Translation Challenge #3: Shades of Black

For Week Three of the #ArabicTranslationChallenge, Rachel Schine raises the difficulty level a notch:

By Rachel Schine

First things first—eid mubarak ya ma‘shar al-nas! I hope this month provided some peace amidst the chaos. And, speaking of seeking clarity amid difficulty, with the holiday upon us I thought it only fitting to use this week’s translation challenge as an occasion for looking at poetry that works in service of better understanding and visualizing meanings in the Qur’ān. These two lines—one by the famed pre-Islamic warrior-poet Imru’ ul-Qays, and the other said in some places to be anonymous, and in others attributed to the ‘Abdallāh al-Ghāmidī—are often used jointly in tafsīr, or exegetical commentary, to aid in the understanding of the word ghirbīb, a term which occurs only once in the Qur’ān in reference to the deep black color of portions of the earth. This interpretative trend seems to begin with al-Qurṭubī (d. 1273), a scholar of the Qur’ān who hails, per his name, from Cordoba, and who witnessed his home city’s capture by Ferdinand III of Castile in his lifetime. Here is the āya in question:

Sūrat al-Fāṭir:27

Translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem:

“Have you [Prophet] not seen how God sends water down from the sky and that We produce with it fruits of varied colours; that there are in the mountains layers of white and red of various hues, and jet black […]”

I’ve always admired this image of the earth’s faces in all their variety, which also hearkens to other parts of the Qur’ān that underscore the creative intentionality behind variety in nature and among humankind. As a dweller once in the shade of the Berkshires and now in the Rockies, I also have long found it intriguing that the word “black” (sūd) gets modified in this particularly dramatic way, apart from the other colors mentioned, calling to mind the sublime smallness one can feel in the shadow of towering stone or mountains. Commentators seem to agree that this drama demands attention, with al-Qurṭubī noting that gharābīb is a badal, or a substitute term, meant to add emphasis (tawkīd) through repeating the same idea. But how to better understand this lonely little hapax? The answer, as with so many other things, lies in verse.

First, the line by Imru’ ul-Qays:

العين طامحة واليد سابحة والرجل لافحة والوجه غربيب

In this small piece of descriptive verse, Imru’ ul-Qays achieves what typically takes poets several lines: the itemized description of the interesting physical parts of his mount…I mean love interest…I mean mount (no actually, this is said to be about his faras, a generic term for “horse” or “mare”). Using simple, repeating clauses (a body part followed by a descriptive, active participle), he gives us an image of his steed mid-stride that I have translated as follows:

Her eye—far-gazing,

Her hoof—fleet-floating,

Her leg—light-striking,

Her face—pitch black


And this one is ‘Abdallāh al-Ghāmidī’s:

ومن تعاجيبِ خَلْقِ اللهِ غاطية يُعصرمنها مُلاحي وغربيبُ

This piece of descriptive verse deals with the wondrousness of the earth being covered (ghāṭiya, meaning a tree or vine with its limbs outspread) with fruits of all colors, not unlike the Qur’anic verse, though by using the specific image of God creating both choice white grapes (mulāḥī) and choice dark grapes (ghirbīb) to be pressed (yu‘ṣar). My translation:

A wondrous range—God’s vines, trellised, rest

Light grapes and dark, all waiting to be pressed.

To help with both, a bit of guiding interpretation (sharḥ), including an alternative recitation of the Imru’ ul-Qays verse with which to play, taken from a 2006 edition of the tafsīr of al-Qurṭubī, al-Jāmi‘ li-Aḥkām al-Qur’ān:

I hope that by asking folks to translate two verses from two different authors centered on a keyword together, it will push us to think about polysemy in yet another way. Do you translate ghirbīb the same way both times? Why or why not? Do you bring the verses together in a “micro-collection” as they occur in tafsīr? How might one visually or linguistically represent that? And moreover, the challenge rests on finding the specific language with which to convey the uniquely intense blackness implied by ghirbīb, to the exclusion of its more commonplace synonyms!

Rachel Schine is a scholar of pre-modern Arabic literature. Her research interests include storytelling practices, kinship structures, gender/sexuality, and race/racialization in pre-modern works of poetry and prose. Her dissertation, “On Blackness in Arabic Popular Literature: The Black Heroes of the Siyar Sha‘biyya, their Conception, Contests, and Contexts,” examines the literary, socio-historical, and ethical functions of black heroes in the popular sīrahs, a body of medieval chivalric literature that features a diverse range of protagonists.