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The Muallaqa of Imru al Qays and Its Translations Into English

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The Muallaqa of the Pre-Islamic Arab poet Imru al Qays1 is his most important poem. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest masterpieces of ancient Arabic literature, or even of Arabic literature in general. It has been translated into English several times; the first translation was done by Sir William Jones in the 18th Century, and the most recent just a few years ago, by the Irish poet Desmond O'Grady.

Yet in order to truly understand its significance, it is first necessary to first explain a little the background of the time and place in which it was written.

General Background

The days before Islam are called in Arabic Al Jahiliyya, meaning the time of ignorance or barbarity. However, it is during this time that some of the greatest Arabic poetry was conceived - a fact recognised even by the Muslims themselves. In these days, the Arab Peninsula was divided among many small tribal territories and kingdoms, and in each tribe there was a poet, Sha'ir, who was second in importance only to the Sheikh, the head of the tribe. The poet was responsible for keeping the history and the genealogy of the tribe, and in his poems he glorified the tribe and mocked its enemies.

The Muallaqat

The Muallaqat are seven Pre-Islamic Arabic poems from around the 6th Century AD that are considered the best of their kind. The meaning of the name 'Al-Muallaqat' is 'the suspended', and this derives from the myth which developed about these poems - that, being the best poems of their time, they were written on parchments using golden ink, and hung on the walls of the Ka'ba2 for all to see. However, that name first appeared only a long time after the Muallaqat had been written, and is not mentioned at all in sources from that period; it therefore seems to be a false myth, which comes from romanticisation of the Pre-Islamic period by later scholars.

Since the Arabic culture of that time was mainly oral, these poems were at first not written down, but recited and later memorised by individuals, usually the poets' apprentices. The first Muallaqat compilations were written in the beginning of the Islamic period (7th - 8th Centuries AD), and the number of poems that were included varied, but seven of these poems are considered a canon to this day, and at the head of those seven is the one written by the poet Imru al Qays.

The Muallaqat belong to a poetic genre called a Qasida. Nowadays, almost every long poem can be called a Qasida, but in the ancient times the definition was more distinct: a Qasida was a long poem with very strict form3. The stanzas of the Qasida are divided into two parts with identical metre; the metres of Arabic poetry, like those of Grecian poetry, are based on short and long syllables, and the ones used for the Qasidas were usually the long metres4, which helped create the typical long descriptive segments. The rhyme is consistent throughout all the stanzas, and the two parts of the first stanza often rhyme as well. The classical Qasidas are constructed of three main themes, written according to certain fixed conventions (though not every poet used all three together):

  • In the first part of the Qasida, which is called Nasib in Arabic, the poet describes his arrival to the campgrounds of his love's tribe, expecting a romantic rendezvous, and his discovery that the tribe had left the place to look for other pastures. The poet halts the friends that have ridden with him, and sits down to cry, remembering the love that has been and is now gone.

  • After reflecting on his lost romance, the return to reality hurts the poet so much that he cannot stay near the campgrounds anymore, and he mounts his riding animal and goes out to the desert. This part, called Rihla (journey), is usually longer than the Nasib and has a faster pace, and it contains many descriptions of the dangers of the desert and of the poet's riding animal, whose loyalty is portrayed as a contrast to the disloyalty of womankind5.

  • In the third part of the Qasida the poet praises the traits of the ideal man6 by glorifying himself or his tribe, or by tongue-lashing other tribes. In the past it has been suggested that this is the main part of the Qasida, and is actually the purpose (Qasd in Arabic) for which it has been written, and the reason it is called 'Qasida'; yet this seems to be an over-simplistic grasp of the complex form of Pre-Islamic poetry.

Imru al Qays

The figure of the poet Imru al Qays is an interesting one. The stories about him border on fiction, and it is not clear if he actually existed or if the poems attributed to him were written by other poets.

