Syndetic, Cultural and Collocational Problems in A. J. Arberry’s Translation of Al-Muallaqat | July 2017 | Translation Journal

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Syndetic, Cultural and Collocational Problems in A. J. Arberry’s Translation of Al-Muallaqat


This paper attempts at zooming in on the problems whose roots are deeply running in syndeticity,  culture and collocations, which are found in the translation of Arberry’s Translation of the Seven Suspended Odes. Problems inherent in syndeticity, culture and collocations are put on the map for further exploration. Constraints of space restricts my choice of syndetic words to و- ألا- فـ which function in Arabic as glue to bring the linguistic signs together to flow smoothly and logically,  leaving no cracks to appear in the texture. Shifts in hypotaxis and parataxis of clause and sentence structure come into focus, seeking for bridges to build between the pair language in question. Taking the fact that translation is by no means only a linguistic process, culture stands as a stumbling block to a smooth process of translation. This paper examines the most salient cultural features in the translation of the Odes. The paper identifies the various forms of cultural indicators, and discusses how to grapple with such knotty problems in translation. Some strategies have been referred to, or devised.


Al-Muallaqat, Arberry’s Translation, collocation, cultural indicators, syndetic words


This paper investigates the syndeticity and connectivity-related problems inherent in the translation of the Odes. Our scope of focus is on the initial linkage means و- فـ- ألا, rather than those in mid or final position. The section sheds light on how Arabic hypotactic structure is most often reduced into paratactic counterparts in English. The section is going to seek answers to the following question that poses itself to the reader: Are the changes in the sentence structure obligatory or do they depend to a large extent on the translator's personal preference? Then an in-depth analysis ensues to find persuasive reasons for that, and what implications may be realized.

Syndeticity or connectivity of sentences is one of the problems inherent in translating Arabic into English in general. Arberry seems not have adopted one singular mechanism for translating syndetic words as shall be discussed later. One reason for this type of difficulty is the change in the target text structure, prompting shifts in the hypotaxis and parataxis of the clause and sentence structure. Vinay and Darbelnet (1995) point out that connectors represented by cohesive links and discourse markers make up one level of difficulty in translation. House (1997) underlines the same level of difficulty, referring to it as 'theme- dynamics' which cover thematic structure and cohesion. House (1997) includes clausal linkage, along with theme-dynamics and iconic linkage in her scheme which is proposed to analyze and compare source and target texts. Shamaa (1978) states that sentence-linkage is a linguistic universal, a feature that all languages display. One may still left with the questions that read: Are syndetic words translatable or not? If yes, do all of them have the same degree of easiness in transferring words to the target language (English in this case)? Is there any distortion of the original meaning when rendered into English? Are there any values lost in translating syndetic words (stylistic, etc.)?

The first functional syndetic word to be discussed here is ألا. This functional syndetic word is used in Arabic as a particle to draw the address's attention to be attentive and listen carefully to what is going to be said. Because it occurs at the outset of statements, it is called an 'introductory functional interjection' (Al Dihdah, 2013). While there is a unanimous agreement among Arabic grammarians that it has no share in 'parsing' الإعراب, it still retains interesting linguistic functions as to justify a lengthy discussion. In the Holy Quran, the introductory functional interjection occurs at the start of Quranic verses to draw address's attention (disbelievers mostly) and to send out a warning. An example is 'أَلَا إِنَّحِزْبَالشَّيْطَانِهُمُالْخَاسِرُونَ  (Verily, it is the party of Satan that will be the losers!). It is clear in the translation above that the linguistic function is almost overlooked, sufficing with the emphasis it gives to the verse. Jakobson (1959) states that languages differ in what they MUST convey, rather than in what they MAY convey. This entails that languages share a great deal of common linguistic functional words. However, they do not necessarily convey the same function in the same way.

Throughout the Odes, this introductory functional interjection has occurred many times, carrying interesting different translations by Arberry. For instance, in Ode 1, line 43 reads أَلا رُبَّ خصْمٍ فيكِ أَلْوَى رَدَدْتُهwhich Arberry translates as 'Many's the stubborn foe on your account I've turned and thwarted'. It is clear that the introductory functional interjection ألا is overlooked altogether here, starting the translation with the equivalent to ربّ whose function here is to indicate the abundance of foes encountered. I believe ألا is best translated as 'O' without 'h' since it is closely associated with religious and highly literary styles (Peters, 2004). This is probably a reason it is used in hymnbooks which are read by saints. 'O' is a sound that meets the expectations of ألا in terms of drawing attention of addresses, and in evoking strong emotion, making it usually requiring an exclamation mark in writing. Line 46 of the same Ode reads أَلا أَيُّها الَّليْلُ الطَّويلُ أَلا انْجَلي. Arberry translates the hemistich as ' Well, now, you tedious night, won't you clear yourself of?'. Apart from Arberry's realization of the Arabic hemistich as a question while in the source text, it is merely a statement starting with the literary device ألا to trigger attention attraction. In this context, ألا is best perceived as a literary device, serving as a vocative case at its attempt to call the night, creating what is literarily known as 'apostrophe'. So, I believe that translating it as 'O tedious night! followed by an imperative form is better, observing the aspects raised above.

