‘Heal Me with Disease’

ArabLit hosted its second edition of the Arabic Translation Challenge starting May 19, 2020:

By Kevin Blankinship

“I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.” Novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler’s quip could just as easily apply to Abu Nuwas, or at least, to how he’s been remembered: as premodern Arabic’s great wine poet, and author of this week’s translation challenge. It was another banner week—several dozen responses in multiple languages and media. Thanks to everyone who joined! Before diving in, a quick announcement that next week, Dr. Rachel Schine (@RachelSchine) at CU Boulder, the emcee of Lyric Poetry, will guest host the challenge. The format, timeline, and ways to submit will be the same. You won’t want to miss it!

Now to the responses, which grappled with two of classical Arabic poetry’s most famous lines:

دَعْ عَنْكَ لَوْمي فَإِنَّ اللَّوْمَ إغْراءُ            وَداوِني بِالَّتِي كَــــــانَتْ هِــــــــيَ الــدَّاءُ

فَقُلْ لِمَنْ يَدَّعِي في العِلْمِ فَلْسَفَة ً         حَفِظْتَ شَيئًا وغابَتْ عَنْكَ أَشْيَاءُ

Again, there were many rhymed and metered renditions, each striking in its own way. Longtime Egyptian novelist and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif rhymed at the end of each line, accompanied by natural, unforced meter:


Forget reproaching me,

reproaches tempt me so.

Just treat me with that which brought me low.

And say to those who claim they’re wise:

You’ve learned a thing or two by heart

But the things that count you’ll never know.


Deirdre Ritchie kept a similar rhyme scheme, but shortened the lines for a more pressing, declarative feel:


Your verdict against me

Merely strengthens my case.

Bowed down in repentance

His sweet pardon I taste.

You judge by your reason,

Ignorant of His Grace.


Moving in a different direction, Enas Eltorky made Abu Nuwas speak couplets that rhyme one after another instead of every other line, with some nice slant rhyme in the second couplet:


Cease with your blame, for it only adds more allure

Truth be told, my ailment is my cure

Tell he who claims the throne of wisdom,

You may have the crown, but you have lost the kingdom!


And with one eye on The Bard, Hamid Ouyachi gave it a Shakespearean go:


Ply me with drink and do not upbraid me!

Blame paves the tavern’s path.

There are more mysteries to creation

than fit in your philosophy.


However, many participants also caught Abu Nuwas’s earthy, lowbrow feel. Not surprisingly, then, many versions came in colloquial English or even slang. Here is Aarij Anwer with an aptly avian allegory:


I’m wrong? Please.

I’m ill? Heal me with disease.

You think you know everything?

If knowledge was a chicken, you’d only have the wing.


Matthew Keegan gave us “a fast and loose slangy version trying to get at the da’/dawa’ echo”:


Don’t come at me.

It gets me jonesing.

Fix me up—

With the fix I’m craving…

Run and tell those faker philosophers:

Even a broken clock

Is right twice a day.


@Jaahil2 could barely get his translation submitted before dropping the mic:


Ya wanna hang me by the rope I made,

But not to save me from my fall?

Ya know how to think on things?

Sure. Some things.

But, Word! Ya still ignant.


Tom Abi Samra’s Twitter account got hacked by an angsty teenager, who did the translation this week:



this thing’s a pharmakon:

stop scolding me for it (even though it’s kinda hot!),

for i think it’s also a remedy!

tell those who think they know Philosophy

that they don’t know jack shit!


And Ted Gorton contributed one of many examples of drinking slang this week:


Your scolding only whets my thirst;

Pour me a hair of the dog instead!

As for those censors philosophical:

You grasped a little thing or two—

But a million more escaped your sight!


Without affirming cultural stereotypes, more than one person picked up a Hibernian vibe from these lines. Or as Haroon Shirwani put it, “I think Abu Nuwas and the Dubliners would have got on really well!” Here is Denis McAuley with some rhyme and iambic heptameter (or else alternating tetrameter and trimeter), and you’ve got a drinking song:


Give me good cheer, a pint of beer, the ladies and the craic.

