Labid: Lament for Arbad (From Arabic)

This poem is an elegiac lament for Arbad, the poet's deceased adoptive brother. It is also one of my favorite texts in all Arabic literature. It was probably composed at some point in the middle of the 7th century. The legends of Labid, the (presumptive) author, are many. 
The poem is monorhymed throughout with the first two half-lines also rhyming with each other. The meter (quantitave, with long and short syllables more or less like latin or greek) of the original is u-x | u-x- | u-x | u-u- || u-x | u-x- | u-x | u-u- where u= short, - = long and x= either short or long. 
Naturally, there is no point in trying to duplicate this form in English. So I concocted a form specifically for the purpose of translating this type of classical Arabic verse- involving assonance, stress-meter, parallelism and alliteration. 
I spaced my translation the way I did, in 4-line stanzas of irregular length, (ironically) as a way of trying to do justice to the fact that this poem is the product of oral composition and was produced in what was, as far as is known, a basically (though by this time not totally) illiterate, tribal tradition. The spacing is meant to highlight thematic and syntactic patterns rather than aural, and to make the salience of aural features more a function of oral recitation than of ocular ratiocination.
In my translation each quatrain corresponds to one verse of Arabic. 
The first half of each stanza has to be linked to the second by at least one alliteration on stressed syllables. So S8-9 can be read like this, with assonance in bold and formal alliteration underlined:

Men are like shooting stars: a trailing light 
      collapsed to ashes after the briefest blaze.
Men's wealth and kinfolk are but a loan of Fortune.
      All that is loaned must be at last repaid. 

Finally, whereas the Arabic maintains the same rhyme at the end of each verse throughout the poem, I have attempted to mirror this not with full rhyme in English but rather assonance or, less technically, vowel-rhyme - meaning that the last stressed syllable of each English verse contains the same nuclear vowel. 
To my knowledge, line-terminal assonance as a true formal device (as opposed to a mere stylistic option) in Western European verse traditions is found chiefly in medieval French, medieval Irish, and modern Dutch, as well as Iberian Romance of all periods from the earliest recorded Mozarabic ballad-fragments right through Neruda and Lorca. Yet it has not much been used as a formal feature in literary English verse (though translators of assonant verse from Romance languages have reproduced it occasionally, as Dorothy L. Sayers did in her translation of the Chanson de Roland, and J.F. Nims in one of his translations from Lorca.)  English poets, when they make use of end-line sound correspondences that fall short of full rhyme, seem to prefer consonance instead of assonance, repeating syllables with the same consonant in the coda (as in spooked/licked) rather than the same vowel in the  nucleus (as in sex/best). Which is odd in a way, since vowels are higher on the sonorance hierarchy and are acoustically more discernible than consonants. Perhaps a motivating factor was that, in English, consonant correspondences are usually fairly consistent across dialects, whereas vowel correspondences are very often not. Regardless, I suspect that poets like Heaney or Pinsky, in preferring consonance as a formal feature, are composing less for the ear than for the eye. For assonance is indeed a common fixture of English lyric forms that, unlike the sonnet, still depend primarily on oral performance and aural consumption. Any English-speaker who has, by virtue of not living under an Everest-sized rock, been exposed to contemporary popular music has heard it. And if English assonance is good enough for Eminem or the Beatles, then it's good enough for ancient bedouins. 
My quatraining of the distichs was inspired by the translation practice of my former teacher, Michael Sells, who is in my unapologetically biased view the only decent literary translator into English that pre-Islamic poetry has had in perhaps half a century. Needless to say, while I respect Sells immensely, I cannot agree with his contention that rhyme and meter in English necessarily entail an "artificiality which has been the largest impediment to making the Arabic ode accessible to non-Arabic speaking audiences." There is no intrinsic reason why a "a natural flow of language and diction" cannot coexist with a formalized prosody. If "a natural English diction no longer allows the kind of rhyme and meter necessary" to make that work, my response is that it's time to find a different kind of natural English. English, like any other language, is in fact capable of more than its speakers typically imagine, and if the translation is giving English-speakers something they're not quite used to, that is not necessarily a bad thing.      

