unusual in the sense that it neither has a preceding verb/adjective or another clause that “completes” it

so, what does it mean here (in addition to being a literary device which makes us ponder the implications of a grammatical construction that tells us less than we expect)?

أَنْ is followed by المضارع المنصوب (the present tense subjunctive)—we can see this in the examples above

المضارع المنصوب often indicates that the action denoted by the verb is expected, anticipated, wished for, possible, liked/disliked etc

i.e. it indicates that the action is not yet “concrete” and is not currently happening, and that we can infer—in the absence of a verb/adjective preceding أن or another clause which completes it—what attitude is taken towards the action described

it’s also important to note that it often reflects an action going to happen in the future

let’s keep that in mind when we look at the following verb

تموت

root: م-و-ت

form I verb, past tense, second person, masculine singular (“you”)

ماتَ / يَموتُ = “to die”

so تَموت = “you die”

as mentioned, verbs following أَنْ are المضارع المنصوب, so this verb would be تَموتَ

when combined with أن, we can translate this as “(that) you will die” because—as mentioned—combining أن with a verb often reflects an anticipated action or future tense meaning

this is very much open for interpretation though; we also mentioned أن can indicate that the following verb is possible, in which case we may translate as “you might die”

we’ll take a look at the wider context before deciding on what might be implied

في

preposition

في = “in”

عرضِ

root: ع-ر-ض

noun

عُرْض = “wide, flat surface”

this noun is مجرور (so عُرضِ) as it follows a preposition

it’s also in an إضافة (genitive/possessive construction) with the following noun, hence it doesn’t have the definite marker prefix (الـ) or tanween (عُرضٍ)

البحرِ

root: ب-ح-ر

noun

الـ = definite marker

بَحْر = sea

this is the final word in the two-word إضافة (i.e. عُرض البحرِ), and therefore would also be مجرور, with a kasra at the end

في عُرضِ البَحرِ is actually a phrase meaning “at sea” (literally: “in the wide, flat surface of the sea”)


The first line together:

أن تموت في عرضِ البحرِ

(that) you will die at sea


Second line:

حيث الموج يصطفق بصخب في رأسكَ

حيث

root: ح-ي-ث

conjunction

حَيْثُ = “where”

note: this is a conjunction that connects two clauses, not an interrogative/question particle (which would be أَينَ in Arabic for “where”)

الموج

root: م-و-ج

collective noun

الـ = definite marker

مَوْج = “waves” (as a collective rather than a plural—if it was a plural, it would be أَمواج or مَوجات, and treated grammatically as the feminine singular)

الموج would be مرفوع (i.e. الموجُ) as it is the subject of the following verb

so حَيثُ المَوج = “where the waves”

يصطفق

root: ص-ف-ق

form VIII verb, present tense, third person, masculine singular

اِصْطَفَقَ / يَصْطَفِقُ is an interesting word in that it doesn’t occur in my beloved Hans Wehr dictionary and it displays assimilation—let’s start with the latter:

assimilation in form VIII verbs is when the added letter ت in the form (اِفتَعَلَ / يَفتَعِلُ) is changed to make it easier to pronounce with the preceding letter—for example:

  • for the root letters ز-ه-ر, the form VIII verb is اِزدَهَرَ / يَزدَهِرُ rather than اِزتَهَرَ / يَزتَهِرُ (the ت changed to a د, to be more similar to the ز)
  • for the root letters ض-ر-ر, the verb is اِضطَرَّ / يَضطَرُّ rather than اِضتَرَّ / يَضتَرُّ (the ت changed to a ط, to be more similar to the ض)

in اِصْطَفَقَ / يَصْطَفِقُ, the root letters are ص-ف-ق and the ت has transformed into a ط to be more phonetically similar to the ص

as for the meaning, المعاني tells us that اِصْطَفَقَ / يَصْطَفِقُ means “البحرُ: تلاطمت أمواجُه”—i.e. “(in terms of) the sea: its waves colliding/clashing/crashing against each other”

now, remember that الموج is the subject of this verb (hence the masculine, singular conjugation)

so يَصطَفِقُ المَوجُ = “the waves collide/crash/clash”

بصخب

components: بِـ + صَخَب

as for بِـ:

preposition

بِـ = “with” or “by”, when combined with a noun, it can also create an adverbial meaning

صَخَب:

root: ص-خ-ب

noun

صَخَب = “roar(ing)”, “noise”, or “raging”

this noun will be مجرور as it follows a preposition (بِـ)

together, بِصَخَبِ can be translated as “with noise/roaring/raging” or something like “noisily/loudly”