Ode 3, line 26 reads  أَلاَ أَبْلِـغِ الأَحْلاَفَ عَنِّى رِسَالَـة. Arberry translates this hemistich as 'Ho, carry this message from me to the Confederates'. This time it is obvious that Arberry does not turn a blind eye to the functional meaning of ألا. He expresses it as 'Ho', which is an interjection mainly used to call people in India. The last example comes from the opening line of Ode 5 which reads ألا هبي بصحنك. Arberry translates it as 'Ha, girl! Up with your bowl'. Again, Arberry  uses a closer choice to 'O'. However, the interjection utilized is used in everyday language, and is not appropriate as a register to be used in as an elevated text as the Odes. In both of the examples used above, I believe that 'O' is the best introductory functional interjection that can meet the expectation raised by ألا in Arabic.

Line 91 of Ode 5 sets an interesting example. The line reads ألا لا يجهلن أحدٌ علينا. Arberry translates it as 'So let no man act foolishly against us'. We notice here a complete negligence to consider ألا. In this context, perhaps it is better to translate ألا  as 'if', because it has the same components of an if-conditional.

 'Wa' 'و' as a Linking Device

'Wa' is a particle that serves many purposes in Arabic. Apart from being used as a particle for swearing or taking oath as in "والشمس وضحاها" )(By the Sun and its brightness', it has other functions. It could be circumstantial which has a semantic value that cannot always be translated as it superficially appears. An example is انتخبوه وهو غائب. Here the 'wa' " cannot be translated just as it appears as 'and'. A closer look at the sentence would reveal that the meaning implied is that he was elected 'WHILE' he was absent.

The second function of 'wa' is that of coordinating; it separates between syntactically equal structures. It either joins words belonging to the same grammatical category (nouns, adjectives, verbs) or sentences. An example about the former is 'I bought bread and cheese' where it connects two nouns. An example about the second case is 'I went to the market, and bought some fish and rice'. It is clear that when 'wa' is used as a coordinating conjunction, it poses no translation problem, because it is simply reproduced as the equivalent 'and' or 'commas' depending on the number of the mentioned items in a row.

However, it is the syndetic 'wa' و that concerns us most. It is the syntactically non-connective 'wa' that signals the start of a new sentence or clause. Stetkevych (1970) sees it as a 'quasi punctuation device'. However, coming across many examples of initial-position 'wa' shows that it cannot be semantically non-functional. Perhaps that is the reason why it has always been used unconsciously and is seen as an indispensable element to cement the cohesion of Arabic discourse. Sometimes the omission of the semantic value it bears in translation into English may result in under-translation.  For example, Ode 1, line 11 reads ويومعقرتللعذارىمطيتي. It is clear that the line starts with long-called 'a quasi-punctuation device'. Arberry's translation is 'and the day …'. Arberry's attempt at translation is too literal, making the flow of the English discourse unnatural. In addition to other functions, the conjunction 'wa' here can be translated as 'when' or 'I remember the day when …'. Here we are backed in our choice by Toury (1980) as he proposes a tentative law of translation. Toury states that textual relations in the original are often modified, sometimes to the point of being totally ignored in favor of habitual options offered by the target repertoire. In this example, once can observe a 'modification' of the original functional meaning as rendered into the target text.

Ode 1, line 44 reads وليل كموج البحر. Arberry translates it as 'Oft night like a sea'. Arberry's attempt here is successful as he dives to understand the spirit, carried by the original 'wa'. This functional means 'too many nights …'. According to Toury's law of growing standardization (see above), Arberry translates the 'wa' by a modification to avoid undertranslation and to keep the intended meaning.

All in all, Arberry's attempts at translating 'wa' is realized in a modification form. On the other hand, the examples Arberry used above completely ignores the presence of the functional meaning of 'wa'. Ode 2, line 6 reads وفي الحي أحوى. Arberry translates it as 'a young gazelle there is'. The functional meaning of ‘wa' is being ignored, perhaps because Arberry sees it as redundant. Arberry’s behavior in ignoring this and other interjection or conjunctions sets an example about the second case Toury gives in his law of translation when he says that certain linguistic features are sometimes ignored. In the same Ode, line 8 reads وتبسمعنألمى. Arberry again neglects the presence of the functional 'wa' by rendering it as 'her dark lips part in a smile'. It seems that the flow of the English discourse is different from the way Arabic discourse does. While the functional interjection 'wa' serves as an indispensable cohesive device in Arabic, in English it seems redundant, and thus no need to be translated.   

