Assaying a Translation: ‘Strange Dawn’

I shove off in the El Toro dinghy of my dreams to navigate Gilgamesh’s Snake (1), sailing on a sea of Arabic towards a far shore, which is the poem’s end.

Ghareeb Iskander’s poem has 5 parts:

I. Song
II. The Lost Beginning
III. Something Began to Talk
IV. How Will I Ever Write About It?
V. Conclusion.

Fool in a dinghy on open water: what could go wrong? Plenty, but I have a map for reference: the English translation made by John Glenday and Iskander. That translation commands respect, not least because of the poet’s collaboration in it. Dissecting it in a spirit of inquiry pays tribute to it. Treating it as unquestionable, however, is to forego a voyage of discovery. Out of the question.

I’m keen to observe how the published translation does or doesn’t corroborate my own reading of the Arabic original. I’ll accord the Hans Wehr dictionary (2) the status of lexical benchmark for the purposes of my adventure. Doing so is a confessedly arbitrary expedient whose justification is easiest to show with an example. (The citations consist of my translation and transliteration followed by the published translation in italics.)

‘Song,” the short poem that inaugurates the sequence, begins as follows:

I supply most of the diacritics in my handwritten copies of the text.

I. Song

He sang every thing:
[ḡannā kulla šay’in:]
He sang the sum of things:

sang the sleeping pavements
the drowsing pavement,

and the strange dawn.
the unfamiliar dawn.

Here is Wehr’s listing of meanings for ḡarīb, the descriptor of “dawn”:

strange, foreign, alien, extraneous (^alā or ^an to s.o.); strange, odd, queer, quaint, unusual, extraordinary, curious, remarkable, peculiar; amazing, astonishing, baffling, startling, wondrous, marvelous, grotesque; difficult to understand, abstruse, obscure (language); remote, outlandish, rare, uncommon (word)…

In the listing, commas separate words considered synonymous; semicolons signal a new semantic range. Note that “strange” occurs twice. “Unfamiliar,” used in the published translation, doesn’t occur at all, but seems a plausible alternative to “strange.”

For a translator synonyms are not interchangeable. This may be especially true of poetry, where connotation is magnified through concentration. Consider how different options from the Wehr listing color each “dawn” uniquely:

the alien dawn; the quaint dawn; the peculiar dawn; the grotesque dawn…

To be continued.



(1) Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, Ghareeb Iskander, Bilingual Edition, Translated from the Arabic by John Glenday and Ghareeb Iskander, Syracuse University Press, 2015.

(2) Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, edited by J Milton Cowan, Cornell University Press, 1966. [From the copyright page: “This dictionary is an enlarged and improved version of ‘Arabisches Wörterbuch für die Schriftsprache der Gegenwart’ by Hans Wehr and includes the contents of the ‘Supplement zum Arabischen Wörterbuch für die Schriftsprache der Gegenwart’ by the same author.” From Cowan’s preface dated 1960: “… [This edition] is more accurate and much more comprehensive than the original version, which was produced under extremely unfavorable conditions in Germany during the late war years and the early postwar period.”]

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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1 Response to Assaying a Translation: ‘Strange Dawn’

  1. Pingback: Translating Winds and Currents | EthicalDative

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