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Nizar Qabbani’s “Balqis”: Translation into English

with an introduction

Yasser K. R. AMAN
Al-Alsun Minia University, Egypt
College of Languages & Translation, King Saud University

Abstract/ Résumé
Cet article montre l'importance d'adapter les différentes théories littéraires de traduction
ainsi que de mettre la traduction donnée dans son contexte approprié. L'introduction vise à
fournir au lecteur de langue cible avec une meilleure compréhension du poème traduit
"Belqis", un poème politique célèbre par Un poète arabe a appelé Nizar Qabbani. La
première section traite de l'introduction aux théories de la traduction avec référence
particulière aux «Belqis." Je soutiens que l'approche de crédit correspond à la traduction de
la poésie depuis la traduction des approches différentes peuvent pas supporter séparément
pour répondre aux exigences de la traduction littéraire. Le second présente à la fois une
esquisse biographique du poète, ce qui reflète une forte corrélation entre sa vie et de
pensées comme on le voit dans sa poésie, et fournit au lecteur un contexte politique qui
donne un éclairage sur le contexte culturel et intertextuel de la traduction. Le poème, mais
un chant funèbre sur la femme morte, découvre peu à peu les mauvaises pratiques
politiques arabes. les implications politiques de l'image de la femme sont un rappel de les
territoires occupés. En fait, le poème se lamente tous les peuples arabes qui souffrent de
leurs dirigeants. Par conséquent, je soutiens que le poème est le cri du Qabbani pour
réveiller les gens partout dans le monde arabe.

Nizar Qabbani, modern Arab poetry, elegy, Arab politics, literary translation

This introduction aims at providing the target language reader with a better
understanding of the translated poem “Balqis”. It consists of two sections: the first one
deals with theories of translation with special reference to “Balqis”. I argue that literary
translation cannot strictly adhere to preset rules. Therefore, the appropriation approach,
which applies free/communicative translation and focuses on the content and form as
much as possible, fits literary translation especially poetry. Put together, the three
sections create a context necessary to the target language readership. The Second is a
brief biography of the poet which shows a strong correlation between his life and
thoughts as reflected in his poetry, especially “Balqis”. It traces his criticism of corrupt
politics back to 1967 Defeat. Moreover, it sheds light on the cultural/intertextual context
of the translation against a political background, without which it will be difficult to
fully grasp the mortifying criticism the poet directs to the Arab nation.

According to Lefevere and Bassnett (1990), the study of translation practices has
moved on from a formalist approach and turned instead to the larger issues of
context, history and convention... What translation means has to be established in
certain context. Contextulization of translation brings first culture and then politics
and power into the picture. (Tianmin)

I. “Balqis” and translation theories

No matter how “good” our translations were, they would never conform to certain
“literary” expectations of the audience, a “problem” that may be operative
regardless of the originating and receiving cultures. (Gentzler, 1993: xii)

The above quotation stresses a never complete satisfaction about the translated text. In
translating a text, especially a poem, the translator is caught between two fires: “how to
decide what changes can be warranted by regard for the target language audience and
what has to be preserved in order not to produce a completely new piece of discourse.”
(Thorsell, 1998: 27) Moreover, the translated texts themselves cannot be produced
according to strictly preset rules because “the translated text seems to have a life of its
own, responding not to the interpreter’s set of rules, but to laws which are unique to the
mode of translation itself.”(Gentzler, 1993: 18)
Poetry translation falters between mechanical and metrical versions of the original.
Undoubtedly poetry loses much of its music, sweetness and harmony in translation. To
a similar effect, in his article “Translator or Betrayer? Some translators of Dante”, Allan
H. Gilbert says:

For everybody ought to know that nothing brought into harmony by musical linking
can be changed over from its own language into another without destroying all its
sweetness and harmony. (Friedrich, 1959: 263)
However, a translator can exert great efforts to make up for such losses. Gilbert raises
two important issues: mechanical translation, which hardly reflects the original and
metrical translation which imitates the English model but lacks faithfulness. For
translation of poetry to be accurate, a translator postulates the impracticality of a
common set of rules and deals with each poem as a separate case.
Differences in translation theories endorse the impossibility of applying rigid rules
for every text. I.A. Richards advocates a “theory of proper translation” (Gentzler, 1993:
19) while Ezra Pound argues for “a theory of the precise rendering of details”.
(Gentzler, 1993: 19) He calls for a translation that cares for the fidelity to the original in
the sense of keeping the “atmosphere” and “meaning.” (Gentzler, 1993: 26) Frederic
Will, avoiding all theoretical stuff about literary translation, “trusts his intuition”.
(Gentzler, 1993: 32) The innovative aspect in Pound’s theory has shown itself in many
American literary translations:

License has been given to allow translators to intuit good poems from another
language without knowledge of the original language or the culture, and, as long as
they have some poetic sensibility and good taste, now governed by plain speech and
lack of adornment, their translations are accepted. (Gentzler, 1993: 37) [Italics mine]

