Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #8

سيرة

root: س-ي-ر / noun / plural: سِيَر / definition: biography


For this post in the literature translation series, we’ll be going word-by-word through a non-fiction excerpt, taken from بغداد: سيرة مدينة (Baghdad: Biography of a City) by the Iraqi writer نجم والي (Najem Wali).

The extract is from the closing line of the first chapter:


رغم ذلك كله إلا أنني كثيراً ما تمنيت بعد يومين أو ثلاثة من عودته أن يسافر مجدداً إلى بغداد، لكي أخترع المدينة على هواي من جديد


(For context: the author is reminiscing about his childhood in Iraq, and how his fascination with Baghdad was sparked by his father’s trips to the capital.)

We’ll split the excerpt into two parts for the word-by-word explanation, then put everything back together at the end to polish up the translation. Let’s get into it!

The first half:

رغم ذلك كله إلا أنني كثيراً ما تمنيت بعد يومين أو ثلاثة من عودته أن يسافر مجدداً إلى بغداد

رغم

رَغمَ = “despite”

it’s classed as a preposition, so the following word will be مجرور

ذلك

demonstrative pronoun, masculine singular

ذلِكَ = “that”

كله

components: كُلّ + ـه

كُلّ = “all”

ـه = the masculine singular attached pronoun, which is referring back to ذلك

كُلِّهِ = “all of it”

we looked at كُلّ used in this type of context in this post, where it comes after a definite noun (or demonstrative pronoun, like we have here) and has an attached pronoun suffix

so, with the ه in كله referring back to ذلك, we’d translate ذلك كله as “all of that”, rather than “that, all of it”

as we can see, كُلِّه is مجرور—here’s why:

  1. we mentioned that رغم makes the following word مجرور
  2. ذلك is the following word, and therefore is مجرور—however, it doesn’t have a kasra because it’s form is fixed: we always say ذلكَ
  3. كلّه has to match ذلك grammatically in this context because it’s essentially describing it
  4. when we add a kasra on كلّ, the pronoun suffix ه takes a kasra too to make it easier to pronounce: كُلِّهِ rather than كُلِّهُ!

so, together, رغم ذلك كله means “despite all of that”

إلا

you might know that إلّا is a combination of إن and لا and usually means “except” (you can check out over seven ways to say “except” in Arabic here!)

however, when we have a structure like “despite…, …“, the second clause (after where the comma would appear in English) may begin with إلّا أنّ followed by a noun or pronoun suffix

e.g. in “despite their problems, they wanted to work things out“, the phrase إلّا أنّ would come directly before “they”

this phrase is usually just translated as a comma!

أنني

components: أنّ + ني

أنّ = as mentioned above, this is part of the phrase إلّا أنّ, and has no real translation in this context—it must be followed by either a noun or attached object pronoun

ني = the pronoun suffix for the first person singular—“I”

so far, we’ve translated رغم ذلك كله إلا أنني as “despite all of that, I”

كثيراً

root: ك-ث-ر

adverb

كَثيراً = “often”

ما

the function of this particle here is to allow a verb to be added after the adverb

if we were to put the adverb after the verb (تمنيت كثيرا), we wouldn’t need ما

but when the adverb comes before the verb, we need ما in between: كثيرا ما تمنيت

تمنيت

root: م-ن-ي

form V verb, past tense, first person singular

تَمَنّى / يَتَمَنّى = “to wish”

تَمَنَّيتُ = “I wished”

بعد

preposition

بَعدَ = “after”

يومين

root: ي-و-م

dual noun

يَوم = “day”

يَومَينِ = “two days”

this dual noun is مجرور because it directly follows the preposition بعد—hence the ـَينِ rather than ـانِ ending

أو

أَو = “or”

ثلاثة

root: ث-ل-ث

ثَلاثة = “three”

so يومين أو ثلاثة literally means “two days or three”—or, more idiomatically, “two or three days”

من

preposition

مِن = “from”

عودته

components: عَودة + ـه

root: ع-و-د

noun (also the verbal noun of the form I verb عادَ / يَعودُ)

عَودة = “return”

ـه = “his”—the masculine, third person singular possessive pronoun

(here, “his” is referring to the writer’s father)

أن

the phrase starting from here (أن يسافر مجدداً إلى بغداد) is the object of the verb تمنيت (which, remember, means “I wished”)—i.e. we’re going to now find out what the writer wished for

