Nizar Qabbani, a Syrian-born poet revered in the Arab world, published his first book of poetry in 1944 and his last in 1991. When he died in 1997, he left behind a legacy: over thirty books of poetry and prose, and pages of lyrics. As one of the first free-verse poets, he paved the way for the modernist movement in Arabic poetry. Despite his simplistic language, his poems remain difficult to translate. Sentences in Arabic, when translated into English, often become nonsensical. Arabic rarely uses "to be" verbs like English does; "the house is white" in Arabic literally means, "the house white." To make matters worse, Arabic sentences often begin with the verb; so, "I went to the white house," becomes "went I to the house white." As my class attempted to translate Nizar's poetry, we found ourselves destroying his language. With the rearranging and the adding, our translations mutated his lines into an ugly English-version of prose. We realized, eventually, that translations are never perfect. We can never fully capture the rhythm of his poems, or the layering of the meanings, or even the cultural references. At best, we can build a bridge between his poem and our translation, a bridge that will allow some of his words to give meaning to ours.
Your hand that fell on my shoulder,
Like a dove swooping down to drink,
I have the worth of a thousand wishes,
I wish it to stay and not to go,
The sun is sleeping on my shoulder,
I kissed it a thousand times and didn't grow tired.
That beautiful; how can I refuse it?
Who refuses to live on a shooting star?
I tell her to continue her journey,
And she has everything she wishes,
That beautiful, how can I convince it?
That I am her admirer.
Your small hand like a child that fled,
What do I say to a child that plays,
I am awake late at night, and with me is a hand of a woman,
White, how alluring, and how sweet.
If a day passes by and I don't remember to say "have a sweet morning,"
And I scribble like a small child; strange notes on the face of a notebook,
Don't grow tired of my shock and my silence, and don't think that anything's changed,
So when I don't say I love you, it means I love you more,
If you come to me some day in a dress, like the algae of lakes, green, green,
And your hair's falling on your shoulders, like the scattered distances of the night,
And I take a drag of a cigarette, deeply, and I slurp the ink from my inkwell, and I get drunk,
Don't call my passions dead, or consider that my heart became a stone,
In the illusion, I create from you a god, and I make your eye from a piece of jewelry,
And in the illusion I grow your hair from oleander, wheat, almonds, and forests of za'tar,
If you don't sit long in front of me, the fragrance of lilac and marmar,
And I shut my eyes to your beauties, and I ignore the complaint of your perfumed shirt,
And in the shade, your smell becomes a voice,
And the dimensions of your eyes widen,
I love you more than love, but let me see you as I like.
Daniel Hanna is a senior majoring in English, Economics, and Arabic. He writes short stories and poetry, and his favorite authors include Richard Ford, Judy Budnitz, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, and David Trinidad. After graduating this spring, he hopes to study Arabic in either Beirut or Amman, and then attend law school.