I argue that having “poetic sensibility” and “good taste” does not guarantee the
accuracy of the translation. Rather, knowing the source language and its culture, from
which a contextual relation to the target text should be derived, helps the translator to
accomplish his task properly and the target reader to fully understand the translation
given to him. If “Balqis” was translated according to Pound’s criteria, many things
would be sacrificed so much so the original message would not be properly delivered.
For instance, the first image of Balqis’ beauty depends on whether the poet both
understands the cultural reference to Babel queens and the implied simile by which he
compares the graceful walk of Balqis to that of peacocks and oryx. Translation of "
‫ "ياقمرى‬is culturally bound since it refers to someone’s lover. If the translator cut all
cultural relations, he would render it literally. Moreover, the translated text should
conform to the receiving cultural context, which cannot be achieved unless the
translator is well aware of concepts such as cultural communication and cybernetics.
W.S. Merwin appropriates viewpoints held by Richard, Pound and Will. He does not
suggest the possibility of a unified reading. Meanwhile, he focuses on what the
language does more than on what it says, since “words take on energy in their
contextual, intertextual life.” (Gentzler, 1993: 40) The energetic power of words lies in
their relation to their context and to intertextual references. Therefore, the political
background and the accompanying notes of the translated version of “Balqis” furnish
the target reader with a lens with which he can see the target text clearly. Will sees
Chomesky’s theory of universal grammar as a good basis for the science of translation
since it makes a “mutual interpenetrability of all languages” possible. (Gentzler, 1993:
46)However, translation of poetry cannot strictly adhere to this viewpoint. Each poet
has a peculiar way of expressing his thoughts presenting to the reader ungrammatically
structured poems using poetic license.
Eugene Nida’s translation theory has something to do with Chomsky’s linguistic one:
“Nida’s translation theory probed deep structures common to all languages and found
ways to transform those entities in differing languages.” (Gentzler, 1993: 47) In
applying generative grammar to translation, Nida saw that the conceptual framework of
the receiver along with his context must be put in mind while translating. To support his
argument, he refers to communication theory and cybernetics. (See: Gentzler, 1993: 52)
Nida’s argument that the reception of the translated / communicated passage should be
always stable is based on his religious approach. Actually Nida had primarily addressed
translators of the Bible which is the word of God who is stable and so is His word. (See:
Gentzler, 1993: 54) However, Nida’s theory cannot be applied to literary translation
since individuals are remarkably culturally different. Despite this fact, Nida’s
modification paradigm fits well in the field of literary translation since “the surface
manifestation does not really matter to Nida; changes in the text, the words, the
metaphors are allowed as long as the target language text functions in the same manner
as the source text.” (Gentzler, 1993: 54) This modification allows the translator to freely
convey the message of the source text into the target language, taking into consideration
the appropriation of diction, figures of speech, rhyme and rhythm as much as possible.
By so doing, the result will be a well-groomed literary work rather than a literal
Many discussions have been held concerning literal translation and free one. I argue
that the latter approach gives more sense than the former since it renders the original
text more culturally and linguistically contextualized in the target language. Defending
himself, as he used free translation approach while translating the Old Testament, St

disparaged the word-for-word approach because, by following so closely the form of

the ST, it produced an absurd translation, cloaking the sense of the original. The
sense-for-sense approach, on the other hand, allowed the sense or content of the ST to
be translated. In these poles can be seen the origin of both the ‘literal vs. free’ and
‘form vs. content’ debate that has continued until modern times. (Munday, 2001: 20)

The free and literal approaches appeared in the Arab world in the Abbasid period as
Arab translators, such as Yuhanna Ibn al-Batrīq and Ibn Nāʻima al Himsi , literally
translated Greek scientific and philosophical material into Arabic, which was a failure.
Therefore, an efficient sense-for-sense translation was given by Ibn Ishāq and al-
Jawahari. (Munday, 2001: 20-1) Through free translation, a translated poem keeps the
spirit and the content of the origin as much as possible.
The literary translator facilitates the translatable and manages the untranslatable,
rendering an easily understood target text. The nineteenth century witnessed many
discussions over different concepts of translation such as that of translatability and
untranslatability tackled by Friedrich Schleiermacher, one of the contemporary
prominent scholars. His appropriation/adaptation theory (Munday, 2001: 28) which
seeks to put the source text into the target reader’s context is lacking since he forgets the
differences in cultural and educational background between the translator and target text
readers. For example, the translation of Qabbani’s poetry needs high skill and accuracy,
no matter it is simple and direct. In the preface to Modern Arabic Poetry, Salma Khadra
Jayyusi holds a similar viewpoint:

the poetry of simple structures and the direct approach needs translators who can
imbue the target language with the same charge and tension that was achieved in the
original. It was easier, for example, to translate Khalil Hawi than Nizar Qabbani.
(Jayyusi, 1987: xxiii) [Italics mine]
The “charge” and “tension” in the source text are appreciated in different ways by
various translators. Therefore, equivalence varies and the source text keeps its self-
energetic power of representation.
In recent years, equivalence in translation has been much debated. It is difficult to
achieve because it is impossible to fix one interpretation of a text throughout the time.
Moreover, it is illogical to expect an objective target text as the process of translation is
highly subjective. The fact that there are different types of equivalence makes it
possible for the translator to fulfill as many types as the source text and its literary genre
allow. For translating poetry differs a lot from any genre. “Formal” / “semantic” and
“dynamic”/ “communicative” (Nida & Nemark qtd in Nababan, 2008 ) equivalence,
each plays a role in the production of a translated poem. Other types were suggested; for
example “Koller (1997) proposes denotative, connotative, pragmatic, textual, formal
and aesthetic equivalence.” (Nababan, 2008). As it is well known, sameness cannot be
maintained. The translated text usually shows loss/addition of information. “To conform
to the stylistic demands and grammatical conventions of the target language, structural
adjustment in translation is inevitably needed.” (Nababan, 2008)
Addition/loss of information in the target text is not ornamental; rather, it is essential
to the communication between the target reader and the translation. Additional
information can take many forms:

Information which is not present in the source language text may be added to the
target language text. According to Newmark (1988: 91), information added to the
translation is normally cultural (accounting for the differences between SL and TL
culture), technical (relating to the topic), or linguistic (explaining wayward use of
words). The additional information may be put in the text (i.e. by putting it in
brackets) or out of the text (i.e. by using a footnote or annotation). Such additional
information is regarded as an extra explanation of culture-specific concepts (Baker,
1992) and is obligatory specification for comprehension purposes. (Nababan, 2008)

Deleting information mentioned in the source text depends on both how effective it is to
the overall translation and on the comprehensiveness of the translated text. Deletion is
usually required if the source text shows repetition often considered as redundant
especially in languages such as Arabic. Sometimes a deleted redundant line is replaced
by another rhyming one which conforms to both form and content. An example from
“Balqis” illustrates this point:

‫ل يوٍم واحدًا ِمّنا‬

ُ ‫ تقُت‬.. ‫ت‬
ُ ‫ بيرو‬..

