ArabLit hosted its first edition of the Arabic Translation Challenge on May 12, 2020:
By Kevin Blankinship
“Whether wonderful or monstrous, the version is always a version, another working and retelling,” writes poet and translator Willis Barnstone. By now, having brought hundreds of lines of Arabic poetry into English, I’d come to fear that language’s awesome variety held no more surprises for me. It’s not a fear to be taken lightly—any writer or translator who’s in it for the long haul must find new ways to be surprised. But my anxieties have been shattered each week by the Arabic translation challenge. This time alone we got some 50 vivid responses in over half a dozen languages, like a quarry putting up diamonds and emeralds and jade and sunstone.
Sifting the gems has proven joyful but daunting, since there are too many include them all in the roundup, much as I want to. While experiments in translating the same poem multiple ways are not new at ArabLit.org, this may be the biggest scale-wise so far. All that’s to say, if your translation doesn’t show up here this week, it’s not because it wasn’t sterling or well-received. Please join in again, since participation itself is the real fun of the thing. The worst part of a rockhound’s job is sifting from a whole field of brilliant stones.
I also admit feeling nervous about this week’s pick: al-Ma`arri’s (d. 1057 CE) gloomy epitaph, which seemed too short and too grim to draw a response:
هذا جَنَاهُ أبي عليَّ وَمَا جَنَيتُ عَلَى أَحَدِ
But I was wrong again, and thank goodness. Turns out that a bittersweet portrait from a thousand years ago still resonates. Starting with English, which was the bulk of the crop, some responses found a home for al-Ma`arri in rhyme, meter, and an antique feel, like Mariam Aboelezz’s version:
Wronged by my father for my lot
In living, I have wronged naught
Or Joe Bradford’s riposte, which kept rhyme but shortened the lines, infusing the epigrammatic tone with the urgency of song:
This life, against me,
was father’s trespass
yet unto another,
This I shall not pass
Meanwhile, Abdul Rahman Sibahi’s iambic tetrameter brings balance, closure, and a sense of timing:
‘Tis what father to me had done
A crime which I have done to none
But others weighed in with multiple versions in a single setting. Ahmad Z (@marretelayam) kept the same rhyme scheme but shortened the second line in the couplet, final words dropping off like the life al-Ma`arri laments:
1. This unto me my father wrought
And unto others I committed naught
2. This horror upon me my father brought
But unto another I did not.
And here is @abdalmusawwir moving forward in time as he goes from 19th century vintage to the downright playfully modern:
1. This—my life—my father’s sin
No crime the like did I to any
2. This life of mine
My father’s crime
To none was I so cruel
3. A life of pain
For that, dad, thanks!
No son had I
To say, Life stanks!
Speaking of modern and colloquial, other versions went in for contemporary free verse or everyday speech, taking liberties that, while perhaps tasting sour in the mouth of W.B. Yeats’ “old, learned, respectable bald heads,” turn our attention to al-Ma`arri in a new way. Sarah Pearce makes the line into a simple yet weighty sentence:
This is my father’s crime against me; I have done nothing to anybody.
While Alexander Key moves in the opposite direction, breaking English lines down to almost the atomic level:
Several added a touch of black humor, as did Simon Leese:
I chose not to do unto others as my father did unto me
Because having children
is the worst idea ever.
And there appeared a miniature cycle of d-word alliteration. Here is @Jaahil2:
Dad’s dirty deed done me dirty,
Damned due to a deed I didn’t do.
and then a “delayed ditty to donate”—independent of the one above—by @PressTaras:
Death, Dad done damned me—
I damned well didn’t ditto daddy
Apart from English, a number of responses came in languages that put many different forms and aesthetic sensibilities on display. Ted Gorton put up a French alexandrine, a long line of 12 syllables with a medial caesura dividing the line into two hemistichs (half-lines) of six syllables each:
Mon père a pu pécher, me créant malgré moi
Mais moi je n’ai péché, créant qui que ce soit
Marco Franco wrote in Italian terza rima, “third rhyme,” popularized by Dante’s Commedia and consisting of a three-line stanza in iambic pentameter with an interlocking rhyme scheme. One rhyme-sound is used for the first and third line of each stanza, and a new rhyme introduced for the second line; this new rhyme, in turn, is used for the first and third lines of the next stanza, and so on (ABA BCB CDC, etc):
Fecemi il padre il torto della morte,
Mal nato, subito fui già dannato,
Ma io ad alcuno resi stessa sorte
Cairo-based librarian and teacher Tine Lavent gave the line in West Flemish, spoken in western Belgium and parts of Holland and France:
Ne misdoad van min voader teegn min zin
Mo misdoan ikkik nieks, tetweegn gin jin
Denis McAuley translated to Persian:
آنچه کردی ای پدر بیداد بود کی توانم همچنان بیداد کرد؟
And @matt_boot_ put al-Ma`arri into Greek hexameter:
τοῦτ’ ἐς ἔμ’ ἐξήμαρτε πατήρ, οὐδ΄ ἔς τιν’ ἔγωγε
tout’ es em’ exēmarte patēr, oud’ es tin’ egōge
[my father did this wrong against me, but i have not against anyone.]
In fact, more than one participant caught the echo of Greek tragedy in al-Ma`arri’s line. Abdelilah Bouasria translates fancifully:
In Breeding me, my Father Cropped my Oedipus
Yet my Patricide reaped my Progeny’s Chastity
And with grim foreboding, John Leake quoted the chorus’s speech in Oedipus in Colonus (trans. Jebb):
μὴ φῦναι τὸν ἅπαντα νι-
κᾷ λόγον· τὸ δ᾽, ἐπεὶ φανῇ,
βῆναι κεῖθεν ὅθεν περ ἥ-
κει πολὺ δεύτερον ὡς τάχιστα.
“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came.” (1224-7)
With Sophocles ringing in our ears, perhaps it’s right to end with Stuart Brown’s devastating rendition—which al-Ma`arri himself would no doubt have baptized with approval, to the extent that he approved of anything!—and whence the title of this roundup:
Every father kills his son
Mine did so to me, but I to none.
Kevin Blankinship is a scholar, poet, critic, and translator. As assistant professor at Brigham Young University, he teaches Arabic language and literature, Islam, and the Qur’an.