Poetry has long been companion to the human spirit, attempting to record the ineffable breezes, the delicate memories, the raging fires that sometimes come over the human heart, to capture the wings that perhcance flutter within the chest. Translating poetry is more challenging than translating prose, as there will inevitably be a trade-off between faithful literal translation, and looser but more aesthetically pleasing rendering. Below is my translation of famous Arabic poem by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi`i (d. 204H / 897CE). In addition to being the eponym of one of the major Sunni legal schools, and the architect of some innovative legal techniques, al-Shafi`i was renowned for his flawless command of the Arabic language.
The poem is on the theme of wisdom, containing Shafi`i’s general advice for life. My translation is in tetrametric couplets, and in observing these constraints of rhyme and rhythm, the fidelity of the translation has of course been compromised (only slightly, I would like to think!)
O let the days do as they please!
And be content when fate decrees.
Do not regret what this day’s cast,
For this world’s pains for sure won’t last.
So be a man ‘gainst horrors strong,
Be kind and loyal, all life long.
If in folk’s eyes your faults abound,
And you would like that they be gowned:
Then shelter seek beneath kind acts,
For kindness well all blame retracts.
To foes never reveal weakness
For gloating foes do bring distress.
From misers seek not bounteousness
In fire is but thirst’s hopelessness
Your calmness won’t reduce income,
Nor fretfulness increase the sum.
Not grief nor happiness shall last,
Nor poverty, nor riches vast.
If in your heart you’re satisfied
Then you do own the whole world wide.
A man on whom his fate alights
No depths shall save, nor any heights.
God’s glorious earth is wide, but know,
That destiny makes it narrow.
So, face each day on even keel.
There is no balm from death can heal.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Some of the metaphors in my opening paragraph are built on words written in Arabic by Egyptian journalist, literate, jurist and educationist Shaikh Ali Tantawi (d. 1990)