‫ل يوٍم عن ضحّيْة‬
ُ ‫وتبح‬

The second line is replaced by another:

Everyday, Beirut kills one of us.

Everywhere, there is death,

Though “death” does not rhyme well with “us”, the caesural effect helps create an
image of a hovering deathly atmosphere that will be detailed in the lines that follow.
However, repetition, known as anaphora in poetry, plays a certain role in
communicating the meaning so much so deletion will be drastic. In the source text of
“Balqis”, the first two lines are exact replica of each other. The translated text keeps
them as they stress the mortification the whole Arab nation should feel. The anaphoric
use of “to be” in “to be assassinated, gobbled, slain, exhumed” stresses the passivity of
Arabs. The repetition of “Now I break the cover” underscores the undivided will of the
poet to unleash his anger against his wife’s assassins. “It’s a country where they kill
horses” is repeated to underline the savage nature of the corrupt Arab regimes. An
example of useful addition is:

ُ ‫بلقي‬

‫ إّنني‬.. ‫سي الجميلُة‬

ِ ‫يا َفَر‬

ْ ‫جو‬
‫ل‬ ُ‫خ‬
َ ‫ل تاريخي‬
ّ ‫من ُك‬

My beautiful mare…

I’m ashamed of my history, a long nightmare.

The addition of “a long nightmare” creates a musical effect as well as stresses the nature
of a shame-loaded history. Many a time the adverb “gracefully” is added to clarify a
giraffe-related image of Balqis walking in beauty; or to stress her beautiful stature as it
is compared to a palm tree.
Sometimes additional information makes up for an implied meaning which is
difficult to figure out in the source text unless read carefully. Two examples hold good

ْ ‫ن قبيلٌة بين القباِئ‬

‫ل‬ ُ ‫فنح‬

We’re a tribe, like others, under the yoke.

If translated literally, the intended meaning will not be properly communicated. The
additional phrase “under the yoke” is momentous as it helps clarify the image of a hard-
done-by people whose suffering is further illustrated throughout the poem. The second

ُ ‫ يا بلقي‬. . ‫خ‬
‫س‬ ُ ‫هذا هو التاري‬


This is history’s ugly face.

The adjectival phrase “ugly face” is not redundant since it creates music, rhyming with
Balqis, and uncovers the implied meaning.
Once Roman Jakobson stated “equivalence in difference is the cardinal problem of
language and the pivotal concern of linguistics”. (Munday , 2001: 37) Such differences
occur at various levels: at the level of gender; at the level of aspect; and at the level of
semantic fields. These differences can interlingually be dealt with except in the case of
translation of poetry: “Only poetry-where form expresses sense, where ‘phonemic
similarity is sensed as semantic relationship’- is considered ‘untranslatable’ by
Jakobson and requires ‘creative transportation’.” (Munday, 2001: 37) This does not
mean to minimize the source text as is the case with Nida’s receptor-oriented approach
which necessitates “adaptations of grammar, of lexicon, and of cultural references to be
essential in order to achieve naturalness.” (Munday, 2001: 42) This is inapplicable to a
poem with specific unparalleled cultural references, such as “Balqis”. I argue that what
is “untranslatable” can be appropriated, restructured and expressed in a way suitable for
the target reader, taking into consideration the Pound criteria of “poetic sensibility and
good taste”. This image furnishes a good example:

‫ت مزيجًا راِئَعًا‬
ْ ‫كان‬

َ ‫طيَفِة والّر‬
ِ ‫بين الَق‬

َ ‫ن‬
َ ‫ج بي‬
َ ‫كان الَبَنْف‬

‫يناُم ول يناْم‬

A wonderful mix

Between softness and hardness

The color of violet in her eyes

Twinkles all times.

A literal translation or a paraphrase minimizes, if not, destroys the message of the

source text. The conceptual metaphor of a beautifully attractive woman differs from
culture to culture.
In certain cases appropriation does no good. Historical figures are difficult to find
equivalent for. “Abo Lahab”, who refers to tyrants, and “al Muhalal” and “a-Smawa’al”
two courageous tribal leaders, should be kept in transliteration with explanatory end
notes. Some lines are literally rendered as they are contextually suitable for the target
reader. The same applies to some images. For example:

‫سَتْمَلُكوا َفَمَها‬
ْ ‫فا‬
َ ‫وكي‬

ْ ‫عَن‬
‫ب‬ ِ ‫ ول ترُكوا‬.. ‫فما ترُكوا به َوْرَدًا‬
How they got her mouth occupied.

Neither roses nor grapes were left.

The image of a post-assassination/occupation wasteland which relates the occupied

Palestine to the dead body of his wife, may be accepted by the target reader who may
have read T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”.

II. Nizar Qabbani: A brief biography1and political background

Nizar Tawfiq Qabbani was born on 21st March, 1923 in Ma’zanat A-Shah’am, one of
Damascus’ old districts. He descended from one of the well established families in
Damascus. He had three brothers and two sisters. His father was a well-to-do merchant.
He got his baccalaureate from the National Scientific College in Damascus, joined the
Faculty of Law in the Syrian University and graduated in 1945. He mastered the
English language. His work in the diplomatic corps enabled him to tour different cities,
especially Cairo, London, Beirut and Madrid. In 1950s, Syrian men of religion wanted
Nizar to be fired from the diplomatic corps after he published his famous poem “Bread,
Hashish and Moon”, which raised a storm of protest against him. “Qabbani took on
taboo subjects, which he described in rebellious, well-crafted, popular language…
people brought their poems (Qabbani among them) into the streets, singing them there
and in the markets.” (Gettleman, 2003: 194)
He started writing poetry at the age of 16. Throughout fifty years, he wrote about 35
volumes of verse, the important of which are Childhood of a Breast, Drawing by
Words, Samba and You Are Mine. He wrote a lot of books of prose such as My Story
with Poetry, What Is Poetry? and 100 Love Letters. In Beirut he established a