It is told that he was the son of the king of Kindah, one of the tribal kingdoms of the Arab Peninsula, and that his father had banished him from the court since he did not like the fact his son indulged in poetry. Imru al Qays wandered through the desert with a pack of tribeless vagabonds, but when he heard that his father had been murdered he went to avenge his death. It is also told that his death came to him from the hands of the Byzantine Emperor; according to this story, Imru al Qays had visited the Byzantine court and was accepted with great hospitality, but after he had left the Emperor heard a rumour that Imru al Qays had been with his daughter, and he sent him a poisoned shirt, thus bringing about his death (a story which is obviously derived from Greek mythology).

The only poem that is definitely attributed to Imru al Qays by all the medieval Arab theoreticians (who wrote many essays on the ancient Arabic poetry) is his Muallaqa. The fact that this poem is considered as important as it is should not be taken for granted, since it does not exactly comply with the literary conventions of the Qasida; it opens with a short description of the deserted campground, follows with the poet boasting of his former success among the ladies, then a Rihla segment which includes a long description of the poet's horse, and finally a description of a storm. The reason the Muallaqa is written in such a non-conformist way is that Imru al Qays, being of noble origin, did not have the same considerations as other poets, who had to suit the will of their audiences.

Translations

It is very hard to translate classical Arabic poetry into English. Arabic in general, and the language of the ancient poets in particular, is an amazingly rich language, where complex notions can be expressed with very few words; there is also a huge cultural difference which makes it hard to translate many concepts. Moreover, the division into short and long syllables on which the Arabic metre is based is impossible in English, and the consistent rhyme, though perhaps possible, is very difficult to achieve. In the case of the Muallaqa of Imru al Qays, most translators chose to keep the 14-syllable metre (which is somewhat similar to the English fourteener), but none have managed to keep the consistent rhyme.

The translations in this entry are quoted as close to the original as possible, though some changes had to be done due to medium. Due to copyright reasons, it was impossible to quote here more than a few lines of each translation, in order to demonstrate the difference between the various styles. Some of the taste of the original is inevitably lost this way; but if you find that you are interested in the subject, the books cited in the bibliographic list are highly recommended.

First Translation - Sir William Jones, 1783

O friend, seest thou the lightning, whose flashes resemble the quick glance of two hands amid clouds raised above clouds?
The fire of it gleams like the lamps of a hermit, when the oil, poured on them, shakes the cord by which they are suspended.
[...]
The small birds of the valley warble at day-break, as if they had taken their early draught of generous wine mixed with spice.
The beasts of the wood, drowned in the floods of night, float, like the roots of wild onions, at the distant edge of the lake.

The first translation of the Muallaqa into English was in the 18th Century. Sir William Jones was an important British jurist, translator and philologist7. He was born in London in 1746 and studied at Harrow, where he specialised in Oriental languages, including Hebrew and Arabic. After graduating from Oxford in 1764 he embarked on a career as a tutor and translator, translating into English works in Persian, Chinese and other Oriental languages, but in 1770 he decided to study law, and in 1774 started working as a barrister, and later as a judge. It was as part of this job that he was sent to Calcutta, where he learnt Sanskrit and continued his philological work, as well as his translations.

One of the reasons that Sir William eventually decided to write a translation of the Muallaqat might have been his political tendencies - he was opposed to the British policy of those days and supported the American Revolution, and in an essay about the Muallaqat written at the time his enthusiastic tone about the free sons of Arabia can be understood as a political reference, though nothing is said directly. However, it is clear that the main reason for translating the poems is the deep appreciation he felt towards the Arabic language and the literature written in it.

In 1772, in the introduction to his book Poems, Chiefly Translations from the Asiatick Languages, he wrote about the seven Muallaqat, noting that they 'would, no doubt, be highly acceptable to the lovers of antiquity, and the admirers of native genius'8, but he also said that he did not intend to translate them at the current time, and that he only referred to them as a recommendation for the reader to learn Arabic and read them in the original. He had started translating the poems in Paris in 1780 and apparently finished the work in 1781, but due to certain difficulties the book was only published in 1783.