Lament for Arbad
By Labīd bin Rabīˁa (born c. 560)

We perish and rot  
  but the rising stars do not.
 When we are gone, 
   mountain and stronghold stay. 

Once I was under 
  a coveted neighbor's wing.
 And with Arbad, that protector 
   has passed away.

I'll stand ungrieved,  
  though Fortune force us asunder
 For every man 
   is felled by Fortune one day.

I am no more enthralled 
  by newfound riches
 than grieved by aught 
   that Fortune wreaks or takes.

For men are like desert camps:  
  one day, full of folk
 but, come the morn, 
   a bare unpeopled waste.

They pass away in flocks,  
  and the land stays on:
 a trailing herdsman 
   rounding up the strays.

Yes, men are like shooting stars:  
  a trailing light 
 collapsed to ashes 
   after the briefest blaze.

Men's wealth and kinfolk  
  are but a loan of Fortune.
 All that is loaned
   must be at last repaid. 

Men are at work.  
  One worker razes his building
 to the ground, and another 
   raises something great.

Among them are the happy 
  who seize their lot,
 and unlucky others: 
   beggars till the grave. 

If my Doom be slow in coming, 
  I can look forward
 to ailing fingers 
   clenched about a cane,

While telling tales  
  of youth and yesteryear,
 on slow legs, trying to stand 
   yet bent with pain.

I am become a sword  
  whose sheath is worn
 apart by the years since smithing, 
   though sharp the blade. 

Do not be gone!1 
  A due date for death is meted
 to all. It is yet to come...
   then comes today!

Reproachful woman!2  
  When fine lads journey forth,
 can you reckon who of them 
   shall return from the fray?

Will you grieve  
  at what fell Fortune wreaks on men?
 What noble man 
   will disaster not waylay?

No, by your lifeblood:  
  neither the pebble-reader
 nor the auguress3 knows 
   what fey things God4 ordains.

If any of you would doubt me,  
  simply ask them
 when a lad shall taste of Doom, 
   or the land taste rains.


1- "Do not be gone" lā tabˁadan is a formulaic phrase (westerners would call it a "cliché" I guess) used to refer to the recently dead (likewise lā yabˁadan "let him not be gone.") Its ritual function may have been to express psychological shock (i.e. "how can he have left us?") as well as the belief that the person so commanded will survive as long as their memory and, by definition, the verse-lament in their name. The verb is baˁida/yabˁadu meaning "to perish, to depart." This verb and the related, more common baˁuda/yabˁudu  "to be distant, far" seem to have semantically bled into one another in Early Arabic. E.g. Qur'an 11:95 a-lā buˁdan (=baˁuda) li-Madyana ka-mā baˁidat (=baˁida) Thāmūdu "Yea let Midian perish even as Thamud perished." Among Orientalists, the meaning is best brought out by S. Stetkevych:
...lā tabˁadan is equivocally "do not depart" and "do not perish." It is precisely this polysemous condensation into two words that evoke all the shared emotions of loss and departure...that this phrase was selected as part of the elegiac formulary. Further, it serves as a condensed expression of the purpose of [lamentation]: for the Arab poet or poetess to "recall" the dead is to "call back" the dead to life.
Al-Baghdādī in Khizānatu l-Adab states:
...they [the ancient Arabs] meant in invoking the deceased [via the formula la yabˁadanna] to have his memory survive and not disappear: for after a man's death, the survival of his remembrance takes the place of his life. 
2- The ˁāðil or "reproacher/rebuker" is a stock figure from early poetry, -usually a woman but sometimes a man- a paragonal "straw (wo)man" to whom the speaker can impute attitudes which he would like to argue against. Like many other stock addressees of early poetry (such as Yā ṣāḥi "O Companion" or Yā rākibu "O Rider/Messenger"), this persona may have developed from some sort of ritual or practical function now lost to us. 

3-The ḍawāribu bi-l-ḥaṣā (literally "pebble-casters", here rendered as "pebble-readers") were women who tried to divine the future by casting pebbles on the ground in some fashion. The zājirātu ṭ-ṭayri "women who chase birds away" (here rendered as "auguresses") were women who tried to divine the future in some manner that involved scaring birds. 

