His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

A poem by Mīḫāʾīl Nuʿaymah

Mīḫāʾīl Nuʿaymah (1889-1988) — his last name is sometimes spelled Naimy in English — was born of Christian heritage in Lebanon in the village of Baskinta. He was educated early on in Russian Orthodox schools and later spent around twenty years in America (1911-1932) where he was closely associated with Al-Rābiṭah al-qalamiyyah, “The Pen League,” whose most well-known member was Kahlil Gibran. Nuʿaymah later returned to Lebanon and to this day is considered a luminary of Arabic letters. He is known for The Book of Mirdad, which, I confess I’ve not read yet, but when I was first learning Arabic I studied closely his short story Sāʿat al-kūkū (“The Cuckoo Clock”), of which, as far as I know, there is still unfortunately no English translation. Finally, I will say that there is available here a paper on Nuʿaymah, in particular his views on America and the west, which (despite some irksome typos) is worth the half hour it will take to read it. Nuʿaymah’s work is often of a mystical and pantheistic bent, and whether one is moved by his general philosophical approach or not, there are probably some good hints and reminders for everyone in it, almost all of it in very fine language (at least in Arabic).

This poem comes from a collection titled Hams al-ǧufūn (The Whispering of Eyelids). An English translation of it by Roger Monroe (along with the Arabic text) will be found in Mounah A. Khouri and Hamid Algar, An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry (1974). Here I offer my own translation, not because there’s anything wrong with the aforementioned one, but as an exercise for myself and because there’s often merit in variety of renderings. I include the Arabic text in transliteration so that those who don’t know Arabic or its script can at least have some idea of the poem’s sound patterns, notably the line-ending -a/āk.

daḫala ‘l-šayṭānu qalbī fa-raʾá fīhi malʾak
wa-bi-lamḥi ‘l-ṭarfi mā baynahumā ‘štadda ‘l-ʿirāk
ḏā yaqūlu ‘l-baytu baytī fa-yuʿīdu ‘l-qawla ḏāk
wa-ʾanā ʾašhadu mā yaǧrī wa-lā ʾubdiya ḥarāk

sāʾilan rabbī ʾa-fī ‘l-ʾakwāni min rabbi siwāk
ǧabalat qalbī mina ‘l-badʾi yadāhu wa-yadāk

wa-ʾilá ‘l-yawmi ʾarānī fī šukūkin wa-‘rtibāk
lastu ʾadrī ʾa-raǧīm fī fuʾādī ʾam malʾak

Satan entered my heart and saw there an angel,
And in the blink of an eye a quarrel intensified between them.
One said, “This house is mine!” and the other answered back,
I watching without movement,

Asking my Lord, “Is there in all that exists a Lord like you,
Whose hand, and yours, formed my heart?”

Till today I see myself in doubt and bewilderment,
Not knowing whether the Cursed or an angel is in my mind.

A few remarks: The first line about Satan entering the heart may be a reflection of Luke 22:3 (Εἰσῆλθεν δὲ σατανᾶς εἰς Ἰούδαν τὸν καλούμενον Ἰσκαριώτην), John 13:2 (τοῦ διαβόλου ἤδη βεβληκότος εἰς τὴν καρδίαν ἵνα παραδοῖ αὐτὸν Ἰούδας Σίμωνος Ἰσκαριώτου), and/or 13:27 (εἰσῆλθεν εἰς ἐκεῖνον ὁ σατανᾶς). The phrase at the beginning of the second line may hark back to 1 Corinthians 15:52 (but the widely propagated Smith-Van Dyke version differently hasفي لحظة في طرفة عين, which strikes me as rather unnatural). In the last line, the word Cursed is an old epithet of Satan in Arabic. The theme of conflicting influences or presences in one’s mind or heart (two words are used in the poem here: qalb in lines 1 and 6, fuʾād in line 8) is, of course, not unique. I’m not in a philosophical enough temperament at the moment to muse on the subject much, so I’ll leave the poet’s words with you for you to have the opportunity to do so when it suits you!

