Emotive Meaning Problems at Various Levels in Al-Muallaqat | April 2017 | Translation Journal

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Emotive Meaning Problems at Various Levels in Al-Muallaqat

1. Introduction

The objective behind this paper is to examine the concept of 'emotiveness in Al-Muallaqat at the phonological, morphological, lexical and sematic levels in line of Arberry's translation.  To achieve this end, an in-depth analysis of phrases and sentences will be carried out to see whether Arberry has succeeded in rending all kinds of emotive meanings expressed in the Al-Muallaqat.   The samples subjected to the analysis will be taken from the odes of 5 bards, namely:  Amr’ al-Qais, Tarafa, Zuhair, Amr, Antara and Labid.  The reason behind focusing on theses odes is that they have cultural overtones that are difficult to capture in translation.  These sentences and phrases will be discussed and analyzed, and their emotive meanings at all levels will be compared to those in the ST.  After the analysis is conducted, conclusions will be drawn as to why Arberry has not accounted for the loss of emotive meaning that has led to the distortion of the source text (ST).  This paper concludes with useful tips to overcome the mismatch inherent in emotive meaning-related problems.

2. Emotiveness in Language

Before one goes into the analysis, an attempt will be made to shed some light on the concept of emotiveness to see whether there is a consensus as to what constitute emotive meanings. Emotiveness is a capacity for human beings to be emotional and their ability to recognize and express their feelings or emotions.  Leech (1974) draws a line between two levels of meaning, i.e. ‘referential’ and ‘emotive’ meanings.  While referential meaning can sometimes be associated with conceptual meaning, emotive meaning is related to connotative meaning.  In other words, emotive meaning is comprised of the shades of meaning that involve words that raise certain emotional overtones.

Understanding the complex nature Al-Muallaqat cannot be achieved only through a study of the syntactic relationships between linguistic units or the denotative meanings of these constituents, but also through a careful examination of the emotive values of the formal structure of communication. In his 1957 seminal book, Arberry wraps up his view of translation by arguing that translation dismantles Al-Muallaqat 'of the greater part of their aesthetic and emotive force’ (p. 254).  Despite this opaque view, heinsists that `what remains over is by no means negligible, if the translator abandons all attempts and incorporate them into a prefabricated mold of committed prosody and stylized diction' (ibid).

The goal and chief function of the ‘emotive meaning’ is to arouse the feelings of people.  There are many tools to achieve this goal, and some of those tools include various stylistic devices such as emphasis, irony, humor, reprobation-expressing statements and certain other aesthetic features (Shamaa, 1978). It is along these layers that the emotiveness of texts is created through a combination of different linguistic devices and certain social factors.

Emotiveness of meaning also involves the kindling of emotions. Of course, certain aspects of linguistic messages carry emotive meaning.  However, there is a propensity that connotative meanings have been associated only with individual words or short phrases (usually idioms).  Therefore, emotive meaning must be recognized through words and idioms that are meaningful and through units that have connotative values.

A. From a different perspective, emotive meaning is used in semantics to refer to the attitudinal element in meaning, as in the differing emotional associations (or connotations) of lexical items (e.g. a youth/youngster stood on the corner) or the expression of attitude or affect in intonation (Crystal, 2008). The emotive meaning of an expression refers to its emotional effect on the listener, as in the ‘emotive content’ of propaganda speeches, advertising language, etc. (Crystal, 2008). All levels of language forms may have these associated meanings: (I) pronunciation, (2) words, i.e., semantic units, including both single words and idioms, (3) the discourse (this involves the connotative reaction to the style of the utterance), and (4) the themes of a message (Nida and Taber, 1982).  The term ‘pronunciation’ involves the types of sounds used in certain forms of speech (i.e. the allophones of the phonemes). For example, a specific dialect in New York produces the long schwa sound as a diphthong (producing ‘boid’ for ‘bird’. This kindles a sense of ethnic solidarity among the group of this variety of language, and thus, creating a special bond among people.  This aspect may be said to be a manipulation of the phonological level of language.  At the phonological level, meaning must zoom in on sound symbolism, rhythm, intonation (pitch, loudness, etc.) and other suprasegmental features.  At the morphological level, the focus is on the choice of word forms and affixes, but at the lexical level, the focus is on emotion-evoking words.  As for the semantic level, it is a combination of all levels of language.

Emotive Meaning at the Phonological Level

There came a time in history in which translating poetry was considered impossible due to the complex nature of its sound and prosodic patterns (Ghazala, 2013). Khulusi (2000) argues that only a poet can translate poetry. Perhaps Khulusi was influenced by Jakobson (1959) who argues that poetry is ‘untranslatable’. Dante expresses the same opinion, stating that any attempt to translate poetry would destroy the charm it bears (cited in Khulusi, 2000).  Raffael (1994) ascribes this stance to different reasons:

  1. A subtlety of the spirit of meaning
  2. Charm of style
  3. Aestheticity
  4. Musicality
  5. Suprasegmental features (rhyme, rhythm, foot, meter, etc.)
  6. Over-occurrence of figurative language, etc.