4- The original has "Allah" where I have "God." What one makes of the reference to Allāh here depends on whether one assumes that Labīd composed this poem (if he is indeed its composer, and if one may speak of original composers at all when it comes to poems that are orally transmitted for a century or two before being written down) after or before he became a Muslim, and also what one's view is about the "paganism" that predated Islam. My current view is that Arabia generally was by this point far more monotheistic and far more Abrahamic than the Islamic tradition would have us believe, and that Allah could easily refer to the Abrahamic God even if Labīd was not yet a Muslim. Even the Qur'an acknowledges that the so-called "pagans" worshipped the supreme God of Abraham and that their error was rather in worshipping subsidiary beings alongside Him (much as many Christians today also venerate, and pray to, saints and angels, I hasten to add.)

The Original:

قالَ لَبيد بنُ الربيعة العامِريُّ

بلينا وما تبلى النجومُ الطَّوالِعُ وتَبْقَى الجِبالُ بَعْدَنَا والمَصانِعُ

وقد كنتُ في أكنافِ جارِ مَضَنَّةٍ  ففارقَني جارٌ بأرْبَدَ نافِعُ

فَلا جَزِعٌ إنْ فَرَّقَ الدَّهْرُ بَيْنَنا وكُلُّ فَتى ً يَوْمَاً بهِ الدَّهْرُ فاجِعُ

فَلا أنَا يأتيني طَريفٌ بِفَرْحَةٍ وَلا أنا مِمّا أحدَثَ الدَّهرُ جازِعُ

ومَا النّاسُ إلاّ كالدِّيارِ وأهْلها بِها يَوْمَ حَلُّوها وغَدْواً بَلاقِعُ

وَيَمْضُون أرْسَالاً ونَخْلُفُ بَعدهم كما ضَمَّ أُخرَى التّالياتِ المُشايِعُ

ومَا المَرْءُ إلاَّ كالشِّهابِ وضَوْئِهِ يحورُ رَماداً بَعْدَ إذْ هُوَ ساطِعُ

ومَا المالُ والأهْلُونَ إلاَّ وَديعَة ٌ وَلابُدَّ يَوْماً أنْ تُرَدَّ الوَدائِعُ

ومَا الناسُ إلاَّ عاملانِ: فَعامِلٌ يتبِّرُ ما يبني، وآخرُ رافِعُ

فَمِنْهُمْ سَعيدٌ آخِذٌ لنَصِيبِهِ وَمِنْهُمْ شَقيٌّ بالمَعيشَة ِ قانِعُ

أَليْسَ ورائي، إنْ تراخَتْ مَنيّتي، لُزُومُ العَصَا تُحْنَى علَيها الأصابعُ

أخبّرُ أخبارَ القرونِ التي مضتْ أدبٌ كأنّي كُلّما قمتُ راكعُ

فأصبحتُ مثلَ السيفِ غَيَّرَ جفنهُ تَقَادُمُ عَهْدِ القَينِ والنَّصْلُ قاطعُ

فَلا تَبْعَدَنْ إنَّ المَنيِّة َ مَوعِدٌ عَلَيْنا فَدَانٍ للطُّلُوعِ وطالِعُ

أعاذلُ ما يُدريكَ، إلاَّ تظنيّاً، إذا ارتحَلَ الفِتيانُ منْ هوَ راجعُ

تُبَكِّي على إثرِ الشّبابِ الذي مَضَى ألا إنَّ أخدانَ الشّبابِ الرّعارِعُ

أتجزَعُ مِمّا أحدَثَ الدّهرُ بالفَتى وأيُّ كَريمٍ لمْ تُصِبْهُ القَوَارِعُ

لَعَمْرُكَ ما تَدري الضَّوَارِبُ بالحصَى وَلا زاجِراتُ الطّيرِ ما اللّهُ صانِعُ

سَلُوهُنَّ إنْ كَذَّبتموني متى الفتى يذوقُ المنايا أوْ متى الغيثُ واقِعُ


  1. awesome. i wish i could read labid in arabic. one day i'll hopefully be able to read not only Labid but mutanabbi also. INshallah.

  2. ICanReadRomanArabicJuly 27, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    Interesting..but it would be better if you could write in romanised least us can read it in "arabic".


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