Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #7

مُؤَلِّف

root: ء-ل-ف / noun / plural: مُؤَلِّفون / definition: author, writer


We’re adding to the literature translation series this week—it’s been a while!—with a short excerpt from عائد إلى حيفا (Returning to Haifa) by غسان كنفاني (Ghassan Kanafani).

I’ve picked the second sentence of the novel to go through today (I would have chosen the first, but this one had some interesting grammar points I wanted to cover):


وللحظة واحدة راودته فكرة أن يرجع، ودون أن ينظر إليها كان يعرف أنها آخذة بالبكاء الصامت، وفجأة جاء صوت البحر، تماما كما كان


So let’s get into the word-by-word explanation!

As is always the case, we’ll break down the extract into smaller chunks for the analysis, keeping the translations fairly literal, and then we’ll put everything together at the end and polish it up.

The first part:

وللحظة واحدة راودته فكرة أن يرجع

وللحظة

components: وَ + لِـ + لَحظة

وَ = “and”

لِـ = “for”

لَحْظة is an indefinite noun from the root ل-ح-ظ meaning “a moment”

seeing as لحظة comes after a preposition, it’s مجرور (in genitive case)—so we’d say لحظةٍ

so وَلِلَحْظة = “and for a moment”

واحدة

root: و-ح-د

واحِد is a numeral meaning “one” (you might also notice that it’s in the اسم فاعل—or active participle—pattern)

here, it’s acting as an adjective of the noun لحظة, and therefore must agree with it in gender and case (i.e. we add a ة, and give واحدة the same case as the noun)

وللحظةٍ واحدةٍ = “and for one moment”

راودته

components: راوَدَت + ـهُ

root: ر-و-د

form III verb, past tense, third person feminine singular

راوَدَ / يُراوِدُ = “to tempt”

the subject of this verb is the following noun, فكرة, hence the conjugation

ـهُ = “him” (the object pronoun suffix)

so راوَدَتهُ = “(it) tempted him”

فكرة

root: ف-ك-ر

noun

فِكْرة = “idea”

the grammar here is quite interesting because this noun is actually in an إضافة (possessive construction) with the following two words (which are not nouns)

seeing as it’s the first word in the إضافة, it can’t take الـ nor tanween

فكرة is the subject of the verb راودت, so it takes a damma: فكرةُ

أن

أَنْ, here, combines with the following verb to give a verbal noun-type meaning

the verb after أن has to be the present tense subjunctive (المضارع المنصوب)

يرجع

root: ر-ج-ع

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

رَجَعَ / يَرجَعُ = “to return” or “to go back”

يرجعَ (with a fatha on the end because it’s المضارع المنصوب) when combined with the preceding أن equates to the مصدر of the verb: الرُّجوع

so while we know that the subject of the verb is هو due to its conjugation, the meaning of the combination is the same as the verbal noun, “returning”

thus, the إضافة phrase “فكرةُ أن يرجعَ” means “the idea of returning”


وللحظة واحدة راودته فكرة أن يرجع

and for one moment, the idea of returning tempted him


Next segment:

ودون أن ينظر إليها كان يعرف أنها آخذة بالبكاء الصامت

ودون

components: وَ + دونَ

وَ = “and”

دون = “without”

أن

أَنْ again combines with the following verb to give a مصدر-type meaning

ينظر

root: ن-ظ-ر

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

نَظَرَ / يَنظُرُ = “to look”

أن ينظرَ = “looking”

إليها

components: إلى + ـها

إلى is a preposition meaning “to” or “towards”

and ـها is an object pronoun suffix meaning “her”

so إلَيها means “to her”

however—in English—we say “at” after the verb “to look”, so let’s translate it as “at her”

كان

root: ك-و-ن

form I verb, past tense, third person masculine singular

كانَ / يَكونُ = “to be”

but, here, it’s followed by a present tense verb

when we have this combination (كان + the present tense), it usually equates to the past progressive—i.e. was doing x—or, sometimes, used to do x

يعرف

root: ع-ر-ف

form I verb, present tense, third person masculine singular

عَرِفَ / يَعرِفُ = “to know”

so كان يعرفُ would, in theory, give us a translation like “he was knowing”—but in English, we don’t usually use verbs like “to know” in the past progressive, so we’d just translate it as the simple past tense: “he knew”

أنها

components: أَنَّ + ـها

أَنَّ = “that”

ـها = “she” (the subject pronoun suffix—so هي is the subject of the following clause)

آخذة

root: ء-خ-ذ

form I active participle (اسم فاعل)

آخِذ is the اسم فاعل of the form I verb آخَذَ / يَأخُذُ

when the verb is followed by بـ and then a verbal noun—like it is in this context, it means “to begin to”

so آخِذة here:

