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 info@arablit.org, #ArabicTranslationChallenge, or in the comments below.

Y

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 therakha.net, on Twitter @Sultans_Seal and on YouTube.

10 thoughts on “Arabic Translation Challenge: ‘An Angel Appears’

  1. What a great poem + post!

    Notes from a Traveler

    The moment I saw
    Death making ablutions at the fountain,
    While the people around me walked their ways oblivious,
    My dreams seemed suddenly like sand pyramids,
    Collapsing before my eyes.
    I saw my day escaping in the opposite direction,
    Away from that damned city.

    We choose the beginning,
    But the end chooses us.
    There is no way but the way.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I saw
    Death at the fountain
    Making ablutions
    And around me
    People were sleepwalking
    In the pathways.
    My dreams were like
    Pyramids of sand
    That before my eyes
    Fell apart,
    And I beheld my morning
    Escaping in the opposite
    Direction,
    Fleeing from this cursed city.

    We always
    Choose the beginning,
    But the end always
    Chooses us.
    And there’s no way
    But the way.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As I saw death
    cleansing at the fountain
    and sleepers passing on paths around me
    my dreams appeared as dunes
    slipping before my eyes
    and within a glance
    my daylight was escaping far
    away from this cursed place…

    The beginning is our choice
    but the end chooses us
    and there is no path but one.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When I saw
    death cleanse in the fountain
    and people around me sleepily amble along pathways

    It seemed my dreams were castles of sand crumbling before my eyes, and I glimpsed my day fleeing in the opposite direction, far from this cursed city.

    We choose the beginning,
    but the end chooses us,
    leaving no way but the way.

    Like

  5. I saw the grim reaper,
    wash himself at a fountain.

    Whilst here and there
    zoned out people roamed the streets.

    My dreams like sand dunes
    flattened before my eyes

    And espied my day run the other way,
    far from this doomed place.

    We set forth ourselves,
    but the terminus comes to us.
    For there is only the way.

    Like

  6. Apologies, improved version!

    I saw the grim reaper,
    wash himself at a fountain.

    Whilst here and there
    zoned out people roamed the streets.

    My dreams came to me like sand dunes
    and flattened before my eyes

    And I espied my day run the other way,
    far from this doomed place.

    We set ourselves forth,
    but the terminus comes to us.
    For there is only the way.

    Like

  7. When I saw Death, he was washing in the fountain.
    All the people around me sleep-walked by, down the streets.
    It seemed that reality was just a crumbling shrine of sand, disintegrating before my eyes;
    I sensed the current scramble for the opposite direction, away from this doomed city.

    The beginning, we choose,
    but the end, that chooses us;
    all paths are just the one path.

    Like

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