Ideas on Qabbani’s life were taken from the following sites.” Nazar Qabbani”. Retrieved on 6
June, 2008 from
“Nizar Qabbani”. Retrieved on 6 June, 2008 from
“The Unknown Part of Qabani’s Life”. Retrieved on 6 June, 2008 from
publishing house under the name “Nizar Qabbani’s Publications”. A lot of famous
singers in the Arab World sang his poems.
He married twice: the first was a Syrian called Zahra from who he got two daughters:
Hadba’ and Zahraa’, and a son called Tawfiq who died young, while he was a student at
the School of Medicine in Cairo, and was lamented by his father in a famous poem
entitled “The Legendary Prince Tawfiq Qabbani”. The second wife is the Iraqi Balqis
A-Rawi, who was killed in the blow up of the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut during the
Lebanese civil war in 1982. Nizar was deeply moved by her death. “He remembered her
in numerous poems. The tragedy marked the rest of his life. Her memory haunted him
till he died”. (Ali, 2003: 6) Therefore, he commemorated her in a poem titled “Balqis”
in which he made the whole Arab World responsible for her assassination. From Balqis
he had a son called Omar and a daughter called Zainab. He refused to marry after
Balqis’ death.
During his life he had many shocks, especially the deaths in the family culminating in
his wife being blown up. 1967 Defeat was a turning point in his poetic life as he left
writing about women and love to enter the political arena. “Qabbani and his poetry were
politicized by the Arab Defeat in the Six day War of 1967” ( Ajami, 1999: 27). Because
of his poem “Footnotes to the Book of the Setback”, there was a severe discussion
through the Arab World. Because of the trenchant criticism the poem contains, his
songs were banned, never to be broadcast on TV or on the Radio:

The despair felt by the Arabs after 1967 was captured in a poem by the Syrian poet
Nizar Qabbani called “Footnotes to the Book of the Setback”…Qabbani’s poem was
banned throughout the Arab world, and as a result was smuggled to every Arab
country, printed surreptitiously and learnt by heart. It released a flood of political
frustration and anger that found expression in what is now known as Al-Adab al-
Huzairani (The June Literature). (Butt,1997: 129)

Nevertheless, he did not stop his criticism, raising controversies and arguments. Of the
most famous controversial poems are “When Will They Announce the Death of the
Arabs?” and “The Hurried-ones”. He spent his last years in mysticism in London since
he did not find any other suitable Arab city to welcome him because of his political
views. On 30th April 1998, he died at the age of 75 in London.
Qabbani’s political poetry ranges from optimism (after 1956) to scathing criticism of
Arab leaders (after 1967). It started to flourish from the sixties and it covered a long
span of time. It spotlights the Arab corrupt politics, especially their stance towards the
Palestinian problem:

In the aftermath of the 1967 war, the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (1923-98) wrote a
poem called “Footnotes to the Book of Setback.” The poem [is] a harsh indictment of
the Arab performance in the war… Twenty years later, Qabbani got his wish and
celebrated it in another poem entitled, “Children Bearing Rocks.”… The poem is, of
course, an ode to the Palestinian intifada and its paradigmatic symbol: unarmed
Palestinian children throwing stones at Israeli tanks. [Brackets mine] (Gelvin, 2007:

“Balqis” as well as many of his post 1967 Defeat poems deal with the Palestinian
problem in a way that sheds light on the incapability fostered into the Arabs’ belief of
taking action. (See: Crenshaw, 1995: 540) Therefore, the poet gives full vent to his
anger and directs a scathing tirade against Arab leaders.
In “Balqis”, Qabbani, time and again, merges the image of his dead wife with the
occupied territory since both were lost. The Palestinian problem has always shown in
his work. (Joyce, 1991: 90) & (Maddy-Weitzman, 1998: 11). He even would thank the
assassins of his wife if they were men enough to restore Palestine:

The prophets who lie,

Squat on peoples’ head
With no message to convey.

If they could regain

From sad Palestine
A star;
Or an orange.
If they could fetch
From Gaza’s beach
A small pebble
Or a shell.
If, from a quarter of a century, they could free
An olive;
Or restore a lemon
And remove such a historical stain.
I would thank your killers, Balqis,
The love of my life.
But they left Palestine
And assassinated a deer; my wife!!

The poet is so obsessed with the Palestinian problem that he would be satisfied if he
exchanged the life of his beloved for millions of Palestinians. However, Arab leaders, as
pointed out in the lines above, could not even restore anything, be it as small as an
“orange”, a “pebble”, a “shell” an “olive”, or a “lemon”. Their political reaction is
always as self-destructive as they turn to bomb their own kinsmen and kinswomen, a
reaction based on fraudulent schism mostly made up by their enemies or traitors.
Qabbani criticizes sordid assassination of innocent people under any pretext. The
leitmotif of political impotence recurs throughout the poem, which is a strong
apostrophe where Qabbani voices his angry intention: “My love, I will tell shocking
tales about Arabs/ Is heroism an Arabs’ lie?/ Or, like us, does history heroism falsify?”
Throughout his work Qabbani hammers on the excessive humiliation the Arab nation
has been exposed to. In his poem “al-Muharwaluun” (the hurried ones) (Rabinovich,
1999: 289-91), he depicts an image of sheepish Arab people who are unable to take any
action, which is suggested by the title of the poem:

The Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani coined the term after the handshake on the White
House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat,which he interpreted as a
humiliating act of surrender by the entire Arab nation. (Shlaim, 2001: 578)

Arab humiliation is anticipated in “Balqis” and finally crystallized in his last poems
such as “al-Muharwaluun” and “When Will They Announce the Death of the Arabs”.
The historical/(ir)religious figure of Abu Lahab that appears in “Balqis” refers to all
Arab leaders who unscrupulously keep their people under the yoke of corrupt politics.