  • is the predicate (خبر) of the phrase
  • is describing the subject (هي) and therefore must match in gender (hence the ة)
  • means “(she) began to”

بالبكاء

components: بـِ + البُكاء

as mentioned above, the بـ + verbal noun is a set combination in this context

بُكاء is the مصدر of the form I verb بَكى / يَبكي “to cry”

so آخذة بالبُكاء = “(she) began to cry”

note that البكاء would be مجرور here (i.e. البُكاءِ) as it directly follows the preposition بـ

الصامت

root: ص-م-ت

adjective, form I active participle

صامِت = “silent”

the adjective الصامِت is describing the noun البكاء, hence it agrees with it in gender, number, definiteness, and case

البكاءِ الصامتِ means “silent crying” but in this context—where we’ve already translated آخذة بالبكاء as “(she) began to cry”—it makes sense to translate the adjective الصامت as an adverb: “silently”


ودون أن ينظر إليها كان يعرف أنها آخذة بالبكاء الصامت

and without looking at her, he knew that she began to cry silently


Last chunk of the extract:

وفجأة جاء صوت البحر، تماما كما كان

وفجأة

وَ = “and”

فَجْأَةً is an adverb from the root ف-ج-ء meaning “suddenly” or “unexpectedly”

جاء

root: ج-ي-ء

form I verb, past tense, third person masculine singular

جاءَ / يَجيءُ = “to come”

the subject of this verb is the following noun, صوت

صوت

root: ص-و-ت

noun

صَوت = “sound” or “voice”

this noun is in an إضافة with the following noun and therefore can’t take tanween

it’s the subject of the verb جاء, so it’s مرفوع and ends in a damma: صوتُ

البحر

root: ب-ح-ر

noun

بَحر = “sea”

this is the final word in the two-word إضافة, so it’s مجرور and ends in kasra (not kasratayn, because البحر is definite due to the الـ!)

all together, جاءَ صَوتُ البَحرِ = “the sound of the sea came”

تماما

root: ت-م-م

adverb

تَماماً = “exactly” or “completely”

كما

كَما = “as” (and it’s followed by a verb)

we looked at كما and similar comparison particles in detail in the post Comparing the Grammar of Arabic Comparison Particles

كان

we came across this verb earlier in the extract, it means “he/it was”

here, the subject is صَوت البحر hence the third person, masculine singular conjugation

كما كان = “as it was” or “as it used to be”


وفجأة جاء صوت البحر، تماما كما كان

and suddenly the sound of the sea came, exactly as it was


Okay, time to gather everything together now:

وللحظة واحدة راودته فكرة أن يرجع، ودون أن ينظر إليها كان يعرف أنها آخذة بالبكاء الصامت، وفجأة جاء صوت البحر، تماما كما كان

And for one moment, the idea of returning tempted him, and without looking at her, he knew that she began to cry silently, and suddenly the sound of the sea came, exactly as it was.


Too many “and”s and too much awkward wording! Let’s polish it up:

وللحظة واحدة راودته فكرة أن يرجع، ودون أن ينظر إليها كان يعرف أنها آخذة بالبكاء الصامت، وفجأة جاء صوت البحر، تماما كما كان

For a single moment, he was tempted to turn back, and he knew – without looking at her – that she had begun crying silently; then suddenly came the sound of the sea, exactly as it used to be.

Translation notes:

  • Arabic texts generally have much longer sentences than we see in English, so my first thought was so divide the translation into two sentences—but I really liked the flow of the original. So I used different punctuation to break up the thoughts whilst keeping it as a single sentence.
  • I changed “the idea of returning tempted him” to “he was tempted to turn back”. Firstly, “he was tempted to” is much more idiomatic, and the word “idea” wouldn’t really have much of a purpose in this context. And “turn back” sounded more appropriate in the context of a car journey (as we’d know if we read the first sentence) than “returning”.
  • Finally, I changed the final “and” to “then” to avoid the repetition which I thought sounded a tiny bit awkward, while maintaining the flow that it facilitates.

I hope these posts help you realise—if you’re hesitant about picking up a piece of Arabic literature—that you can understand pretty much anything if you just break it down and perhaps look up a few words or grammar rules!

If this post was useful, you might want to check out Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #5, where we went through an extract from another of Kanafani’s works. The first and second posts in this series would be worth reading too if you fancy a longer literature extract!

And don’t forget that you can now support The Arabic Pages, helping me to keep the blog running and keep posting regular content! (There’s a way you can access exclusive posts too!)

I’ll see you on my next post,

!في أمان الله


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2 thoughts on “Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #7

  1. I love this entry! Arabic literature can feel intimidating but if we slow down and take it one word at a time, it does seem less daunting. I actually understood almost all the words and grammar but I think I become hesitant when I read without the vowel marks.

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