It is the phonic factor that makes up a stumbling block for translators, and makes them reflect on assuming such a gargantuan task. In poetry, the phonic factor plays greater role in poetry translation than any other genres. Arabs, in general, and ancient ones, in particular, tend to be attracted to repetitive rhythmic structures. However, one must concede that the Arabic language through morphology and syntax facilitates the task of constructing such preferable patterns in succession, a feature that English falls short of, in the same degree. A philosophical stance looks at this phenomenon from a different corner: Arabic permits such manipulation of rhythmic patterns that have made the Arab ear accustomed and attracted to such patterns. By contrast, the English ear is attracted to what the English language permits through its morphological and syntactic rules which govern the entire language.

It is taken for granted that the written form of language has a phonic potential, i.e. the pen is set to paper with the words written, ringing in mind simultaneously. Tracking the Arabic language, Beeston (1970, 113) states that Saj’ (السجع) has left an ineffaceable mark on contemporary writing, even if ‘an oratorical or high-flown style’ is not aimed explicitly.

Paronomasia or التجنيس , as  a linguistic phenomenon, allows Arabic to build up many parts of speech from the same trilateral or less commonly quadrilateral roots, creating many sounds in common. One example from the Holy Quran is ‘فأني أعذّبه عذاباً لا أعذبه أحداً من العالمين’ (5:115).  The occurrence of such a linguistic practice reveals beyond any shadow of doubt that this linguistic phenomenon is highly favored, because the Quran is seen as a model of linguistic excellence.

Arabic verse is based on regularity of beat according to an intricate system, and rhyme (Beeston, et al, 1983). In English, isochrony, as a term used in phonetics and phonology to refer to the rhythmic characteristic of some languages, describes the same linguistic phenomenon (Crystal (2008, 256).  In isochronous rhythm, the stressed syllables fall at approximately regular isochrony intervals throughout an utterance. The Odes in general, and Zuhair's in particular reflect a distillation of wisdom, clarity of thought and depth of emotional feeling elicited from incidents and specific first-hand experiences, as well as from aspects of visual and social background, in which an ode’s poet assumes to be known by his listeners (Beeston, et al, 1983).

A great impact of Arabic aphorisms is attributed to a harmonious overlap between the phonic and semantic components. Such aphorisms are to a large extent beyond the ability to be reproduced in another language. Some examples are دارهم ما دمت في دارهم and كما تدين تُدان. The phonic impact left on the Arab ear is lost when translated into English, simply because of the differences in the sound system, and due to the discrepancy in the morpho-syntactic rules of the two languages. The morpho-syntactic rules of Arabic easily allow its user of language to produce a pleasing effect through exploiting the sound patterns, formed by the flexibility of building up words from the trilateral or quadrilateral roots.

Line 20 in Ode 1 reads ‘فسلّي ثيابي من ثيابك تنسل'. One may notice that the two verbs are derived from the same trilateral root "نسل". Yet, they are used differently in terms of the linguistic transitivity phenomenon. Although many verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively in both languages, Arabic enjoys a greater flexibility in forming new lexical items from the same root through marking this distinction morphologically. Arberry’s translation of the above hemistich is ‘just draw off my garments from yours, and they’ll slip away’. The paronomasia in the original is lost in the translation. Even if he attempts to maintain the same verb root, his use will undergo a change in the voice (from active to passive voice).  Arberry continues to use the same verb root in a different instance. In Tarafa’s Ode, line 39, Tarafa says ‘ليتني أفديك منها وأفتدي’. The same linguistic feature is manifested here where an exploitation of the same trilateral root (فدي) is shown. Arberry’s translation seems clear in trying to maintain the same root. He translates it as ‘Would I might ransom you, and be ransomed’. The linguistic behavior referred to above is vivid where the verb is used differently in terms of voice. Zuhair’s Ode has an interesting example. Line 31 reads فتعرككم عرك الرحى بثفالها. One may notice the interplay between phonology and semantics through the use of the root عرك. Arberry tries to maintain the same root by rendering it as ‘Then it grinds you as a millstone grinds on its cushion’. It is clear here that even when Arberry keeps the same root, he could not keep the two words as close to each other as the Arabic text does, a feature that Arabic enjoys but English does fall short of.

To make it clearer, one may cite another example from the same Ode. Line 33 reads فتغلل لكم ما لا تغل لأهلها. Here, Arberry maintains the same root, but he ends up in the two words very far from each other. The translation reads ‘Yes, war yields you a harvest very different from the bushels and pieces of silver those fields in Iraq yield for the villagers’. Paronomasia examples are used frequently in the Odes. Some other relevant examples include نعم ذخر الذاخرينا  and رفدنا فوق رفد الرافدينا  in Amr's Ode 5, lines 54 and 59 respectively.

Arberry translates the former as 'a fine treasure indeed to treasure', while he translates the latter as '(we) gave succor beyond every other succourer'. It is clear how Arberry maintains using the same 'morphological root'. However, the paronomasia-creating words in the target text are far from each other; they are not in succession as the case is in the source text. Most probably, this is ascribable to the syntactic structure system in the English language, involving word order and sentence patter structures.

