The idea came to me last year when I was in Beirut, reading as much scholarship on Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic) poetry as I could find in English: aren’t there some uncanny similarities between, say, sixth-century qasidas and tenth-century Anglo-Saxon poems like “The Wanderer” or “The Seafarer” or even parts of Beowulf?
Concreteness and compression of language. Journeys across darkened wastes. Desolation and violence. Wolves and birds of prey. Celebration of the tribe, and the joys of the feast. Fatalism: what in Arabic is known as mekhtoub (What is written) and in Anglo-Saxon wyrd (“weird”—but close enough to “word” to be, well, weird). Even the arrangement of hemistichs on the page recalls the caesuraed lines of Anglo-Saxon verse. I thought that if I could live with both worlds for a while, a hunch would turn into an essay. Instead, I invented a translation strategy that traced one sensibility over the other.
- “Last Simile” is the concluding passage of Abid b. al-Abras’s qasida, “Aqfara min ahli-hi Malhub.” It is one of the original Seven Odes of the Mu'allaqāt.
- Labid’s “Lament” (translated in its entirety) is called the “Ritha’ Arbad” in Arabic, and signals the emergence of a new form on the cusp of Islam: the elegy, with its emphasis on the individual (Labid’s brother-in-law, Arbad) rather than on ritualized mourning. The legend surrounding Labid claims that he converted to Islam and ceased to write poetry. For that reason, I felt justified incorporating the religious elements that one finds in Christianized Anglo-Saxon poetry: Bede’s swallow; the Almighty. The gulf between the merciless natural world and the hope offered by faith is stark in each case.
Both translations correspond line by line to their original hemistichs (based on an annotated translation by Alan Jones: Early Arabic Poetry) except at the end of “Lament,” where there was simply too much information packed in, and I (reluctantly) had to expand the line count once or twice. “Hwr cōm” alludes to the anguished cry in “The Wanderer,” kin to the Latin “Ubi sunt.”
By incorporating some obsolete Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, I was able to enhance the alliterative and assonantal qualities—and the sheer strangeness—of the translation. My favorite discovery is that ana, the Arabic for “I,” resembles the Anglo-Saxon word for “alone” (the difference is that its first a is long, while the Arabic pronunciation has two short a’s). Thus I translate “ana” for “I” or “I alone” and get two languages for the price of one morpheme. In my other favorite discovery, the word for earth, eorðe, is almost homonymous with aorta. (Grammar dictated I use the dative, eorðan.) I admit I liked these foreign words as semantic indigestibles. Like poems in dialect, they heighten the music, and delay the meaning. But only until you get to the crib.
My stabs at Anglo-Saxon were vetted by my colleague, John McNamara. My gratitude goes out to him, as well as to David Mikics, who pointed me toward David Curzon, who wrote that “the English poetic closest to the Hebrew of the Psalms is the old Anglo-Saxon alliterative metre.” Curzon’s wonderful translations of the psalms into strong-stress, alliterative verse reassured me that I’m not alone in seeing correspondences between Semitic desert and northern seafaring poetries. —am
“Last Simile”: earn (eagle); gebidende (waiting for); hægtesse (witch); morgenceald (morning chill); westene (desert, wasteland); hæste (violence); bestelð (stealing [along the ground]); ēagan (eyes); swengeð (strike); eorðan (earth); wyrd (fate)
“Lament”: ana (I [Arabic], alone [Anglo-Saxon]); wyrdstaef (things decreed by fate); gehrorene (decay); wifcynn (womenfolk); flet ofgeaāfon (die, fly away); burston (bro- ken); aelmihtig (Almighty, God); hwœr cōm? (where gone?)
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This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine