January Translation Challenge: Kushajim

Hosted by Salma Harland

I was thrilled to find out that ArabLit’s #ArabicTranslationChallenge is back and thought that nothing could be more befitting than Kushājim’s epigrammatic riddles. Kushājim (c. 902 – 970 CE) is a celebrated 10th-century Arab court poet, master chef, and polymath who was part of Sayf al-Dawla’s circle. Though a poet of considerable range, Kushājim is best known as a pioneer of maqtuʻāt al-waṣf (ekphrastic epigrams): short yet highly-complex monothematic poems about carnal and earthly topics that are often formulated as riddles.

In his poetry, Kushājim vividly chronicled culinary, social, and intellectual aspects of court life under the Hamdanid dynasty (944 – 1002). As a nadīm (boon-companion) and a ẓarīf (part of the refined, cultured elite), Kushājim often tackled the art of gift-giving. He thought falcons, gems, wine, hand-held mirrors, hair combs, candles, fly-whisks, perfume, and incense are all gifts that are perfectly-suited both for loved caliphs and dear friends.

The Abbasids are known to have used both candles and oil lamps. Yet, where oil lamps were more easily accessible and thus commonly used in religious and educational settings like mosques, candles were more expensive. Candles (made either from beeswax or ambergris) were specifically imported from Mosul to be used in upper-class social and cultural gatherings. Elaborate silver and brass candlesticks inscribed with verses of praise (whether of the caliph or the candle itself) were a stable in Abbasid courts and poets often vied to present their best prose and verse on candles and candlesticks.

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For the purposes of this challenge, I would like to share one of Kushājim’s poems on beeswax candles (with my own translation below each verse). In an enticing riddle, Kushājim addresses the caliph with an artful description of a gift that he has recently sent him:

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One verse of particular complexity is the second verse, which I found both beautiful and tricky to convey in translation:

The verbs يُفْتَضَضْنَ (yuftaḍaḍna) and افْتُضَّتْ (iftuḍat) literally mean “to be broken into” or “deflowered” – as in the expression “breaking the hymen”. But, where the second hemistich matches this common usage of the verb (where it literally translates into “if/where virgins are broken into/deflowered from beneath”), the first hemistich is more open to interpretation. In my understanding, the entire verse means “[the candles are] virgins [that are] broken into/deflowered from above, where [human] virgins are broken into/deflowered from below”. Yet, in a 1997 edition of Kushājim’s diwan, the editor suggests that, in some old manuscripts, the words افتضت من السفل (broken into/deflowered from beneath) were rather spelled as افتضت من الظل (unveiled from the darkness/shadows):

Therefore, in translation, I opted for the word “kindle,” which I thought could be used in the first hemistich (i.e., kindle a candle) as well as the second (i.e., kindle a maiden’s desire) while still conveying the other possible meaning(s) highlighted in the footnote above (i.e., getting rid of darkness):

Virginal, kindled from their crowns

     where maidens are kindled from beneath

Please feel free to translate this particular verse or even the entire poem through January 20, and we’ll have a roundup at the end of the month. You can submit them in the WordPress comments below or on Twitter (using the handles @salmaharland and @arablit as well as the hashtag #ArabicTranslationChallenge), or via email at info@arablit.org.

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Salma Harland is an Egyptian-born, England-based literary translator who works between Arabic and English. Her literary translations (both from and into English and Arabic) have appeared in ArabLit QuarterlyAncient ExchangesEurolitkrantJadaliyya, and elsewhere. She was recently named one of the British National Centre for Writing’s 2022 Emerging Literary Translators. 

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