Unlike English rigid rules of syntax, Arabic enjoys a margin of great flexibility where the components of a sentence may vary their position as necessity demands. Sometimes, it is done for the purpose of emphasis-placing or drawing the reader's attention to certain aspects of the language.  This is probably part of the syntactic dichotomy in Arabic, which brings about 'verbal' and 'nominal' sentences.  Poetic license is a powerful reason for either changing the position of a constituent in a sentence or even changing the 'case' of the word. By the latter, I mean the word in the nominative case could become in the accusative case if the poetic context requires maintaining the poetic meter, foot, etc.   

In Arabic, certain rhythmic and stylistic effects are made possible due to the word order. In other words, the fact that adjectives in Arabic follow the nouns they modify makes it possible and easy to use a few attributes in quick succession without overloading the message. English, having a left-to-right attribution, involves a greater communication load. In English, one may be forced to say ‘a strong man’, while in Arabic the margin of flexibility to use a few adjectives after the noun is much greater (Nida, 1964). Once the head-word in a noun phrase is stated, it is easier to list the attributes modifying the head word (i.e. noun). In left-to-right attribution, as in English, the problem of memory retention emerges. One Arabic example could be بظلمة القبر ووحشته وغربته وهياكله وعظامه وأكفانه بل وضيقه واختناقه. In this example, one may notice the insertion of the head word القبر among many other attributes. Arabic syntax facilitates the insertion of a long list of attributes for semantic, rhythmic and stylistic values. In English, a translation of this excerpt cannot flow that smooth.

Out of Arberry's belief in producing a target text-oriented translation, I would say 'paronomasia'-related echoes must be lost in a produced translation. This is ascribable to the differences between the sound system of the two languages. Due to the arbitrary relationship existing between word forms and their associated meaning, same-meaning carrying words in different languages have different forms, with different succession of sounds, making it impossible to create the same euphony originally created in the source text. One example illustrating the failure to produce an exact match of the source text paronomasia comes from line 59 in Ode 5. which reads رفدنا فوق رفد الرافدينا. Arberry obviously does his best to maintain paronomasia by sticking to the use of the same 'root'. He translates it as 'We gave succor beyond every other succorer'. While the referential meaning is maintained, and the same root is repeatedly used, Arberry fails to keep the source-text paronomasia: the paronomasia-creating words are at distance from each other as opposed to the source text which flow smoothly in succession.

There is a general agreement that certain onomatopoeic sounds carry a recognizable significance. A linguistic community tends to associate certain sounds with certain meanings (Shamaa, 1978). Technically speaking, phonaesthetics is a term used in linguistics to refer to the study of the aesthetic properties of sound, especially the sound symbolism attributable to individual sounds (Crystal, 2008). The branch of stylistics which studies such expressive effects (e.g. the onomatopoeia of poetry) is known as phonostylistics. Sound symbolism is a term used to refer to a direct association between the form and the meaning of language: the sounds used reflect properties of the external world, as in cases of onomatopoeia (e.g. cuckoo, murmur, roar) and other forms of synaesthesia.  The letters [sl-] in words such as slimy, slither is a case in point (Crystal, 2008).One example which demonstrates the sound symbolism in Al-Muallaqat comes from Amr's second opening line, which reads مشعشعة كأن الحص فيها. While the words مشعشعة mainly means 'diluted', it acquires a new layer of meaning when mixed with the plant of الحص, which is plant similar to saffron. The meaning acquired is its brightness in color. Phonologically, the word in Arabic is formed by almost duplicating the sound combination of شعشعwith reference to شعاع (rays, or beams). Arberry fails to produce the same phonological effect, thus trying to maintain the basic meaning only by saying 'brightly sparkling'. One more finding to be unveiled here is that the repetition of شعشع in Arabic triggers in mind the sense of 'shimmering' or 'flickering' with regard to a source of light.

In Arabic, pharyngeal and velarized consonants are often associated with strong emotions, contained in the words they make up. Such sounds lend an emotive echo to the words they make up. One may notice that in words such as ضرب and ضمّ وعضّ  the sound expresses an emotive strong feeling.  On the other hand, it is claimed that voiceless consonants in Arabic are associated with tranquility and sweet feelings such as love. Such sounds are represented by الهاء والسين  (sibilant voiceless /s/ sound and voiceless glottal fricative /h/ sound). It is worth mentioning that such a phenomenon poses no threat to translatability.  Amr's Ode mentions تسفّ الجلة الخور. The verb used here تسفّ, ending in a sound, which is double-vowel, indicating 'eating vigorously and noisily'. However, Arberry uses a neutral verb 'chaw', a variety of 'chew' overlooking the characteristics associated with the source text verb تسف. Arabic is a language whose parts of speech, especially verbs, are highly charged and carry hidden associations. There are a group of verbs that are related to this verb in particular.  Some instances are الإنسان يأكل (A human being eats), الصبي يقرم (a boy eats), العجوز الدرداء تهمس (an edentulous female old woman eats), الدابة تقضم (a beast eats dry fodder), الدابة تخضم (a beast eats wet or green fodder), البعير يأرم (a camel eats), الشاة تلمج (a sheep eats), and النحل يجرس (a bee eats) (Tha'alibi, 2011). While Arabic enjoys a wide variety of verbs specific to each different creature, English is almost restricted to use one common verb, i.e. eat.    