French with the poets I

I’ve given here before some poems in other languages — I don’t know if anyone else appreciates these little presentations, but at least they’re fun for me! — and having just read through Jean de La Fontaine‘s (1621-1695) fable (in verse) on the tortoise and the hare (“Le lièvre et la tortue” [VI, 10], also in Aesop, but I don’t think it’s in the Panchatantra) with my two oldest sons, it occurred to me that it would be a nice one to do in French. The Fables are, of course, quite fun, and you’ll find the French text of all of them with some annotations (in French) here. The text follows immediately below, followed by some remarks on grammar and vocabulary; the rhymes will be obvious. As always, read aloud!

Let’s begin: first the texte intégral, followed by some hints, mostly lexical, tied to the text. I confess that I’d like to give more commentary than I am giving, but time and tiredness make me settle for what’s here; hopefully it will be useful to someone.

Rien ne sert de courir ; il faut partir à point.
Le Lièvre et la Tortue en sont un témoignage.
Gageons, dit celle-ci, que vous n’atteindrez point
Si tôt que moi ce but. Si tôt ? Êtes-vous sage ?
Repartit l’Animal léger.
Ma Commère, il vous faut purger
Avec quatre grains d’ellébore.
Sage ou non, je parie encore.
Ainsi fut fait : et de tous deux
On mit près du but les enjeux.
Savoir quoi, ce n’est pas l’affaire ;
Ni de quel juge l’on convint.
Notre Lièvre n’avait que quatre pas à faire ;
J’entends de ceux qu’il fait lorsque prêt d’être atteint
Il s’éloigne des Chiens, les renvoie aux calendes,
Et leur fait arpenter les landes.
Ayant, dis-je, du temps de reste pour brouter,
Pour dormir, et pour écouter
D’où vient le vent, il laisse la Tortue
Aller son train de Sénateur.
Elle part, elle s’évertue ;
Elle se hâte avec lenteur.
Lui cependant méprise une telle victoire ;
Tient la gageure à peu de gloire ;
Croit qu’il y va de son honneur
De partir tard. Il broute, il se repose,
Il s’amuse à toute autre chose
Qu’à la gageure. À la fin, quand il vit
Que l’autre touchait presque au bout de la carrière,
Il partit comme un trait ; mais les élans qu’il fit
Furent vains : la Tortue arriva la première.
Eh bien, lui cria-t-elle, avais-je pas raison ?
De quoi vous sert votre vitesse ?
Moi l’emporter ! et que serait-ce
Si vous portiez une maison ?

Gageons. “to wager”; the related noun la gageure occurs later. Ma Commère, il vous faut purger//Avec quatre grains d’ellébore. The last word, which derives from Greek and occurs in English as “hellebore”, refers to a variety of medicinal plant sometimes mentioned in folklore of various cultures; it was thought to cure madness. Surely these lines might serve as a fine reprimand to ambitious or boasting interlocutors, but of course they’d need to get it to be meaningful! je parie. parier is “to bet.” les enjeux. An enjeu is a “stake”. aux calendes. Oftener, I think, aux calendes grecques, as in English, an idiom referring to a point in time that will never come. arpenter. to go up and down. brouter. to nibble, graze; the verb comes again a few lines later. s’évertue. to try one’s best. la carrière. Not really “career” as commonly now, but the meaning is pretty clear from the context. un trait. “line, stroke, dash”; the phrase means something like “straightaway”. les élans. “momentum, impetus, rush”. emporter. “to sweep away”; the expression here expresses surprise, perhaps somewhat feigned.

So much for this fun little tale. The poetry itself is nothing stellar, but it’s not bad. I learned some new vocabulary myself, and perhaps you did, too. Maybe the lesson itself will also come in useful for us all someday!
Till next time!

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