في

preposition

في = “in”

رأسكَ

components: رأس + ـك

root: ر-ء-س

noun

رَأْس = “head”

this noun would be مجرور as it follows a preposition

ـكَ = the possessive suffix for the second person, masculine singular, i.e. it means “your”

so رَأسِكَ = “your head”


Looking at the second line together:

حيث الموج يصطفق بصخب في رأسكَ

where the waves collide/crash/clash noisily in your head

Next:

والماء يأرجح جسدكَ

والماء

components: و + الـ + ماء

وَ = “and”

الـ = definite marker

ماء:

root: م-و-ه (which we explored in the post Root Exploration: م-و-ه!)

noun

ماء = “water”

ماء is مرفوع here (الماءُ) as it’s the subject of the following verb

together, والماءُ means “and the water”

يأرجح

root: ء-ر-ج-ح

form I quadriliteral verb, present tense, third person, masculine singular

(for more about quadriliteral roots and their verb forms, check out this post!)

again, the verb form أَرْجَحَ / يُؤَرْجِحُ isn’t found in the Hans Wehr dictionary

but we do find the form II verb of the same root there:

تَأَرْجَحَ / يَتَأَرْجَحُ = “to rock/swing”

now, from the quadriliteral verb form table, we know that form II quadriliteral verbs often carry the reflexive/passive/intransitive version of the meaning of their form I counterparts

i.e. while form II means “to rock/swing (itself)” or “to be rocked/swung”, the form I verb means “to rock/swing something”—the form I verb is transitive here so it has an object

this is all just my presumption, so let me just check المعاني… yes, that’s it: “to swing something

great, so the subject of this verb is الماء (hence the conjugation of this verb), therefore والماء يأرجح = “and the water rocks/swings (something)

note: I realise that, in the poem, the word is spelt يأرجح rather than يؤرجح—i.e. the seat of the hamza is alif rather than waaw—but this doesn’t make a difference to the meaning here

جسدكَ

components: جسد + ـك

root: ج-س-د

noun

جَسَد = “body”

this will be منصوب here, as it’s the object of the verb يأرجح

ـكَ = the second person, masculine singular possessive suffix (“your”)

so جَسَدَكَ = “your body”


Putting the line together:

والماء يأرجح جسدكَ

and the water rocks your body

Now for the last line we’re looking at:

كقارب مثقوب

كقارب

components: كَـ + قارب

كَـ = “as” or “like”, we covered this and similar comparison particles in detail in the post Comparing the Grammar of Arabic Comparison Particles

as for قارب:

root: ق-ر-ب

noun

قارِب = “boat”

as كَـ makes the following noun مجرور, we get كَقارِبٍ (“like a boat”)

مثقوب

root: ث-ق-ب

adjective (form I passive participle)

مَثْقوب = “punctured/perfortrated”

this adjective is describing the noun قارب, so it agrees with it in terms of number, gender, definiteness, and case

hence, it would be مثقوبٍ


Looking at that last line together:

كقارب مثقوب

like a punctured boat


Okay so now let’s look at our rough translation as a whole:


أن تموت في عرضِ البحرِ
حيث الموج يصطفق بصخب في رأسكَ
والماء يأرجح جسدكَ
.كقارب مثقوب 

(that) you will die at sea

where the waves collide/crash/clash noisily in your head

and the water rocks your body

like a punctured boat


Now let’s make some edits for a better flow:


أن تموت في عرضِ البحرِ
حيث الموج يصطفق بصخب في رأسكَ
والماء يأرجح جسدكَ
.كقارب مثقوب 

You will die at sea

roaring waves crashing against your head

and the water rocking your body

like a punctured boat.

I’ve left this translation largely unrefined because I think the simplicity speaks volumes. But here’s a few notes on the edits I made:

  • I swapped the adverb “noisily” for the adjective “roaring” to describe the waves rather than the way they crash—I think “roaring” evokes a clearer image of the noise mentioned
  • I removed the conjunction “where” and swapped the present simple tense (“the waves crash”) for the present continuous (“waves crashing”)—this just seemed to flow better
  • I did the same tense swap on the third line, I think this tense also gives a more immersive and immediate reading to the poem

And there we have a translation of the beginning of the poem.

Literature reflects life in one aspect or another, and that is particularly, painfully true with this piece.

You can read some more of the Abdel Wahab’s poetry here, in four different languages.

I hope you found this useful and insightful. I’ll see you on my next post,

!في أمان الله


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