Intonation and stress patterns are more important to dialogues in prose fiction than in poetry. In prose, a competent translator needs to add extra expressions to compensate for the prosodic features lost in translation in an attempt to reveal the character’s attitude or emotional state. An example of such additions could be ‘ironically’ or ‘sarcastically’. A professional loud recitation of Al-Muallaqat necessitates the reciter read them, placing particular emphasis on certain words. When emphasis is produced through pitch alone, it is called pitch accent, and when produced through length alone, it is called quantitative accent.  So, the hyperbolic words may be distinguished from other words by producing them with a higher pitch.

Emotive Meaning at the Morphological Level

In this section, an attempt will be made to examine Bloomfield’s hypothesis as a point of departure.  In his seminal book, Bloomfield states that if the forms are phonemically different, it is supposed that their meanings are also different. It is synonymous with the Arabic morphological rule that reads زيادة المبنى زيادة المعنى. The problems associated with the morphology of the source text, i.e. Arabic have been one concern of translators. This is because of the complexity of Arabic morphology, which is similar to Latin in terms of productivity of word formation from the same root. One clear example from the holy Quran is the difference between الرياح  and الريح. In the holy Quran, الرياح  /a'riᵆ ħ/ (the winds) has been constantly held up throughout the Quran with the meaning of ‘bringing good such as rain’. A Quranic verse backing this example reads ‘وهو الذي يرسل الرياح بشراً بين يديه’ (7:57) (And it is He Who sends the winds as heralds of glad tidings) . However,  الريح /a'ri:ħ/  is associated with the sense of torment and chastisement inflicted upon wrong-doing people. One example is a Quranic verse that reads ‘فيرسل عليكم قاصفاً من الريح فيغرقكم بما كفرتم’ (17:69) (He will not send you back a second time to sea and send against you a hurricane of wind and drown you because of your disbelief).  One example from Al-Muallaqat comes from Antara's Ode in which he mentions in line 54 هتـّاك غايات التجار. The sound pattern according to which the word هتاك is formed suggests an exaggeration of the verb from which this noun is formed. While the neutral form is هاتك, Antara uses the hyperbolic form هتـّاك. Arberry could not compensate for the difference in his translation. He translates it as 'he tore down traders' inn-signs'. He includes no clue as to show 'hyperbolic effect'. It is obvious how Arberry again adopts the strategy of changing the grammatical status of a word in the source text by means of lexical change into the target text (Noun in source text into Verb in target text). One attempt to translate this hyperbolic form could be 'An oft-remover or an oft-destroyer' of inn signs. 

Arabic is viewed as a language of overstatement whereas English is regarded as a language of understatement. In other words, what seems to be a natural means of expression in Arabic seems to overload communication in English. This takes us to the fact that the reproduction in English of the emphatic value of Arabic statements is but an attempt of approximation due to the asymmetry between the two languages. Arabic possesses a noticeably wider range of possibilities for the realization of this semantic area. This gives Arabic a precedence over English in intensifying the message conveyed as well as producing subtler gradations of emphasis that cannot be matched in English (Shamaa, 1978).

Languages differ in their syntactic structures and the meanings assigned to the forms of the words. This leads us to Catford’s concept that formal meanings between the source and target languages are a matter of approximation (Catford, 1965). An example for illustration is the number system in Arabic and English. Arabic enjoys a 3-term number system, in that the Arabs can use their language to refer to singular, plural and dual pronouns and numbers whereas in English the dual number is treated as plural. Line 18 from Tarafa’s Ode exhibits concrete evidence. It reads كأنهما بابا منيف. One may notice the dual pronoun explicitly expressed in the ‘Alif’ sound in final position in كأنهما  and بابا. English, being a 2-term number system, cannot treat the dual pronoun expressed in Arabic except through viewing it as a plural pronoun. Thus, Arberry translates it as ‘They are the gates of a loft, smooth-walled castle’. Adopting a back-translation technique, one may not be able to tell certainly that the ‘gates’ mentioned in the original are only two. One possible solution is to qualify the noun by mentioning the number. However, the problem that may arise here in back-translation technique is the belief on the part of the translator that the reason for mentioning the number is to place emphasis. This would mislead the translator as to render it as كلاهما- عيناهما- نفساهما, using what is known in Arabic grammar as التوكيد المعنوي, and placing emphasis semantically on the noun that precedes.

Attempts made to produce source-text oriented translations will end in awkward or shaky- structured translations. While the translator's goal is to create a proper and adequate translation, which is as close as possible to the source text structurally, the target audience may receive it with bizarre repugnance. For instance, In Arabic, it is fine to keep the adjective without the noun, which is the head of the noun phrase, in English it does not sound natural. The eyes of the native speakers of English will pause looking for the head of the noun phrase to establish the meaning before going on. An example comes from line 37 of Labid's Ode reads خنساء ضيعت الفرير. In Arabic, it does not create any fog of misunderstanding for the native speaker of Arabic. However, in English translating it literally without bringing the implicit noun would raise eye brows in astonishment. Adopting a target text-oriented approach necessitates that we add the implicit but recoverable noun. Therefore, the Arabic sentence can be translated as 'She is a flat-nosed Oryx, which has lost its calf'.

Another example from Arabic is ترأس القضاة أنفسهم محاكمة المتهم. In English, this sentence may be rendered into 'The judges THEMSELVES presided over the trial of the accused'. However, unlike Arabic, the reflexive pronouns are fixed, with one reflexive pronoun for each noun.  In Arabic, different words may be used for this purpose like ' that would provide the same meaning such as (نَفْسُ وعَيْنُ وجميعُ وعامة وكلٌ وكلا وكلتا).

It should be noted that Arabic is a language that expresses its linguistic function of emphasis through degrees or layers. It expresses emphasis in two main manners: a) bound and free morphemes, and b) special multi-form words that impart a different layer of augmentation. Also, nouns, verbs and adjectives have various morphological forms, which aim at placing a different degree of emphasis. One example in passing is قاتل  (a killer)  and قتّـال ( an oft-killing man). Although both words are derived from the same trilateral root قتل, the latter, which is characterized by a double vowel (Shaddah ّ), suggests further intensity of the attribute assigned to it.  Verbs in Arabic may undergo a morphological process through which the verb acquires a greater sense of intensity. This morphological process involves doubling the middle consonant, a morphological feature whose chief function is to impart a stronger degree of the action that the main verb carries. In Zuhair, Ode 3, line 16 exhibits an example of such emphasis-carrying verb. It reads تبزّل ما بين العشيرة والدم (the tribe's concord had been shattered by bloodshed). One may notice that the verb تبزّل (shattered or split)has the middle consonant doubled as a means of showing emphasis, following the sound pattern of فعّل (with the middle sound of a trilateral verb, stressed).  Arberry’s translation reads ‘the tribe’s concord had been shattered by bloodshed’. The morphological system in English does not permit such morphological changes to be applied to the verbs to put further emphasis. It is worth noting that forming verbs following the sound pattern of فعّل  (with the middle sound of a trilateral verb, stressed) is linked to the transitive category of verbs. If applied to intransitive verbs, it changes the verb from intransitive to transitive.  One example is نام  or ضحك (to sleep or to laugh). Although they are intransitive verbs, once they are formed following the sound pattern فعّل (with the middle sound of a trilateral verb, stressed),  they change into transitive verbs (نوّم and ضحّك) (to cause someone to laugh or to cause someone to sleep).

Furthermore, Arabic is characterized by the fact that its morphology allows its words to carry information that cannot be expressed in one word in other languages such as English. A clear example is seen in the word استسقيتهما (I asked them both for water). Although it is one word in Arabic, it cannot be rendered into one word in English. In English, one should say ‘I asked both of them for water’. This is a synthesizing characteristics Arabic has, but it is not common in English.

In terms of bound and free morphemes, which carry an emphasis element, Arabic has morphemes which mostly precede the part of speech (mostly verbs) to add greater emphasis. Examples of these morphemes are إن، لـ، لـ..ن، لـ...نّ. (la-, -na, inna, la-, -na) English does not have a literal component that is equivalent to these emphatic morphemes. Thus, different sentences in Arabic may have only the same equivalent in English due to the absence of equivalents to such emphatic morphemes. Ode 1, line 6 reads وإن شفائي عبرة مهراقة (yet the true and only cure of my grief is my tears outpoured). One may notice that Arberry’s technique of dealing with this emphatic morpheme is to add the adverb ‘only’ to compensate for the absence of a literal equivalent to إن (inna). He says ‘The true and only cure of my grief is tears’.While Arberry makes up for the emphasis device in Arabic by using a long subject comprising of epithets and the exclusion particle of 'only', it would have been better if he has recourse to a cleft-sentence pattern by saying 'it is shedding tears that cures me'. This pattern puts into focus one particular constituent.

Another example comes from Zuhair’s Ode, line 18, which reads لنعم السيدان وجدتما على كل حال(a solemn oath I swear- you have proved yourselves fine masters).  The emphatic bound morpheme لـ is ignored here in Arberry’s translation, simply because there is no means whatsoever to exhibit it in English.  Arberry translates it as ‘You have proved yourselves fine masters in all matters’. In the same Ode, line 27 shows another emphatic morpheme that is attached to the end of the verb. It reads فلا تكتمنّ الله (Do not conceal from Allah).  Again, English falls short of finding an accurate literal equivalent. Arberry translates it as ‘Do not conceal from Allah’. A better translation might be 'Do not try to think you may conceal from Allah ….'.