Nizar Qabbani described the present-day Arab cultural climate as “nothing but
bubbles in washtubs and chamber pots”. Qabbani caused another literary and political
storm after writing another poem in 1995 titled “When will they declare the death
of the Arabs?” (Elaasar, 2008: 80)

He draws an image of tyrant-led communities where all people are at the beck and call
of their leaders and their entourage:

When under investigation, I will say:

How my deer was slain by Abi Lahab’s sward..

All thieves from the Gulf to the Ocean:
Destroy and burn,
Ransack and get bribed,
And rape women
As Abu Lahab likes…
All dogs are employed,
And getting drunk
At Abi Lahab’s treat.
No wheat grows
If Abu Lahab disapproves.
No child is born
until his mother goes to bed
With Abi Lahab.
No prison is open
Without Abi Lahab’s opinion.
None is beheaded
Without Abi Lahab’s command.
This long standing image of humiliated peoples is strikingly put in juxtaposition with
the image of their coward leaders. Political impotence goes hand in hand with the desire
for self-destruction. The aim of the leaders-created tyrannical atmosphere is both to
compensate for the failure of their external politics and to curb any trial for revolt in its
In “Balqis” Qabbani raises the conflict between language and politics in an age
darker than the Pre-Islamic one concerning the demagogic and bloody acts done by
Arab leaders. The excruciating ordeal the poet underwent along with the disappointing
political atmosphere almost rendered his ability to write crippled:

Sadness, Balqis, makes my heart bleed

As if it were an orange squeezed.
Now; I know the distress of words,
The plight of impossible language.
I, who have coined letters,
Don’t know how to start this one.
The sword penetrates into my waist
And into that of the sentence.

The suffering of the poet makes him tongue-tied. He is at a loss due to his wife’s
assassination as well as the deteriorating political situation of the whole nation.
The incapability of expression occurs due to Arabs’ wrong political practices.
Leaders deem it convenient to silence thinkers and men of letters either by assassination
or banishment:

Qabbani borrowed the term jahiliyya, meaning pre-Islamic ignorance, to describe

the Arab reality of the 1980s. In that original time of darkness the poet was his
tribe’s spokesman, chronicler, and scribe. The new jahiliyya is darker than the old. It
has no use for the poet because it wants people on their knees; it wants them to
crawl. (Shlaim, 1998)

Qabbani makes it clear that those political regimes aim at keeping their people in
chains, preventing any shred of hope of their being enlightened. The nation is “Back
again in Jahiliyyah/Back to savagery/To backwardness, hideousness and
meanness/Back again to barbarism/Where writing is a journey/ Between fragments.”
Though widely known for his love poetry, Qabbani’s political poems are as important
as, and difficult to separate from, his love ones. Taking this into consideration, “Balqis”
cannot properly be understood unless it is put in its political context. Qabbani’s shift to
political poetry does not at all mean that he left the theme of love. Resisting bad
traditions and corrupt regimes contextualize love so much so his love poems crystallize
his way of emancipating women as well as unveiling political corruption. For instance,
“Balqis” is a striking example of the intermingling of love and politics in Qabbani’s
poetry. The poem:

… brought tears to every Arab household as well as protests for its raw indictment of
Arab society… Kabbani describes the Balqis poem as "the revenge of the Arab
peoples against their unrighteous caliphs" (137).one of the most striking
contributions of Kabbani to Arab culture is this portrait, in verbal form, of a man
cradling the body of his murdered sweetheart, wife, and mother of his children, while
heaping abuse on the political order. (Kahf, 2000: 50)

“Balqis” is Qabbani’s lament for and the dirge wept over his wife. A feminist writer
and a supporter of woman’s emancipation, Qabbani’s poem is but a manifesto. The very
title of the poem, which bears the name of his wife, crystallizes the role Qabbani assigns
to women. (Kahf, 2000: 50) “Balqis” is a symbol of a feminist militant spirit, who,
though dead, still stands in the face of corruption. In fact, the assassination of Balqis
uncovers the darker side of the Arab politics as the poet clearly depicts.

III. Conclusion

The appropriation approach makes literary translation easy and accurate, “Balqis” is
a case in point. However, many difficulties arise during the translation of “Balqis”such
as finding equivalence in a materialistic culture to “Abo Lahab”, which has a religious
connection in a religious-based one. The same difficulty applies to “Samawa’l” and
“Muhalhal” whose cultural-relations to the tribal life of the Arabs are unparalleled in
Anglo-European/American culture. Another difficulty is the difference in value while
searching for an equivalent. For example, translating the word "‫ "زرافة‬into “giraffe”
necessitates the addition of the adverb “gracefully” without which the cultural bearing
of the animal image in Arabic-which means as graceful as a giraffe- will not be
understood by the English reader. Different theories by Richards, Pound, Will and Nida
cannot meet the requirements of literary translation. Consequently, an appropriation of
these theories fits literary translation, specially poetry.
In addition, the biographical information which shows the turning point in Qabbani’s
writing after the 1967 Defeat helps to relate political thoughts found in “Balqis” to a
political background which, in turn, creates a cultural, historical, intertextual and
metatextual context. The poem’s background sheds light on the political situation of the
Arab nation. Political impotence and compensatory\precautionary self-destruction are
the most important aspects of these corrupt regimes. Throughout Qabbani’s poetry, he
pinpoints the political ills which render Arab politics a total fiasco. Consequently, for
the translation of “Balqis” to be fully grasped, it should be read in this context.