And if you tell me to knock it off, I’ll only knock it back.

I’ll have free will if it makes me ill – you can stick your unfree won’t.

Some things you know, my learned friend, and some things, well, you don’t.


Meanwhile, @zajedemha seems to signal The Emerald Isle with a single four-letter word:


cease blaming me, for blame drive me to drink more

so fock off! cuz your medication in truth is not a cure!


Eva Kahan wrote that “Abu Nuwas had the spirit of limerick in these lines.” She translates accordingly:


Twas once said the poet “Don’t douse me
in shame – for your blame will arouse me.
Just give me my sin
in a bottle of gin*
and ask: of us, whose life is lousy?”


And in what is undoubtedly a first, not only for the #ArabicTranslationChallenge but indeed any translation of Abu Nuwas, @soorsie gave us this interpretation into Scots (which is different, as was helpfully pointed out to me, from Scottish English or Gaelic):


Hud yer wheesht!

Maks me want t’ dee it mair

Mend me wi my hert-hankin …

An he fa thinks he kens?

Hingin an awfa wee gansey

Aff o a gey shoogly peg.



Since Scots is technically a different language from English, this seems like a convenient segue into foreign language entries, of which there were several yet again. Khaled Osman gave us an elegant set of rhyming French couplets:


Crois-tu sincèrement que tes reproches m’aident?

Sers-moi plutôt le mal en guise de remède!

Et dis à ceux qui se prennent pour des savants:

Du vrai savoir vous avez manqué l’important


A nice Italian rendering by @marco_frances:


Che biasimi, se il biasimo mi scalda,

Curami tosto col male che m’inverse,

E di’ al filosofo che vanta:

“Di tante cose apprese,

Tante più ne hai perse”


Ryan Baumann gave us Greek:


μὴ μέμψαι με

ἐπεὶ μέμψις ἐπαγωγὴν

ἀλλὰ σωφρονίζε με

τῇ αἰτίᾳ

τῆς νόσου


[may mempsai mei

epei mempsis epagogayn

alla sophronizde mei

tay aitia

tays nosou


Don’t blame me

Since blame [is an] enticement

But recall me to my senses

By the cause

Of the sickness

Of mine]


And @PressTaras translated to Latin, with some elegant shades of the Vulgate (noli me tangere, “touch me not”; et ne nos inducas in tentationem, “and lead us not into temptation”; cura te ipsum, “heal thyself!”) as well as Martin Luther (Esto peccator et pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo, “be a sinner and sin boldly, but more boldly believe and rejoice in Christ”)—a nice mix of the sacred and profane that befits Abu Nuwas:


Noli me obiurgare!

Nam me inducas in tentationem

peccare fortiter …

Mutazile ‘cura te ipsum!’

Ab uno disce omnes!

Sed una didcisti, ab te omnia fugit.

[Don’t blame me!

For you lead me into temptation

To ‘sin more boldly’…

Mu’tazilite, ‘heal thyself’!

From one man you may learn all

But you have learned one thing, and everything [else] has escaped you.


Finally, not just languages but also media were brought to bear on the bacchic bard. GIFs are especially crucial to punctuating online communication, like Ibn Hazm ceaselessly inserting his own poetry to drive home the point in The Dove’s Neckring. With that in mind, here are just a few of this week’s visually captivating submissions:



(Abdullah Pocius remarked, “‘When the fix for the sick is the pill that I pop’ reminded me of the Oompa Loompa lyrics rhythmically”)

And to cap it off, Emily Selove at Uni Exeter put up this poem a few weeks ago as part of her Instagram comic strip series Popeye and Curly, based (loosely) on al-Jahiz (Popeye) and Abu Nuwas (Curly) in Medieval Baghdad!

You can follow the adventures of Popeye and Curly on Instagram.

Next week’s challenge coming May 26.


  1. I LOVE the translation challenge!

    1. So delighted to hear it!!

  2. Many thanks, Kevin and Marcia for this entertaining and challenging post! More like this one, please!

    1. One of these days, Shakir, you will kill me with your kindness. 💕

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