It is argued that, in many instances, different statements in Arabic with different degrees of emphasis receive the same translation in English. Here is an example demonstrating this case:

محمدُ مجتهدُ

إنّ محمداً مجتهدُ

إن محمداً لمجتهدُ

The above are all declarative statements and they more or less receive the same translation in English, i.e. ‘Mohammed is hardworking’. This obliterates the various degrees of emphasis originally inherent in Arabic. The above example reveals that Arabic can produce subtle shades of emphatic differentiation by undergoing a purely morphological change. The scale of intensification in Arabic emphasis is not all the time matched in English as the above examples demonstrated.While the compensation for the emphasis shown in the Arabic statements may be translated by means of adverbs of degrees or intensity, i.e. very, indeed, so, etc., it is the technique of back-translation that would expose the void of indeterminacy of what the exact emphasis device is originally in Arabic.  It looks like Arberry's direction of thought regarding this particular issue was source-to text translation direction only. It does not occur to him how much a back-translation technique would re-produce the same source text he takes originally as a point of departure. Beeston (1970) argues that English can make up for the lack of Arabic degrees of emphasis by exploiting such prosodic features as stress placing and intonation. In an attempt to re-translate the three Arabic statements above, using Beeston’s argument, one may translate them respectively as follows:

  1. Mohammed is hardworking.
  2. Mohammed is very hardworking.
  3. Mohammed is VERY hardworking (with an emphatic toneme or stress on ‘very).

However, this argument is most likely to be true in spoken language rather than in the written forms of language, due to the orthographic marks represented by the printed words fall short of demonstrating all prosodic features. It is voice that best communicates the suprasegmental message by the changes (ups and downs) in the pitch of the pulmonic air. Italicization, underlining certain words, writing words in uppercase may all be used to indicate ‘emphasis’ in printed words.

Emotive Meaning at the Lexical Level

Arabic is known to use more emotive words than English does; it can express its thoughts through making use of a greater amount of emotive words. Because poetry is a genre, which is characterized by brevity compared to prose, the examples that show emotive meaning at the lexical level are scarce, and the reason for such scarcity may be attributed to the constraints and restrictions imposed on poetry as a genre, i.e. rhyme, foot, meter, etc.   One example is seen in Imru’al-Qais (Ode 1), line 34, reads وفرع يزين المتن أسود فاحم أثيث (she shows me her thick black tresses, a dark embellishment).  One may notice how the emotional tone is pitched too high when describing the hair of the poet’s beloved. In English, Arberry translates it as ‘she shows me her thick black tresses, a dark embellishment clustering down her back.’   The succession of lexical items, focusing on the blackness of her hair shows how the emotional tone is augmented. Arberry succeeds in conveying the referential meaning at the expense of the source text syntactic structures, a strategy explicitly stated later by Jakobson (1959). Jakobson says that in case some grammatical category is absent in the source text, its meaning may be translated by lexical means. In the example above, it is clear that Arberry starts the line with a subject and a predicate, while the source text does not have the same structure. 

The emotive echoes that reverberate and rattle in the Arabic statements seem to exceed the limits of the English language. In other words, Arabic loads its messages to the extent that it is viewed as a language of overstatement. However, English expresses its thought without bringing its thoughts too much high at the emotive level. The following examples show how English tends to avoid the literal translation of the Arabic word القلب. (the heart):

Original Arabic Text

Target Text in English


وتفهم ما في قلوبهم من حرارة الشوق والتبجيل

They could understand how much these simple peasants had been looking forward to this visit.

Qindil, P. 5

أما فاطمة النبوية فقلبها واجف

Fatima was also frightened.

Qindil, P.20

وامتلأ قلبه المقهور شعوراً بتفاهة الحياة

He was overcome with a sense of the futility of life.

Al Midaq, P. 286

The above table (cited in Shamaa (1978) vividly shows how the word ‘heart’ in Arabic has been substituted by different lexical items that describe the human feelings in a neutral, yet more natural way. This provides evidence that Arabic tends to augment and exaggerate the senses that describe sweet sentiments while English tends to tame down its modes of expressions lexically. It can be noticed that the degree of intensity of emotions voiced has been toned down. Put it differently, emotions in the English translation are expressed on a reduced level that are appropriate to English, whereas in Arabic they stand on a lower rung of the same lexical ladder.

Arberry's mechanism of tackling the term القلب (the heart) remains literal. He never tries to use an idiomatic expression or a metaphor to reflect this particular term. From Ode 1, line 21 reads مهما تأمري القلب يفعل (whatever you order my heart to do, it obeys). The previous translation given in brackets is Arberry's. Another example is in the immediate following line which reads لتضربي بسهميك في أعشار قلب مقتّل (so as to strike and pierce with those two shafts of theirs the fragments of a ruined heart). Again, he sticks to literal approach to translating the term. The last example is found in line 48 of Zuhair's Ode who says ومن يفض قلبه إلى مطمئن البر لا يتجمجم (he whose heart is set on the sure path of piety needs not to fear or falter). Arberry's translation of the القلب (the heart) in the above three examples show his consistency in dealing with this term in different contexts.

Emotive Meaning at the Semantic Level

Within the domain of semantics, there are various methods one would utilize to explore the features and the functions of emotive words in Al Muallaqat and consider their lexical and semantic characteristics.   Some of those methods are listed below:

A. Overstatement Owing to Redundancy(Tautology)

Arabic is characterized by tautology and redundancy when expressing its thoughts. In other words, statements in Arabic are expressed with more words than needed in other languages, like English. Some examples can be traced in Arabic prose as in the following:

  • اللسان في فمي يعجز عن شكرك. which literally means ‘The tongue in my mouth stands incapable of thanking you’.
  • غلى الدم في عروقي. which literally means ‘The blood in my veins boiled’.
  • نظر إليه بعين الإعجاب. which literally means ‘He looked at him with an eye of admiration’.