IV. Balqis2 by Nizar Qabbnai

Thank you.
Thank you.
For killing my Balqis.
Go, have a drink,
On the martyr’s grave’s brink.
My poem is assassinated.
For no nation but ours
Has such powers!
Balqis …
Was the most beautiful of Babel queens.
This translation was first published in Genre, a journal of Comparative literature, by California
State University. The translation can be found on this site
Balqis …
Was the tallest of all Iraqi palm trees.
She gracefully walks
As if followed by oryx and peacocks.
Balqis … You’re my pain…
The poem’s pain when thumbed.
How can plants sprout
After your hair’s rot?
Oh, green Nīnawā,
My blonde gypsy,
Tigris’ waves,
Wearing, in spring,
The best bracelets.
They killed you…
What an Arabs nation
That enjoys
The nightingales’ assassination?!
Where’re a-Samaw'al,
And al-Muhalhil,3
And early generous masters?
Tribes have eaten tribes.
Snakes have slaughtered snakes.
Spiders have killed spiders.
I swear by your eyes,
Where a million planet lies.
My love, I will tell shocking tales about Arabs
Is heroism an Arabs’ lie?
Or, like us, does history heroism falsify?


A-Samaw'al and al-Muhalhil were two Arab historical figures known for their bravery and
Never finally rest,
Or the sun
Won’t shine over the coast.
When investigated,
I will say:
The thief takes the role of fighter.
I will say:
The talented leader becomes a contractor.
I will say:
The radiation’s tale is the nastiest joke.
We’re a tribe, like others, under the yoke.
This is history’s ugly face.
How can men differentiate between
A garden and a dustbin?
You’re a martyr, a poem;
Chaste and righteous.
Queen of Sheba people search to welcome
In return, go and hail them.
You, the greatest of all queens,
A woman who incarnates, all Sumerian Ages.

Of all birds, you’re the delicious.
Of all icons, the most precious.
Dear as tears, over Magdalene’s face.
Have I done you injustice,
When, once, I moved you from Adhamiyah4 banks?
Everyday, Beirut kills one of us.
Everywhere, there is death,
Adhamiyah is a place in Iraq where Balqis used to live before her marriage to the poet.
In the cup of coffee,
In the door key,
In the terrace flowers,
In the papers,
In the alphabet.

Here we are, Balqis

Back again in Jahiliyyah5.
Back to savagery.
To backwardness, hideousness and meanness.
Back again to barbarism.
Where writing is a journey
Between fragments.
Where killing a butterfly in its field
Is the case.
Do you know my beloved Balqis?
She is the most important in love books
A wonderful mix
Between softness and hardness
The color of violet in her eyes
Twinkles all times.

Balqis …
In my memory, you’re the most blest
A grave travelling through the mist.
Like any deer in Beirut, you’re slaughtered
After speech had been muzzled.
It is not a dirge
Jahiliyyah is the pagan age when Arabs worshipped statues. The poet debunks Arabs complete
uncivilized manners and how they behaved as if they were pagan savages. This recurrent idea
dates back to his poem “Notes on the Book of Setback” where he summarized the reasons of 1967
Defeat in two lines: “We were civilized in appearance/But, in reality, we live in Jahiliyyah”. This
is the link to the poem in Arabic:
It is a farewell to the Arab age.6

We’re ever pining for you.
And the little house asks
About his perfumed princess’s whereabouts
We listen to the news, but it is mysterious
It leaves us ever curious.

We’re suffering to the bone.
The kids don’t know what’s going on.
I don’t know what to say, then?
Would you shortly knock at the door?
Would you take off your winter coat?
Would you come smiling,
And like field flowers shining?

Balqis …
The green plants you grow
Are still on the wall, making a crying show.
Your face is still moving
Between the mirrors and curtains
Even the cigarette you’re smoking
Keeps its lights
And its smoke is hanging.
Balqis …
We’re very sad at heart,

The concept of the catatonia which befell Arab politics were traced by Qabbani till the last days
of his life. In “When Will They Announce the Death of the Arabs” a nightmarish image of corrupt
Arab politics is crystallized in those lines: “For fifty years/ I’ve observed Arabs/ Thundering but
taking no action/Going to Wars with no victory/Bragging rhetorically/With no step forward”.
This is the link to the poem in Arabic:
Struck dumb and shocked
Balqis …
How did you take away my days, and dreams.
And crossed off gardens and seasons?
Oh, my wife;
My love; my poem and my eyesight.
You were my beautiful bird.
How did you leave me without a word?

It’s time for perfumed, well stored Iraqi tea.
My giraffe, who will serve it gracefully?
Who moved Euphrates to our house?
Who moved Resafa and flowers of Tigris?

Grief penetrates me.
Beirut killed you,
About its crime, it never knew.
Beirut loved you; however,
It ignored killing its lover.
And put out moonlight forever.

Balqis …
Oh, Balqis …
Oh, Balqis …
Over you, every cloud weeps buckets.
Who will cry for me?
Balqis; how did you depart with no sign,
Without putting your hand in mine?

How could you leave us twisting in the wind,
Trembling as leaves?
You left-the three of us-lost,
As a feather under the rain.
Didn’t you think of me; your lover?
I need your love as much as Zeinab or Omar.7

Balqis …
You’re a supernatural treasure,
An Iraqi Spear,
A bamboo wood.
You defied stars in their loftiness,
From where did you get such strength?
Balqis …
My friend; my companion,
Decent as a chrysanthemum.
For us, neither Beirut nor the sea has a space,
Nor can we find any suitable place.
You’re unmatchable,
A unique piece!
I’m tortured by our relation’s gory details.
And time hangs heavy, as tough as nails.
Every little hairpin has a story to tell.
Even your golden hairgrips,
Usually overwhelm me by waves of tenderness.
The sweet Iraqi voice,
On curtains,
On chairs,
On cutlery,

Zeinab or Omar are the children of Nizar and Balqis.
You show up
From the mirrors,
From the rings,
From the poem,
From the candles,
From the cups,
From the purple wine.

Balqis …
Oh, Balqis...Oh, Balqis …
If only you recognized,
The pain caused by places you once occupied.
In every corner your spirit hovers as a bird,
Fully scented as a Balm wood.
There you used to smoke.
There you used to read.
There, as graceful as a palm tree,
You got your hair combed.
To welcome the guests you entered,
As brisk as a Yemeni sword.

