إن كُنْتَ نَبِيَّاً..
خَلِّصْني من هذا السِحْرْ..
منَ هذا الكُفْرْ..
حُبُّكَ كالكُفْرِ.. فطهِّرْني
من هذا الكُفْرْ..
If you are a prophet
Rid me of this witchcraft
Of this blasphemy
Your love is like blasphemy… so cleanse me
Of this blasphemy
- Nizar Qabbani, Risala min Taht al-Ma’ (Letter From Under the Sea) (1970) - full translation by Kevin Moore here https://mepfoundation.tumblr.com/post/100317007203/letter-from-under-the-sea-by-nizar-qabbani
“One cannot put forth as a rule for translation that it must think of how the author himself would have written just the same thing in the translator’s tongue… Indeed, what objection can be made if a translator says to the reader: Here I bring you the book as the man would have written it had he written in German; and the reader responds: I am just as obliged to you as if you had brought me the picture of a man the way he would look if his mother had conceived him by a different father?” - Frederich Schleiermacher, On the Different Methods of Translating (1813) trans. Susan Bernofsky
Shleiermacher wrote in 1813 about a concept that is still common today: the idea that translators should create a text under the hypothetical condition that it is what the author would write if they were writing in the target language today. He ably rips apart this idea by pointing out that this hypothetical is so impossible that it is meaningless; a writer’s language system is so connected to their culture that it cannot be transplanted through time and space.
Here I would like to apply that concept to an excerpt from a Nizar Qabbani poem in which he expresses the pain associated with unwanted love. Qabbani plays with religious concepts, arguably the most culturally specific of all literary devices. In one breath he calls the object of his affection a prophet—such a suggestion pokes at the Islamic rejection of anyone who calls themselves a prophet after Muhammad—and invokes the proscribed practices of sihr (witchcraft) and kufr (disbelief or blasphemy).
Returning to the idea that the translator of this poem could produce a text as if Qabbani had written it in English, this poem clearly shows how futile such an effort would be. This imaginary Qabbani would not be able to successfully draw on Islamic concepts that are inextricably linked to the Arabic language. He would suddenly be writing for an audience that had Christian associations with words like prophet, witchcraft, and blasphemy. I think we can assume that Qabbani, as an artist, would never have bothered to produce such a work, as its impact would be wasted on an Anglophone audience.
My translation accepts these limitations and does not assume to summon this hypothetical English-writing Qabbani from the ether. Certain choices can be made in an attempt to give the reader the shadow of the impression that an Arab reader would have gotten from the text, like the choice of witchcraft (forbidden or disapproved in many Christian traditions) rather than the more value-neutral magic. (Other translations use spell or enchantment here, which is likewise an excellent choice to associate it with the English idiom of being spellbound by love, but I consider it too positive to reflect the fact that magic is generally regarded as a sin in orthodox Islam.)
I am also greatly restricted in my understanding of the impression this would make on his audience because I am not a native speaker of this language, nor have I ever been immersed in the “source culture”. In my opinion, translators should acknowledge their limitations instead of claiming an ability to operate in an impossible hypothetical situation. This small excerpt is enough to illustrate why.