The above examples vividly exhibit redundancy or tautology in that there is no need to state the second underlined word in each of the above statements. The addition of the second underlined word in each of the statements above represents an instance of redundancy or tautology. The meaning expressed in each of the above statements is clearly understood without an explicit mentioning of the second underlined word.  This phenomenon can be traced back to the Holy Quran where one comes across the following Quranic verses:

  • "تعمى القلوب التي في الصدور"  It is the hearts which are within the breasts that grow blind. (22:46)
  • "تقولون بأفواهكم ما ليس لكم به علم" You were propagating it with your tongues, and uttering it with your mouths that whereof you had no knowledge (24:15).

Based on the verses above, one can argue that since hearts are by nature located in chests, there is no need to specify where the hearts are. By the same token, the organ of speech or the source of speech is the mouth, and thus there is no need to mention that one utters words with their mouths.

In Al-Muallaqat, overstatement instances are frequent of which the following are chosen to exhibit tautology:

  • وإن شفائي عبرة مهراقة.   Yet the true and only cure of my grief is tears.
  • إذا ما الثريا في السماء تعرّضت  Whenever the Pleiades showed themselves broadly in the sky
  • اقوى وأقفر بعد أم الهيثم   Empty and desolate since the day Umm el-Haitham departed
  • سوداً كخافية الغراب الأسحم   All black as the inner wing feathers of the sable raven.
  • ترى اللحز الشحيح   You see the skinflint miser
  • سحاً وتسكابا   deluging and decanting

The above examples quoted from the Holy Quran and used in Al-Muallaqat are a means of confirmation and reinforcement that the second underlined word in each statement above has the function of adding greater impact to the previous word in the same statement. 

B. Conceptual Overstatements (Hyperbole)

Hyperbole is a deliberate exaggeration used to create an effect on the reader/audience.  It is a stylistic device always associated with overstatement. Hyperbole has become a normal part of everyday language. It is concerned with personal judgements and sentiments, i.e. subjective claims. Hyperbole is always understood by the recipient of the message attempting to refute the hyperbole.  One simple example is ‘someone is over the moon’, or ‘someone is in 7th heaven’. Of course, that person is not literally over the moon, nor is he in 7th heaven. It is an exaggeration to emphasize that he is happy.  In Arabic, there is a similar expression that indicates happiness, i.e. طاير من الفرح (flying out of joy). One more example is ‘he embraced her a thousand times’. In fact, it is obvious that ‘a thousand times’ is an exaggeration to show they embraced tightly to emphasize the degree of intimacy.

Furthermore, hyperbole is a rhetorical device that is formed by using a certain word metaphorically.  A common example in spoken language is ‘I have not seen you for ages’. The addressee will never ever try to count the number of days he had not seen the speaker, nor would he bring the span of time into question. It is a means of expressing the long period of time during which the two participants have not met.   Here are some examples from Arabic prose:

  • إنه يغطس في الماء نصف ساعة فلا ينقطع نفسه.   (literally: he dives underwater for half an hour without getting out of breath)
  • لقد اندفعت إلى الإعجاب به اندفاعاً لا يصدر إلا عن يافع الشباب.

(idiomatically: he stays under the water for minutes on end).

(I have been forced to admire him, an admiration that is only felt by the prime of youths)

(idiomatically:  I looked at the barman in admiration, the kind which only young people can feel.

The denominator between the examples above is the exaggerated expression of the message in the original and its toning down in the translation. The translation is reduced to a neutral representation of the message in the original. In the first example, the quantity word نصف ساعة (half an hour) is a relative concept in different cultures. This leaves the reader at a crossroads either to understand it literally or take it as an exaggeration.

In the second example, the rhetorical device of hyperbole is demonstrated by the use of what might be called ‘absolute object’ المفعول المطلق.  In Arabic, it is clear that ‘hyperbole’ can be achieved through different ways. Using the absolute object is one way. Some examples of the use of absolute object as a means to exhibit hyperbole in the Odesof Zuhair and Amr are as follows:

  • فتعرككم عرك الرحى بثفالها   (Then it grinds you as a millstone grinds on its cushion)
  • نشق بها رؤوس القوم شقاً   (with these we split the heads of the warriors)
  • فصالوا صولة فيمن يليهم وصلنا صولة فيمن يلينا   (they loosed a fierce assault on their nearest  foemen, we loosed a fierce assault on our nearest foemen).