Sir William did not keep either the metre or the rhyme of the original, and there are some semantic inaccuracies in his translation (in the quoted segment note especially the last stanza, where the atmosphere created does not exactly fit a desert scene); however, considering the fact this text was written more than 200 years ago, it is amazingly accurate, and sounds quite clear and flowing even to the ears of a modern reader.

Sir Charles Lyall, 1877

O friend - see the lightning there! It flickered, and now is gone,
as though flashed a pair of hands in the pillar of crowned cloud.
Nay, was it its blaze, or the lamps of a hermit that dwells alone,
and pours o'er the twisted wicks the oil from his slender cruse?
[...]
At earliest dawn on the morrow the birds were chirping blithe,
as though they had drunken draughts of riot in fiery wine;
And at even the drowned beasts lay where the torrent had borne them, dead,
high up on the valley sides, like earth-stained roots of squills.

Sir Charles Lyall, like Sir William Jones, was a British civil servant in India as well as an important orientalist, who wrote many translations of Arabic poetry. In 1877 he wrote in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal about his intention to publish a volume containing the translation of all seven Muallaqat, along with translation of other poems, but this intention was not carried out in full. In his book Translations of Ancient Arabian Poetry, also published in 1877, only some of the Muallaqat are included, and only a small segment of the Muallaqa of Imru al Qays was translated. In his translation of the Muallaqa Lyall managed to keep the original metre, but he did not rhyme the poem and used blank verse instead.

In addition to that, Lyall had used a method of transcription for the names of places and tribes which is very similar to the one used today in research of the old 'Orient'; it is more scientifically correct than the methods used by others, but is a bit hard to understand to the average reader (in the quoted text there are no examples of this).

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Lady Anne Blunt, 1903

Friend, thou seest the lightning. Mark where it wavereth,
gleameth like fingers twisted, clasped in the cloud-rivers.
Like a lamp new-lighted, so is the flash of it,
trimmed by a hermit nightly pouring oil-séame.
[...]
Seemed it then the song-birds, wine-drunk at sun-rising,
loud through the valley shouted, maddened with spiceries,
While the wild beast corpses, grouped like great bulbs up-torn,
cumbered the hollow places, drowned in the night-trouble.

The next translation of the Muallaqa was done by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, a British poet and diplomat, and his wife Lady Anne Blunt (who was a descendant of the poet Lord Byron9 and also rather famous for her Arabian horses). The two had spent a long time in the Middle East and decided to complete the task Lyall had left unfinished, translating all the Muallaqat into English in 14-syllable metre in blank verse.

One of the more important influences on the Blunts was Edward FitzGerald's translation of 'Omar Khayyám's Rubáiyát', first published in 1859. Also, like many European colonialists, they believed that their long stay in the Middle East had given them an insight into its inhabitants that couldn't have been achieved by former translators. It is quite interesting to see the condescension with which they refer to the medieval Arabic commentators of the Muallaqat; in the introduction to their book they write:

The text of the Moállakát, in itself obscure, has for centuries been still further obscured by medieval commentators, learned in everything except personal knowledge of the customs and ways of Bedouin thought. Townsmen by birth, this was not to be wondered at, and their mistakes have been handed down from age to age almost as a religion. In dealing with these, the present translators have had the advantage of their long experience of the desert and desert practices10.

In an attempt to find an English equivalent to the rich and ornate language of the ancient Arab poets, the Blunts have chosen a more elaborate biblical language than that used by Lyall, as the segment above demonstrates well.

RA (Reynold Alleyne) Nicholson, 1922

I entered. By the curtain there stood she,
Clad lightly as for sleep, and looked on me.
'By god,' she cried, 'what recks thee of the cost?
I see thine ancient madness is not lost.'
[...]
Fair in her colour, splendid in her grace,
Her bosom smoothed as mirror's polished face:
A white pale virgin pearl such lustre keeps,
Fed with clear water in untrodden deeps.