Where is the Guerlain bottle?
And the blue light?
Where is your Kent cigarette,
Which is ever in your lips?
Where is Al Hashmey8 singing
Over such a good stature?
When combs remember you,
Al Hashmey may be a kind of a bird which sings at home, (a nightingale). Or the proper name
may well refer to Al Hashmey (1938-2006), a famous Algerian singer whose way of singing had
a formative impact on Algerian popular singning. A brief biography and some of his songs are on
this webpage:
Their tears flow.
Do they suffer
As if they missed a lover?
Balqis: it is difficult to stay cold-blooded,
While with tongues of flame
And smoke I am surrounded.
Balqis: My princess you are
Burning in a tribe-against- tribe war.
What shall I write about my queen’s assassination?
My poem is but frank self-expression.
Among piles of victims, we look for
A falling star,
A body shattered as a mirror.
We wonder, my love:
Is it yours or Arabism’s grave?

Oh, Balqis:
You’re as graceful as a willow tree,
Resting your hair locks on me.
You walk, as a giraffe, in dignity.
It’s the fate of Arabs
To be assassinated by Arabs,
To be gobbled by Arabs,
To be slain by Arabs,
To be exhumed by Arabs.
How can we evade such a fate?
For an Arab dagger it is all the same,
Killing a gentleman or a madam.

If they blew you up,
It’s because all funerals start in Karbala
And end in Karbala.
No more history to read, I’m warned.
My fingers got burned
And my clothes are blood-covered.
Here we are in the Stone Age
Everyday gets us back a thousand years.
In Beirut the sea
Ceases to be, after you did go.
Poetry asks about its poem,
With incomplete words,
And none gives answers.
Sadness, Balqis, makes my heart bleed
As if it were an orange squeezed.
Now; I know the distress of words,
The plight of impossible language.
I, who have coined letters,
Don’t know how to start this one.
The sword penetrates into my waist
And into that of the sentence.
Balqis, culture in you is rated,
For a female is culture incarnated.

Who has slain

Balqis, my greatest good omen?
You prefigure the art of writing.
You are the island and the lighthouse.
Balqis …
My lark they buried among stones.
Now I break the cover,
Now I break the cover.
When under investigation, I will say:
I know the name…the things…
The prisoners…
The martyrs…the poor…and the helpless…
I’ll say I know the killer who put my wife to the sword…
I know all the informers’ faces…
I’ll say: our chastity is debauchery…
And our piety is immorality…
I’ll say: our struggle is a lie
And there’s no difference
Between politics and prostitution!!
When under investigation, I will say:
I had known the killers.
I’ll say:
Our Arab time is specialized in killing
All prophets…
And all messengers…
Even green eyes
Are devoured by Arabs
Even hair locks; and rings;
Bracelets; mirrors; and toys.
Even the stars are afraid of my homeland
For a reason I can’t understand.
Even the birds fly away
And I don’t know why.
Even planets; boats; and clouds,
Even notebooks; and books,
And all things of beauty
Are against Arabs.

When your seraphic body was shattered,

Into a pearl glittered .
I wondered: Is killing women an Arabic hobby
Or are we originally a crime lobby?

My beautiful mare…
I’m ashamed of my history9, a long nightmare.
It’s a country where they kill horses.
It’s a country where they kill horses.
Since you’re slaughtered,
The sweetest homeland,
One can’t stand,
Living in such a homeland.
One can’t stand,
Dying in such a homeland.
I’ve been sweating blood
And paying the ultimate price.
To please the world; but God decides,
To make me alone,
Like winter’s leaves.
Are poets born to wail,
Or is the poem a stab in the heart
That can’t heal.
Or I’m the only who cries,
Shedding the history of tears from his eyes.

When under investigation, I will say:

In “Bread, Moon and Hashish” the poet trenchantly criticizes the history of Arabs. The poem
ends with a portrayal of past-haunted people whose history is full of unfulfilled dreams and
superstition. This is the link to the poem in Arabic: http://www.damascus-
How my deer was slain by Abi Lahab’s10 sward..
All thieves from the Gulf to the Ocean:
Destroy and burn,
Ransack and get bribed,
And rape women
As Abu Lahab likes…
All dogs are employed,
And getting drunk
At Abi Lahab’s treat.
No wheat grows
If Abu Lahab disapproves.
No child is born
Until his mother goes to bed
With Abi Lahab.
No prison is open
Without Abi Lahab’s opinion.
None is beheaded
Without Abi Lahab’s command.

When under investigation, I will say:

How my princess was raped.
How they shared her turquoise -like greenish eyes
And her wedding ring.
I’ll say how they did share
Her golden running hair.
When under investigation, I will say:
How they pounced on her copy
Of the Holy Qu’ran

Abu Lahab is a historical figure, the prophet’s uncle. His full name was Abd-al-Uzza ibn
‘Abdul Muttalib. He got that nickname , which literally meant in English “Father of Hell”,
because he hated the Muslims and tortured any convert heartlessly. In the poem, it refers to those
merciless, unscrupulous people.
And set it on fire.
I’ll say how they made her bleed
How they got her mouth occupied.
Neither roses nor grapes were left.
Is Balqis slaughter
The only victory
Throughout Arabs’ history?

The love of my life.
The prophets who lie,
Squat on peoples’ head
With no message to convey.
If they could regain
From sad Palestine
A star;
Or an orange.
If they could fetch
From Gaza’s beach
A small pebble
Or a shell.
If, from a quarter of a century, they could free
An olive;
Or restore a lemon
And remove such a historical stain.
I would thank your killers, Balqis,
The love of my life.
But they left Palestine
And assassinated a deer; my wife!!
What can poetry say, Balqis,
In such an age?
What can poetry say
In this self-centred,
Coward age.
The Arab World
Is Crushed; oppressed;
And muzzled.
We represent crime at its best,
So what’s (al-Iqd al Fareed) or (al-Aghani)11?
My love they grabbed you though we held hands
They got the poem and left me speechless.
They got writing; reading;
Childhood; and wishes.

