The Politics of Translating al-Shabbi’s ‘If the People Choose to Live One Day’

Many thanks to Elliott, who turned up several more translations of the work of Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi and managed to point me toward: Songs of Life, poetry by Abu ‘l-Qasim al-Shabbi. Trans. by Lena Jayyusi and Naomi Shihab Nye. Carthage, Tunisia: National Foundation for Translation, 1987.

Now, I’m adrift from academia and unsure how one would lay hands on this book. But it’s out there. Somewhere. Maybe somewhere very near….

Anyhow, Songs of Life gets itself whispered about in Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology, which also has a version of “Life’s Will,” co-translated by the excellent Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus and the British poet Christopher Middleton.*

It’s fascinating how the poem shifts tremendously on the decision of whether to translate الشعب as “a people/the people,” which makes them a collective, or as “people,” thus turning them into individuals.

A reminder of Elliott’s translation of the poem’s opening:

“If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call.

And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.

For he who is not embraced by a passion for life will dissipate into thin air,

At least that is what all creation has told me, and what its hidden spirits declare…”

As’ad Abu Khalil’s translation, which has perhaps had the biggest impact, begins “If the people will to live…” (Italics mine.) But the Boulus/Middleton “Life’s Will” sets the tone differently:

When people choose
To live by life’s will,
Fate can do nothing but give in;
The night discards its veil,
All shackles are undone.

Whoever never felt
Life celebrating him
Must vanish like the mist;
Whoever never felt
Sweeping through him
The glow of life
Succumbs to nothingness.

This I was told by the secret
Voice of All-Being
Wind roared in the mountains,
Roared through valleys, under trees:
“My goal, once I have set it,
And put aside all caution
I must pursue to the end.
Whoever shrinks from scaling the mountain
Lives out his life in potholes.

Which way is “right”? I’m afraid I’d need to read a great deal more al-Shabbi, and the poems that influenced al-Shabbi, before drawing conclusions. (However, you can see what I want it to be from the title.)

Meanwhile, from Arberry’s good ol’ Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology with Modern English Verse Translations, another version of “To the Tyrant:”

Imperious despot, insolent in strife,
Lover of ruin, enemy of life!
You mock the anguish of an impotent land
Whose people’s blood has stained your tyrant hand,
And desecrate the magic of this earth,
sowing your thorns, to bring despair to birth,

Patience! Let not the Spring delude you now,
The morning light, the skies’ unclouded brow;
Fear gathers in the broad horizon’s murk
Where winds are rising, and deep thunders lurk;
When the weak weeps, receive him not with scorn—
Who soweth thorns, shall not his flesh be torn?

Wait! Where you thought to reap the lives of men,
The flowers of hope, never to bloom again,
Where you have soaked the furrows’ heart with blood,
Drenched them with tears, until they overflowed,
A gale of flame shall suddenly consume,
A bloody torrent sweep you to your doom!

I don’t know about you, but I like those last two lines:

سيجرفك سيل الدماء

و يأكلك العاصف المشتعل

*He may well be excellent. Apologies. I don’t know him.


I did find one Nye/Jayyusi translation posted online, of “The Strange Tale.” As you’ll not, it seems to eschew all formal qualities of al-Shabbi’s work.

The Mounah Khouri and Hamid Algar collection, An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry, also has an Al-Shabbi poem, “In the Shadow of the Valley of Death.”

Has this become the all al-Shabbi channel, all the time?

I meant to muse about graphic novels today. Tomorrow.