Our first assignment was the translation of a selection from “Al Midan”, a poem by Abdel Rahman al-Abnoudi composed in colloquial Egyptian Arabic on the occasion of the January 25th Revolution. Listen to his recitation in Arabic here.
A few of these lines also accompany the brilliant Sout el-Horreya video (link), and we came across two English translations of these lines.
Dark Egyptian hands that know how to characterize
Reach out through the roar to destroy the frames
The creative youth came out and turned autumn into spring
They have performed the miracle and raised the murdered from murder
Kill me, killing me will not bring back your country
In my blood I shall write a new life for my home
My blood is it or the spring? Both in green color
Am I smiling because of my happiness or my sorrows?
Egyptian hands understanding how to differentiate
Breaking the mirrors of deception
The beautiful youth showed up to change it is winter to spring
And made the miracle and awoke the deadened country from its death
Kill me, killing me won’t return your rule again
I’m writing with my blood a new life for my country
This is my blood or is it the spring
Both of them are green
And am I smiling from my happiness or my sadness?
These transliterations are just that: literal, word for word translations, designed to address a perceived immediacy of communicating meaning. They deprive the reader and listener from the full body of the poem: its music, rhythm, image, linguistic register, social and cultural signification and so on.
Our assignment focused on an introductory segment of the poem:
ايادي مصرية سمرا ليها في التمييز
ممددة وسط الزئير بتكسر البراويز
سطوع لصوت الجموع شوف مصر تحت الشمس
آن الآوان ترحلي يا دولة العواجيز
عواجيز شداد مسعورين اكلوا بلدنا اكل
ويشبهوا بعضهم نهم وخسة وشكل
طلع الشباب البديع قلبوا خريفها ربيع
وحققوا المعجزة صحوا القتيل من القتل
اقتلني قتلي ما هيعيد دولتك تاني
بكتب بدمي حياة تانية لأوطاني
دمي دة ولا الربيع الاتنين بلون اخضر
وببتسم من سعادتي ولا احزاني
Our class is divided into three groups that bring together native and non-native speakers of both the Source Language (Arabic) and Target Language (English) in a collective approach to the process of translation, which is fraught with a myriad of challenges. The role of non-Arabic (specifically native English) speakers is particularly important in the production of the translations: they harbor a natural affinity for the use and signification of the various symbols that constitute the language, and always necessarily inform the decision-making process in a variety of ways. Similarly, native Arabic speakers carry the responsibility, as translators, of applying their command of Arabic, as well as a degree of social and cultural insight, to unpacking, deconstructing and rethinking signification: what does a word, sentence, idiom, or even an image, or a particular juxtaposition, actually mean. In all cases, the translators’ awareness of subjectivity, difference and diversity is at the forefront of decision-making, and the interactive process of translation is therefore incomplete without a profound appreciation and navigation of audience: that which prompts the production and dissemination (that is, the life) of a work, and that which attracts and guides the process of translation itself.
What follows is each group’s translation, followed by their comments. It is important to remember that there is no singular, final product, and therefore, we encourage your feedback. Please comment below or e-mail us your thoughts, reflections, and insights, or even alternative translations, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Group 1 Translation:
Egyptian hands, tawny and discerning
In lightning, stretched, the stands, smashing.
People’s voice shines. Egypt is unveiled under the sun.
O state of the barren, begone!
Greedy and dull, it devoured our land.
In form, greed and disgrace, all of the same brand.
There arose wonderful youth blossoming autumn into spring
Making the miracle, raising the phoenix from the ashes.
Kill me, it matters not. Your reign is gone.
For my land, my blood writes a new tomorrow.
Is it blood or Spring? Both green as one.
And do I smile of happiness or sorrow.
Group 1 Commentary:
For many reasons, the Midan poem of Abdel Rahman AL ABnodi has been a quite challenging piece of translation. The poem is loaded with emotions, very rich with imagery, and ornamented with poetic music; both in rhythm and rhyme. Hence, our main concern was reaching a balance between conveying the massage and meanings of the original text, portraying the imagery, and in the same time preserving the musical rhythm scheme and rhyme.
Our approach was first to translate the meanings using the closest possible synonyms. It is worth mentioning that online dictionaries have been a great asset in this case. Secondly, we revised several times to bring about the necessary rhyme and rhythm scheme which was essential to reflect the spirit of the original text.