أَنْ is a particle that’s followed by المضارع المنصوب (a present tense subjunctive verb)

depending on the context, it can be translated as “to” or “that”—we’ll see what fits best when we take a look at the following verb

يسافر

root: س-ف-ر

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

سافَرَ / يُسافِرُ = “to travel”

يُسافِرَ = “(he) travels”—remember this verb ends in a fatha because it’s المضارع المنصوب due to the preceding أنْ

the subject of يسافر is the writer’s father again

okay, so now we have أن يسافر as the object of تمنيت

تمنيت أن يسافر = “I wished for him to travel” or “I wished that he travelled” or something similar

مجدداً

root: ج-د-د

adverb

مُجَدَّداً = “anew” or “again”

إلى

preposition

إلى = “to”

بغداد

بَغداد = “Baghdad”

this noun is a diptote (ممنوع من الصرف—we discussed this group of nouns in this post) which means that, even though it’s مجرور because of the preceding preposition, it can’t end in a kasra or tanween

so بغدادَ ends in a fatHa


Great! First half done, let’s take a look at what we have:


رغم ذلك كله إلا أنني كثيراً ما تمنيت بعد يومين أو ثلاثة من عودته أن يسافر مجدداً إلى بغداد

despite all of that, I often wished, two or three days after his return, for him to travel again to Baghdad

(I’ve just added in some commas here for clarity, but we’ll make things sound more flowing at the end!)


Second part:

لكي أخترع المدينة على هواي من جديد

لكي

لِكَي is made up of two components: لِـ + كَي

All three of these particles, لِـ / كَي / لِكَي can mean the same thing: “so that” or “in order to” (we discussed them all, plus a fourth one, here!)

لكي, like أنْ, is followed by المضارع المنصوب

أخترع

root: خ-ر-ع

form VIII verb, present tense subjunctive, first person singular

اِختَرَعَ / يَختَرِعُ = “to invent” or “to create”

أَختَرِعَ = “I invent”

so لكي أخترع = “so that I invent”

المدينة

components: الـ + مَدينة

الـ = the definite marker

مَدينة = “city”

على

عَلى = is a preposition that can mean “on”

however, in this context, it’s part of a phrase, along with the following word

هواي

components: هَوى + ـي

root: ه-و-ي

هَوى = “inclination” or “desire”

ـي = the first person singular possessive pronoun, “my”

when we add the possessive pronoun to the noun, the ى turns into a regular alif: هَواي

the phrase على هَواي = “just as I like” or “as I wish”

من

preposition

again, مِن = “from”

but it’s part of a fixed phrase with the following word

جديد

root: ج-د-د

we probably know جَديد is an adjective meaning “new”

but the phrase من جديد means “(all over) again”—it’s basically a synonym of the adverb مجدداً which we encountered earlier, also from the same root


لكي أخترع المدينة على هواي من جديد

so that I create the city just as I like all over again


Time to put our literal translations together:


رغم ذلك كله إلا أنني كثيراً ما تمنيت بعد يومين أو ثلاثة من عودته أن يسافر مجدداً إلى بغداد، لكي أخترع المدينة على هواي من جديد

despite all of that, I often wished, two or three days after his return, for him to travel again to Baghdad, so that I create the city just as I like all over again


…and now let’s try to make that sound better:


رغم ذلك كله إلا أنني كثيراً ما تمنيت بعد يومين أو ثلاثة من عودته أن يسافر مجدداً إلى بغداد، لكي أخترع المدينة على هواي من جديد

despite all of that, I often wished, two or three days after he returned, that he’d travel to Baghdad once more, so I could dream up the city as I liked all over again

Translation notes:

  • The main thing I changed was the phrase “so that I create the city”, replacing it with “so I could dream up the city”. The meaning of “could” was implied in the Arabic and the translation would sound odd without it. I swapped “create” for “dream up”, because what’s meant here is that the writer used to conjure up Baghdad in his head—not that he’d literally build the city.
  • Seeing as مجدداً and من جديد could be translated the same way, I made sure to translate the former as “once more” and the latter as “all over again” to avoid the repetition of “again”. Similarly, I could have translated the former as “once again” and the latter as simply “all over”. The possibilities are endless.

There we have it!

I hope these literature posts are useful and help you to feel more confident tackling Arabic literature by yourself.

Have you read any interesting pieces of Arabic literature recently? Don’t hesitate to share in the comments below!

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Bye for now,

!إلى اللقاء


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