RA Nicholson, an important orientalist and specialising in Arabic literature, had written many translations of poetry from Arabic and Persian, especially about the Sufi mysticist sect11. His book Translations of Eastern Poetry and Prose was published in 1922, and includes a short segment of the Muallaqa of Imru al Qays in what might be the most interesting translation of those mentioned so far. In the translations included in this book Nicholson has chosen not to use the original metre, but instead to keep the spirit of the original by using a light and rhythmical rhyme.

The segment chosen from the Muallaqa is one of the racier bits of the poem, taken from the part between the Nasib and the Rihla, where the poet boasts of his success with women. Nicholson chose to write it in a decasyllabic metre rhymed in couplets, making for an easy and flowing read. Despite that major change, his translation is not only beautiful but also incredibly accurate, and is definitely one of the best translations of the Muallaqa.

AJ (Arthur John) Arberry, 1957

I came, and already she'd stripped off her garments for sleep
beside the tent-flap, all but a single flimsy slip;
and she cried, 'God's oath, man, you won't get away with this!
The folly's not left you yet; I see you're as feckless as ever.'
[...]
Friend, do you see yonder lightning? Look, there goes its glitter
flashing like two hands now in the heaped-up, crowned stormcloud.
[...]
In the morning the songbirds all along the broad valley
quaffed the choicest of sweet wines rich with spices;
the wild beasts at evening drowned in the furthest reaches
of the wide watercourse lay like drawn bulbs of wild onion.

Like Nicholson, AJ Arberry had also written many books about Arabic literature and about the Sufi Mysticism, including translations from Arabic and Persian12; however, his translation is very different from Nicholson's. Arberry chose to translate the Muallaqa in the same way as Lyall and the Blunts, ie in a 14-syllable metre in blank verse.

There is not much to be said about Arberry's translation. It is accurate and fluent, though it might be considered somewhat uninspired. In his excellent book The Seven Odes he says:

It seems unlikely now that further linguistic discoveries will be made of a character so fundamental as materially to affect the traditional interpretation of ancient Arabic poetry. [...] Imr al-Qays and his kind speak into my ear a natural, even at times a colloquial language [...] In the versions which I have made I have sought to resolve the difficulty of idiomatic equivalence on these lines; and I think that the result is a gain in vigour and clarity.
(p59-60)

The main distinction of this book, and what makes it so interesting to read, is the extensive historical background presented in his book, which includes many samples of the translations of the Muallaqat, into English as well as other languages.

Desmond O'Grady, 1990

When the Pleiades shone in the sky
like the precious stones stitched on a lady's scarf,
I slipped through to her,
found her stripped for sleep
except for her single, flimsy, sleeping slip.
She gasped:
'My god are you mad?
Will your head and heart not heed?'

[...]

Look!
Crowning that stormcloud.
Lightning! It flashes like a bowman's hand
flicks arrows from his quiver.
A brilliant blaze of light
like that of the lone hermit when he splashes oil
on the twisted wick of his nightlamp.

[...]

Come morning
it was as though the songbirds of the valley
had drunk spiced old wine
they winged and warbled so.
And the wild life,
lost drowned in the farthest reaches of the flood,
looked like pulled up bulbs
of wild onion.

The latest translation so far, and perhaps the most fascinating one, was made by the Irish poet Desmond O'Grady. O'Grady was born in Limerick in 1935, and had also lived in Paris, Rome and Alexandria. He studied Arabic at Harvard University in the US, and besides translations of Arabic poetry had also published translations from Greek and Welsh.

In his translation of the Muallaqat, O'Grady had completely laid aside the original metre and rhyme and instead wrote the poems in free verse; in the introduction to his books The Golden Odes of Love he explains that in doing so he intends to present to the reader the experience of hearing the poetry as it was originally recited, with the stops and the emphases made by the reciter. In addition to that, O'Grady had taken great poetic licence in his translation by deciding to omit the names of places and tribes, so as not to inconvenience the modern readers.