Group 2 Translation:
Tawny, wary Egyptian hands
Outstretched among the roar, smashing the stands
The bright voice of the crowd, behold Egypt illuminated by the sun
Dinosaurs, it’s time for you to run
Old and fierce, they devoured our land like a storm
They resemble each other in their greed, meanness and form
The exquisite youth made spring out of autumn
They achieved a miracle; resurrecting the victim
Kill me, my death will never bring back your regime
Is this my blood, or the spring, both sprouting in green?
For my homeland, I record with my blood another chapter
Do I smile because I’m happier or because I’m sadder?
Group 2 Commentary:
A group of four students from the Translating Revolution course who live in Maadi came up with this translation of the first 12 lines of Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi’s poem الميدان.The members of the group read the poem on their own and each brought their own translation to the table. After comparing each other’s interpretations of the poem, the group set out to integrate their ideas into one version. One of the first translations had a rhyme scheme similar to the one above but some of members felt that too much of the meaning would be lost for the sake of maintaining the rhyme so the group settled on two versions: one with a rhyme and the other focusing more on capturing the nuances of the Arabic text. Ultimately it was decided to create one version that rhymes while integrating as much as possible the textual nuances of the non-rhyming version. The result of this effort is the text above.
The group faced several challenges related to maintaining the rhyme scheme while attempting to be “faithful” to the Arabic terminology and idioms. For example, the term “البراويز” in the second line of the Arabic text can be translated as “frames.” The term “stands” was chosen instead in order to rhyme with the “hands” of the preceding line. This was justified by the understanding that frames in this context refer to the structure or mold holding together the regime that the protesters on the square were challenging and the image of stands holding up the regime is analogous to this meaning.
“يا دولة العواجيز” is translated as “dinosaurs” in line four. In the context of Mexican politics the Spanish term dinosaurios refers to the traditional hard liners of the PRI party that monopolized Mexican politics for most of the 20th century.
The adjective “bright” was added to “voice” in the third line despite the fact that it is an unusual picture to use with a sound. However, it ties the efforts of Egyptian youth to liberating Egypt, which allowed us to see the country differently but clearly now as it has been “illuminated by the sun”.
The phrase “like a storm” was added to the fifth line in order rhyme with the word “form” at the end of the sixth line. Furthermore, the intensity of the Arabic phrase in line five is better conveyed with the addition of the reinforcing phrase “like a storm” after “they devoured our land.”
In their translation of the eighth line, the group used the term “resurrected” which is not directly related to the Arabic word but does hold strong significance in the English language. The religious connotations added in the English text by tying the word “resurrected” to the word “miracle” in the same verse, adds to the importance and depth of the action undertaken by the Egyptian youth.
The order of the 10th and 11th lines was inverted in this version for the sake of maintaining the AABB rhyme scheme. In the final lines, the idea of writing a new life in the Arabic text was expressed as recording another chapter in order to rhyme with the final word of the poem: sadder.
Group 3 Translation:
Egyptian hands, tawny and wise
Smashing the frames, in thunder they rise
Flared in one voice, see Egypt in the sun
Oh state of old men, your time is now done
You ravaged our lands, rabid and old
One like the other, in greed, filth and mold
Wondrous buds bloomed, turned fall into spring
Raising the dead, the miracle youth bring
Shoot me! My murder won’t bring back your state
For my people I write in my blood a new fate
My blood or the spring, both they are green
I smile – in joy or sorrow, remains to be seen.
We opted for a rhymed translation of al-Abnoudi’s poem – keeping both the metre and rhyme scheme central to the process. Although this presented a double bind for translation, we felt it best reflected the style of al-Abnoudi’s poetry – written in colloquial, Egyptian Arabic, reminiscent of songs or nursery rhymes. Abnoudi’s poetry isn’t ‘street’ poetry, but traditional rhythmic language that is meant to be recited, performed and memorised. For this reason we felt the music and orality of the performance needed to remain within the target language (TL) text.
We decided to keep the name of the poem – Al Midan – rather than foreignising it to ‘the square’, as Al Midan has become synonymous with the revolution and therefore is loaded with meaning, which is lost when translated.
We found it important to retain some rhyme scheme, though not necessarily the original, throughout our process of translation. This created a challenge on its own, but allowed us to navigate the music and rhythm of the poem and provided a larger keyhole for finding a parallel in English.
