Leah Baxter on translating Nizar Qabbani

Leah Baxter

on translating Nizar Qabbani

This poem was recommended to me by an Arabic-speaking friend (who also proofread my translation, bless her). I loved the beautiful and — is it silly to say? — poetic metaphors that Qabbani employs throughout the poem. These images translated very well into English. Descriptions such as “like hay under the rain” need no explanation or elaboration to connote the sense of slowly soaking into uselessness and rotting away; the metaphor itself does all of that already. Though no contextualization was needed, the tricky part was simply choosing the right words to illustrate those metaphors and to maintain the same implications.

I found myself struggling with the tone of the speaker. Because the poem is mostly in the imperative, he comes across as a bit harsh and exasperated with his beloved and her waffling. However, he at times also softens his words, as in the end of the second verse and beginning of the third, in which he recognizes how difficult his request is for her and how much he is asking of her. Striking a balance between his exasperation and his understanding of her was difficult.

I did take a bit of license with the specific grammatical structures of a few lines for clarity, as well as with alliteration, which was not quite as present in the original text but was in keeping with its original lyrical fluidity. Lines like “trial, torment, and tears” could have perhaps been more directly translated as “harshness, torment, and tears,” but I found “trial” to suit the sense of the line, as well as its sound, better. The original text I used also did not have stanza breaks. I inserted these based on common divisions I found in other versions and translations of the poem, as well as on where they seemed most fitting content-wise.

about the author

Nizar Qabbani was a Syrian poet, writer, diplomat, and intellectual, though he is most widely known for his poetry. Qabbani was born in Damascus in 1923. He is considered one of the most prominent Arab poets, and often wrote on social and political themes, such as feminism and Arab nationalism; he also wrote many erotic and love poems, such as this one. Qabbani’s work was often controversial both for its social and sexual progressivism, but he remained a beloved public figure internationally. He also worked in the Syrian diplomatic service for many years, writing all the while. Qabbani married twice, first to Zahra Aqbiq and later to Balqis al-Rawi, an Iraqi diplomat, whose death in a 1981 bombing in Beirut deeply affected him. He wrote extensively about his love for al-Rawi both before and after her death. Qabbani himself died in London in 1998 and was buried in Damascus. He is considered to be Syria’s national poet.

about the translator

Leah Baxter is a senior in the College studying English, linguistics, and modern Middle Eastern studies. She has been studying Arabic for about four years, including briefly in Jordan through the Middlebury College language immersion program. She does not have any firm post-grad plans, but loves literary translation and hopes to continue her language study in the future. She loves reading, especially science fiction, and using postcards as wall decorations.