It is obvious that the concept of absolute object is not existent in English. The reinforced meaning, achieved by the use of the absolute object, has been rendered neutrally in English. In other words, the same English translation is more likely to be given even if the absolute object is not used. The other way in which a hyperbole can be accomplished is adjusting the sound pattern of the verb or the noun by adding the doubled vowel (Shaddah). The following examples, taken fromZuhair, Antara, Imr Al- Qais and Labid's Odes, demonstrate this point:

  • بأنني وصّال عقد حبائل جذّامها   I am skilled to knot the bonds of friendship and break them too
  • ترّاك أمكنة   I am quick to be gone from places
  • علّامها   knowing them well
  • فقلت له لما تمطّـّى بصلبه   And I said to the night when it stretched its lazy loins
  • تعفّى الكلوم   The wounds were healed
  • تسفّ حب الخمخم   that her people’s burthen-beasts were champing ‘ Khimkhim’[1]

The first three examples listed above exhibit examples of creating hyperbole in nouns by following the sound pattern فعّال, a sound pattern which indicates augmentation and exaggeration when a verb matches its pattern). The remaining three examples that follow are examples of how verbs are used to create hyperbole. Again, the doubled vowel (stressed vowel) (Shaddah) has been used. In English, such patterns could not be formed due to the limited system of its morphology. This has led Arberry to compensate in as much as possible for hyperboles- reinforcing elements by adding various parts of speech, i.e. adjectives, adverbs, etc.

In the previous section, the subject of hyperboles was discussed at the level of lexical items. Within Al-Muallaqat, many words and phrases took place in various places.  For example, line 95 of Amr's Ode reads مَـلأْنَا البَـرَّ حَتَّى ضَاقَ عَنَّـا, وَظَهرَ البَحْـرِ نَمْلَـؤُهُ سَفِيْنَـا (we have filled the land till it's too strait for us, and we are filling the sea's back with our vessels). Again, this is an example of hyperbole where the poet intends to assert that his tribe’s warriors are unique in quality and limitless in quantity that they could not be accommodated in land or sea. Arberry’s approach to translating hyperboles is literal.  Arberry translates the Arabic statement above as ‘We have filled the land till it is too strait for us, and we are filling the sea’s back with our vessels’. There are no problematic issues on the part of the western reader to understand this.  It is worth mentioning that the subjective claims made in hyperboles depend largely on the general standards of society. One requirement which a literary translator should be equipped with is the flair for language, and the full awareness of the cultures of the two languages in question. The question whose echo may give an unequivocal answer is 'Does this line of poetry leave the same effect on the native speakers of English as that left on the native speakers of Arabic'? This is clear when it comes to the two versions of the same proverb which reads A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush'. An Arab would not be satisfied with the 'two' of the English version; rather he would say عصفور باليد أحسن من عشرة على الشجرة (A bird in the hand is worth TEN in the bush). This shows the striking contrast in cultures with respect to what the general standard of a society is. 


As we have noted earlier, Al Muallaqat translation has been a bone of contention over the past two decades, simply because they are all written in a classical and complicated form of poetry.  The imagery expressed in them and the language in which they are written also embody a complex system of social and ethical values that cannot be easily understood nowadays.  Because of their poetic structure, and due to their 'emotive meaning' and 'paronomasia' at the phonological, some argue that they are untranslatable. 

To sum up, this paper attempts to explore the problems related to emotive meaning in Al-Muallaqat.  Emotive meaning is classified into different layers: phonological, morphological, lexical and semantic. A comparison has been made between the source and target texts, followed by a brief discussion along with new insights as to how erroneous translations can be modified, if not corrected.  This paper concludes its discussion by providing applications and implications for future studies.


This paper was written under my Advisor, Prof. Said M. Shiyab at Kent State University (US). It would not have come to fruition but for his constant follow-up, illuminating comments and astute criticism.

Al-Muallaqat is a term which refers to the seven greatest qasidas from the pre-Islamic period, were hung upside down from the Kaaba, a structure in Mecca that became later the holiest site of Islam. The legendary male bards of this period include Imru al-Qays, Tarafa, and Labid.

Toneme is a phoneme in a tone language in which the distinctive feature is a tone.  

Al-Muallaqat are tackled here according to the following order: Imr Al-Qais, Tarafa, Zuhair, Labid, Antara, Amr Bin Kulthoum and Al Harith.

Key words

Emotive, hyperbole, Muallaqat, tautology, translation. 


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Nida, E. A. 1964. Toward a Science of Translating: With Special Reference to Principles and Procedures Involved in Bible Translating, Leiden, E.J. Brill.

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Raffel, B. 1994. The Art of Translating Prose. The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Shamaa, N. 1978. “A Linguistic Analysis of Some Arabic to English Translation.” PhD thesis, University of Oxford.


This paper discusses the concept of 'emotive meaning' at the phonological, morphological, lexical and semantic levels with references made to Al-Muallaqat. Evidence is adduced from the source text and is compared to A. J. Arberry's target text, i.e. his translation of Al-Muallaqat. The paper selects instances from both texts to discuss them in the light of some theoretical background in both English and Arabic linguistics. Some careful observations are made, following Arberry's strategies he adopts in tackling problems related to emotive meaning. 

About the author

Eyhab A. Bader Eddin is a lecturer in Translation and Linguistics at King Khalid University, KSA. His PhD Thesis is titled 'Semantic Problems in A. J. Arberry's Translation of the Suspended Odes (Al-Muallaqat). He has an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Reading, UK, and a BA and PGD in English Literature from Damascus University.

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