Though the poem is in ‘ammeya, it is not quite street poetry either. It retains the rhythms of spoken poetry, which is usually memorized and recited.
The struggle to find equivalence in the target language required us to grapple with the linguistic aspects of contemporary poetry, particularly poetry that can and should be read aloud. We attempted to find a balance, and had to regularly check ourselves so that we did not slip into using archaic modes of recitation, yet also avoided adopting street register.
Frequently, we shortened and re-situated the syntax of Abnoudi’s lines, in part to preserve the rhythm we were searching for, but also to accommodate the meaning and weight of certain images, for example “in thunder they rise”. In other instances, we took the liberty of altering the Abnoudi’s signifiers altogether, such that “el shabab el badi’ ” became “Wondrous buds”.
When translating this segment from the poem, we started by breaking down the poem by each four line stanza to see if there was any thematic pattern. However, the rhyme scheme we chose as a group changed the rhyme scheme to couplets, so we translated line by line. When I translated the poem alone, I chose embedded clauses such as “in thunder they rise” and rearranged the clauses for different impacts. However, in the group we developed a stress pattern based on lines containing two phrases, so each line was kept basically the same as in the source language.
Several choices were made regarding word choice and the poem’s thematic content. The phrase “الشباب البديع” was translated as “wondrous buds” rather than “creative youth” to fit the theme of spring and renewal, in that both “wondrous” and “creative” evoke feelings of approval. With regard to the line “وجققوا المعجرة صحوا القتيل من القتل”, we added the clarifier “youth” to clear up any uncertainty regarding this theme of nature.
Overall, our group thought that preserving a couplet rhyming structure would capture some of the sense of music found in the source language. Some word choices came about due to a need to preserve this rhyme, hence some ambiguity is present. However, we feel that the rhyme adds to the clarity and power of this poem without distorting the thematic meaning found in the source language.
The process of translating poetry is a trying one. Since this particular occasion began with its source language as Arabic, a rich language that carries with it an oral tradition of recitation (i.e. the formalization of Arabic was inspired by the Qur’an, a text with complex rhythmic arrangements coupled with varying rhyme schemes meant to be recited), it creates distinct issues when approaching its re-presence into English. In a sense, this process of translation is a re-creation of situated meanings to a system that does not have the appropriate signs to convey such meanings. Hence, the translator is the artist of the new text, finding inspiration within the source text, to then internalize the series of signs, both the articulation of the signifiers and the abstract representation of the signified, and re-situate these meanings into an incomparable medium, that of another language. The issues that arise from this process are compounded by the lyrical complexity of poetry as well as the play on words that arises from such a tradition. With that being said, let us explore the difficulties to this process as well as the decisions taken when faced with such obstacles.
To begin with, the first issue our group wrestled with was that of keeping the continuity of the meter and rhyme scheme. Since this poem is meant to be memorized and recited, it is an important attempt to translate this into English. Though I had reservations on this specific question since these structures have, for the most part, been cast to the wayside in contemporary English poetry, our debate on whether to keep it or not ended with the decision to translate some form of meter and rhyme scheme into the target language. In my opinion, it is an attempt at retaining a cultural heritage that finds its historicity of expression through the language itself. In deciding to continue on with these parameters, we determined that they did not have to be fixed to the A A B A rhyme structure that Abdul Rahman El-Abnoudi had used in the poem. Thus, the first decision was made in which the continuity of these structures were kept but through a variant expression, that of an A A B B rhyme scheme.
Another issue that arises in translation is that of syntax. By exploring the various meanings each word had within the poem along with the arrangement of each word and the words associated with it, we began to unlock their situated meanings, whether as an associated collective or through their individual representations. For example, we chose to use the word buds for الشباب in the 7th line since we wanted to continue with the imagery of nature utilized in the poem. By introducing the word youth in the 8th line, it creates an associated meaning with buds. Hence, the continuity of the imagery of nature is retained while also keeping its situated meaning as that of young, youth, etc.
These were our primary concerns in moving the source language text through the process of transformation into the target language. Poetry, with all of its complexities, is a trying endeavour in translation but is one that is worthwhile. By delving into Al Midan, and encountering an intimacy with the poem, the spirit, or invariant core, is recognized and thus its voyage through the process of translation is able to be tenderly handled by the translator.