Balqis, oh, Balqis.

You’re tears dripping over violin’s strings.
I taught your killers the secrets of love,
But before the end of the course
They killed my horse.
I ask forgiveness.
Maybe your life was for mine, a sacrifice.
I know well that
your killers’ aims
were to kill my words.
My beautiful, rest in peace
After you, poetry will cease
And womanhood is out of place.
Generations of children’s flocks

al-Aghani (The Book of Songs) by Abu al-Faraj al-Asfahani,(897-967)[go to this link for
further information ] and al-Iqd al Fareed by
Ibn Abd Rabbuh al Andalusi (860-939) [go to this link for further information ] Are two of the most
important books about the history of Arabic culture and literature.
Will keep asking about your long hair locks.
Generations of lovers
will read about you, the true instructor.
One day the Arabs will get it
That they killed the prophetess.
Killed the prophetess12.
T…h…e p…r…o…ph…e…t…e…s…s

Written by Nizar Qabani on 15th December, 1981.

The martyr/prophet image can be traced to early works such as poem “Gamal Abd al-Nasser”,
where he laments the death of Egypt’s ex-president; thus linking his wife to prominent Arab
leaders. This is the link to the poem:

Abu Al-Athaa, Nazmi Khalil. “al-Iqd al Fareed by Ibn Abd Rabbuh al Andalusi.” .
Retrieved on 16 March, 2009 from
Ajami, Fouad. (1999) Dream Palace of the Arabs: A generation’s odyssey. New York:
First Vintage Books Edition.
“Al-Hajj Al-Hashmey Qrwabi.” Retrieved on 6 March, 2009 from
Ali, Tariq. (2003) Bush in Babylon : The recolonisation of Iraq. Verso.
Butt, Gerald. (1997) The Arabs: Myth and reality. London: I.B.Tauris & Co.
Crenshaw, Martha. (1995) Terrorism in Context. Penn State Press.
Donaldson, Whitney (ed). (2009) Genre: Arrivals and departures. (Vol.29). California:
California State University. Available on
Elaasar, Aladdin. (2008) The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the uncertain future of Egypt
in the volatile Mid East. Illinois: Beacon Press.
Friedrich, Werner P. (ed.) (1959) Comparative Literature Vol. I Proceedings of the
Second Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association at the
University of North Carolina September 8-12, 1958. The University of North
Carolina Press.
Gelvin, James L. (2007) The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One hundred years of war.
Cambridge University Press.
Gentzler, Edwin. (1993) Contemporary Translation Theories. New York : Routledge.
Gettleman, Marvin E. & Schaar, Stuart. (eds) (2003) The Middle East and Islamic
World Reader. New York: Grove Press.
Jayyusi, Salma Khadra. (ed.) (1987) Modern Arabic Poetry. Columbia University Press.
Joyce, Donald Franklin. (1991) Black Book Publishers in the United States: A historical
dictionary of thepPresses, 1817-1990. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Kahf, Mohja. (2000). Politics and Erotics in Nizar Kabbani's Poetry: From the Sultan's
Wife to the Lady Friend World Literature Today. Vol.: 74. Issue: 1: 44-52.
University of Oklahoma,
Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce (ed). (1998) Middle East Contemporary Survey. Colorado:
Westview Press.
Munday, Jeremy. (2001) Introducing Translation Studies Theories and Applications.
London: Routledge.
Nababan. Equivalence in Translation: Some Problem-solving Strategies. 21Oct 2008.
Retrieved 3 March 2009 from
Nazar Qabbani. Retrieved on 6 June, 2008 from
Nizar Qabbani. Retrieved on 6 June, 2008 from
Qabbani, Nizar. Notes on the Book of Setback Retrieved 3 Jan. 2009 from
When Will They Announce the Death of the Arabs. Retrieved 3 Jan. 2009 from
Bread, Moon and Hashish Retrieved 7 Jan. 2009 from http://www.damascus-
Gamal Abd al-Nasser. Retrieved 21 Jan.2009 from http://www.damascus-
Rabinovich, Itamar. (1999). Waging Peace: Israel and the Arabs, 1948-2003. Farrar
Straus and Giroux.
-Shlaim, Avi. (2001). The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. New York: W.W.
Norton & Company.
Arab Nationalism and its Discontents: Review of The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A
Generation’s Odyssey, by Fouad Ajami. 344 pp., Pantheon, 1998. Retrieved 27
Feb, 2009 from
The Book of Songs by Abu al-Faraj al-Asfahani. Retrieved on 6 April, 2009 from
The Unknown Part of Qabani’s Life. Retrieved on 6 June, 2008 from
Thorsell, Marta Dahlgren. Relevance and the Translation of Poetry” Revista Alicantina
de Estudios Ingleses 11. University of Vigo:1998: 23-32. Retrieved 5 March,
2009 from
Tianmin, Jiang. Translation in Context. Retrieved 10 March, 2009 from

Yasser K. R. AMAN
Dr Yasser K. R. Aman got his PhD in English literature in 2003. Both his MA and his Ph.D are
comparative studies. The former was a comparison between Al-Shaby (a Tunisian poet) and the
famous English romantic poet Shelley. The latter compares between two African-American poets:
Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. He has written six research papers: "The
Misrepresentation of Arabs in the Western Media" , "Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and Mahfouz's
The Mirage: A Comparative Study, “Do Things Fall Apart? A Reconsideration of the Racist
Concept of the Nobel Savage Through a True Representation of the Savagery of the Noble,
"Chaos and Literature from an Existentialist Perspective" (2007) , “Tearing up the Bowels of the American Society
through Dramatic Monolgue” & "Words at Play: Different interpretations of Wallace Stevens's
"A Dish of Peaches in Russia" and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"