Arabic Translation Challenge: ‘An Angel Appears’

For the fifth week of our #ArabicTranslationChallenge, an angel appears:

By Youssef Rakha

I heard Sargon Boulus’s voice for the first time in 2010, in Marrakesh. It was a remarkable experience that I wrote about here, translating the relevant poem into English to accompany the piece. I don’t feel my translation of “The refugee tells” does it justice to be honest, then again I haven’t seen a better translation of this particular poem.

I found out about Sargon by chance the year he died, 2007. I was passing the time perusing the shelves of a random bookshop in Abu Dhabi, where I lived for a strange, starved year, and there, in the middle of all kinds irrelevance, the miracle happened:

I picked up and started reading the original (and only) edition of The Lantern Carrier in the Night of Wolves.

Here was the Arabic poetry that I’d yearned for all my life but hadn’t realized existed. Here was someone who truly sustained the centuries-old tradition without compromising his contemporary vision, making Arabic speak with eloquence and sincerity to 21st-century humanity without having to throw away its literary wealth.

The collection, which remains my favourite of Sargon’s and perhaps of any poet’s, also includes the incredible “The angel’s mistakes”, on which I riffed in “An angel appears”, the title poem of my only collection, available in its entirety here.

Another short poem in The Lantern Carrier in the Night of Wolves is the mysterious “Remark from a traveller”, a basic translation of which might read something like this:

When I saw
death washing in the fountain
and people all around me sleepwalking through pathways,
it seemed my dreams were sand hills
collapsing before my eyes,
and I glimpsed my morning running in the opposite direction
away from this damned city.

The beginning, we choose.
But the end chooses us.
And there is no road but the road.

I don’t know of any other translation of this poem, which I think is perfect for this exercise. I don’t know of a reading of it by Sargon, either, which is partly why I made my own here (my apologies in advance!).

Below is an image of the original poem as it appears in my old copy of the book, with two bits circled in pencil, but before I leave you I just want to share this brilliant interview with Sargon by my beautiful friend Maggie Obank of Banipal magazine, the Amazon link to his only book in English, a Robin Moger translation of one of his best longer poems, and an album of pictures of him sent to me by his San Francisco friend and neighbour Marilyn Jossens in 2015. Knock yourselves out!

Looking forward to your improvements on the above at, #ArabicTranslationChallenge, or in the comments below.


Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian novelist, essayist and poet who writes in both Arabic and English. He is the founding editor of the bilingual literary website тнє ѕυℓтαη’ѕ ѕєαℓ: Cairo’s coolest cosmopolitan hotel, named after his acclaimed first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal. He can be found on, on Twitter @Sultans_Seal and on YouTube.