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Translator's Note: Dracula

BY SHAWKAT M. TOORAWA

Like much of Salwa Al-Neimi's work, "Dracula" ("Drâkûlâ") is sexually charged, something that is clear not only from the scene and furtive tone, but also from canny word choices. The scene and tone I think I have conveyed at least adequately. The words were a far more difficult proposition. Arabic words are typically formed from the combinations of three root letters, in different morphological configurations. Thus, the opening word of the poem, mutamarrid, is an active participle formed using m-r-d, and (here) means something along the lines of "rebelling." From the root m-r-d, however, can also be formed words that mean "nape" and "devil." The challenge, then, consists not simply in finding an apposite English word (or words) for an Arabic one, but in finding a way to render the second(ary) meaning(s).

The solution on which I settled was twofold: to render some Arabic words with more than one English word, and to use those English words wherever it made sense (and meaning) to do so in the poem. The root h-l-m in line five of the Arabic, to cite one instance, can mean both "dream" and "reach puberty." The former I convey literally, and the latter I convey by changing the literal "Stealing glances" in the preceding line to "Stealing adolescent glances" and by adding "flushed" after "I bit my lower lip." More difficult by far was deciding what to do with the fact that the Arabic for "bite" (line five, 'adda) and a cognate of the Arabic for "fang" (line one, nâb) occur together in an idiom that means "to be given a raw deal by fate." Since this is only adumbrated, I chose simply to add "ill-fated" to line one.

The alliteration of "pushed," "flushed," and "blushing" in lines five, six, and seven tries to replicate the alliteration of the Arabic words asfal, suflâ, and salafâ. As for "under its spell," my most brazen intrusion, I couldn't resist supplementing "base" and "lower" with "under," and using "spell," almost cognate (in sound, anyway) to the Arabic s-f-l. "Apostate" is a bold intervention too, but one that, like all the others, ultimately respects the integrity of Al-Neimi's lexicon and vision. Or such is my hope.—SMT

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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