Translator's Note: The New Noah
By Shawkat M. Toorawa
“The New Noah” is a poem I first encountered in my twenties, a poem Adonis wrote in his twenties. The poem’s content is simple enough. In the first part, Noah is saved from the flood and wonders why he and his people alone have been saved; despairing, he asks the Lord what He has in store for them. In the second part, Noah describes what he would do if he could turn back time, describes how he and his people would ignore God and sail to a different kind of salvation. Meditation on the relationship between the poetic persona and the prophet I leave to the reader.
In Adonis’s long poems, with which I have more experience, the language can at times be opaque, dense with allusion, and grammatically complex, what some admirers term al-sahl al-mumtani‘, the (apparently) easy (but effectively sublimely) elusive. “The New Noah” is in a straightforward Arabic, plaintive and mournful in the first part, aggrieved and assertive in the second, but translating proved difficult indeed. To begin with, there is the irregular but insistent rhyme at the ends of quite short lines (most are only five or six words long), something I have tried to convey. There is the playful and daunting use of classical Arabic meters, which I have brazenly ignored. And there is the careful deployment—I cannot think of another way of describing this—of the words allâh (“God,” line 2), rabb (“Lord,” lines 8, 15, 22, 42), and ilâh (“god,” lines 24, 35, 41). Unlike English, Arabic does not have uppercase and lowercase letters: the distinction between “God” and “god” is, consequently, made by using two different, though admittedly related, words: allâh and ilâh. I have paid special attention to this.
Overall, I am at peace with the translation, though rhyming the final four lines was difficult: “undeterred,” however implied, is my own intervention; and I still waver between “A New Noah” and “The New Noah.” There are certainly small successes: “fastening” and “opening” in lines four and six happily rhyme; the resonance of “porthole” in line seven; the possibility in English of using uppercase in the first part of the poem to underscore the difference in tenor between it and the second part; and that rarest of creatures, a cognate, in “gelid” in line 39. — s.m.t.