It is indeed very easy for a contemporary reader to feel an immediate connection to the Muallaqat in O'Grady's translation. This fact makes up for the few linguistic inaccuracies in the text; a noticeable example in the text is the somewhat unclear phrase 'eggshell-shaped tent', which is simply a misunderstanding of the Arabic Baydat Khidr, meaning 'the white-skinned one of the tent' (ie, a woman of noble origin, who does not have to toil outside but sits in her tent and therefore has a pale complexion), a misunderstanding which comes from confusing the two meanings of the word Bayda: 'white' and 'egg'.

Non-Literary Translations

Some translations of the Muallaqa, especially from recent decades, put linguistic correctness before poetic form, and try to translate the original word by word as accurately as possible. Despite the value of such translations to the orientalist community, they tend to be overly literal and very hard to read. As an example, here are a few short segments from a translation done by Alan Jones in 1996 (since it is written in the more scientific transcription, some of the letters could not be represented in this medium, and therefore some changes had to be made - so the letters that are in bold here originally just have a dot under them):

I arrived when she had slipped off her clothes [ready] for sleep [behind] a screen, all but the covering of a mifdal.
She said, 'God's oath, you have no way of evading them. I see that your ways of error have not left you'.
[...]
My friend, can you see the lightning? Let me point out to you its flashes in the distance gleaming like the flash of hands [as it moves swiftly] in a mass of cloud piled up like a crown.
Its light giving illumination, or like the lamps of a hermit who has been generous with oil on the twisted wicks.
[...]
In the morning the finches of the valleys had been given drink of the finest wine - wine fiery as pepper - [so noisy were they],
In the evening the beasts of prey were [lying] there drowned in its furthest reaches like bulbous plants uprooted [and twisted into unreal shape].

Epilogue

It is hard to recommend one translation or another. As has been shown above, each has its own merits and drawbacks, and its own style; each represents a certain time and a certain approach towards the translation of ancient Arabic poetry. For those who wish to read more than the samples that have been brought here, a bibliographic list follows; yet to fully understand and appreciate this poetry, perhaps it is best to return to the advice of Sir William Jones, study the language, and read it in the original.

Bibliography

  • Arberry, Arthur John. The Seven Odes: The First Chapter in Arabic Literature. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1957. p7-66.

  • Jones, Alan. Early Arabic Poetry, Volume Two: Selected Odes. Oxford: Ithaca Press Reading, 1996; p239-243 and p2-5 (on the Arabic side).

  • Lyall, Charles James. Translations of Ancient Arabian Poetry, chiefly pre-Islamic: With an Introduction and notes. London: Williams & Norgate Ltd, 1930. pxvii-lii, 103-106.

  • Nicholson, Reynold Alleyne. Translations of Eastern Poetry and Prose. London: Curzon Press, 1987. pvii-ix, 4-5.

  • O'Grady, Desmond. The Golden Odes of Love: Al-Mu'allaqat, A Verse Rendering from the Arabic. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1997. p1-11.

1A name which means 'the man of Qays' - Qays being one of the ancient gods of Arabia.2The religious importance of the Ka'ba did not begin in the Islamic era; it was a place of worship for some of the more important Arab gods, and many rituals took place there, some of which have been incorporated into the Muslim Hajj.3Because of their length, Qasidas are sometimes referred to in English as 'odes'.4Most common are the Tawil, 'long', with 14 syllables in each part of the stanza, and the Kamel, 'perfect', with 15 syllables in each part.5For this reason, certain western scholars named this part of Qasidas 'The Camel Section'6An important concept of the time, known in Arabic as Muruwa.7One of his main discoveries was about the link Sanskrit has to Greek and other European languages - a discovery which opened the way to the study of Indo-European languages and the connections between them.8Quote taken from the introduction to Arberry's book The Seven Odes, p9.9Another interesting fact is that Lady Anne Blunt's mother, Ada Lovelace, is one of the pioneers of computer science.10Quote taken from the introduction to Arberry's book The Seven Ode', p28.11One of the most famous Muslim poets, Jallal ad-Din ar-Rumi, was a great Sufi scholar.12His most famous translation is probably The Koran Interpreted: A Translation, first published in 1955.

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