The last example to be given here comes from Ode 4, line 64 as reading ولقدحفظت وصاة عمي. Arberry's attempt at translation overlooks the functional 'wa', translating it as 'I have minded well the counsel '. In fact, there is often a tendency in Arabic for 'wa' to precede لقد as a means of boosting or emphasizing the meaning. English does not have a literal equivalent to it, and cannot compensate for that loss in any other way. Adopting the transposition principle, we may translate ولقد as 'indeed', 'verily' 'certainly' in a bid to compensate for the 'emphasis', carried over by لقد.

It should be noted that that 'wa' as a syndetic particle is not always a merely restrictively connective. Thus, it is not always equivalent to 'and', though it is when it is used as a connective functional device. The Arabic 'wa' may be met with the orthographic mark of full stop when it connects two sentences. However, it is hard to predict its behavior or the meaning hidden when it introduces a clause or sentence as it can be seen in the above examples.    

 'Fa 'فــ' as a Linking Device

Particle 'fa' is multi-functional. It occurs as a sequence marker. It shows that the noun it is attached to as an inflection, `comes next in order. An example is دخل الأمراء فالعلماء. (The princes entered before the scholars).Alternatively, it can be expressed as say “ Princes entered and then (the) scholars”.   Therefore, it functions as a sequence marker.      It indicates that 'scholars entered after the princes'. It is interesting to see how the functional 'fa' is being replaced with 'before' in English.  The introductory functional interjection 'fa' is often overlooked in translation into English, sometimes to the extent  of bringing to ambiguity some types of relationships such as causality and temporal sequence. Its loss as a marker of transition from one sentence to another does not affect the translated text remarkably. An interesting observation is that although English has functional devices that are semantically equivalent to 'fa', there is usually no one-to-one correspondence between the functional devices found in the two texts (Shamaa, 1978).

In an example that reads سافرتإلىلندن، فقدأنهيتدراستيالجامعية(I travelled to London. I had finished off my undergraduate studies.), the causal relationship between the two events, expressed by the 'fa' looks indeterminate in the target text. Although it is more logical to conclude that studying at the undergraduate level was the reason for not travelling to London earlier, yet the possibility remains that the two incidents are not connected. The translator could have avoided any ambiguity by using 'because' in replacement of 'fa', but that would exclude any other possibility for the causal relationship between the two events, a reason about which the translator himself is not sure about.  Perhaps the translator staying neutral in dealing with the 'fa' is the best way when the original 'fa' is not explicitly expressed or determine its meaning.

Ode 1, line 9 reads ففاضتدموعالعين. Arberry translates it as 'Then my eyes overflowed'. Arberry understands the incident of 'getting tearful eyes' as a result of the earlier scene of stopping at the campsite and casting his mind back to past days. So, he translates it into a functional device that serves as a sequence marker or transitional word. That entails that the 'fa'- initiated clause is a result of an earlier event. By the same token, Ode 3, line 31 reads فتعرككمعركالرحى. Arberry translates it as 'then it grinds you'. He sees this line as the result of an earlier line in which he describes how the war would look like if foes fought it. One can conclude that when 'fa’ is viewed as a result marker, Arberry approaches it as 'then'. To the best of my knowledge, the particle “fa“can best be translated into another word that by itself suggests 'result', i.e. 'thereupon'. It is a literary adverb that is used to refer to an immediate sequential action.

In other contexts, Arberry overlooks the 'fa' altogether as if it were not there. Ode 1, line 26 reads فجئتوقدنضّت. Arberry translates it as 'I came and already she stripped ….'. The line in question is a jump-in the course of the poem- from a memory in the past, rather than an actual succession of events narrated as a plot. Ode 2, line 68 reads فماليأراني. Arberry translates it as 'How is it with me'?  Again, Arberry overlooks the functional 'fa' as if it bears no specific meaning although the Arabic text cannot go without it. However, English has no one-to-one correspondence in relation to the 'fa' in this specific context.

Al-Muallaqat Language and Culture

This section initiates with a quick glimpse into the cradle of pre-Islamic poetry, particularly Al-Muallaqat. It also examines how the linguistic form in English (the translation in our case) copes with the cultural gist and content of the source text. The term Jaihiliyya, the word used to refer to pre-Islamic era that denoted a place of moral ignorance. It refers to a particular era in history and the people who settled down on the vast open plateaus and plains of the desert and lived in tents. Their life was dependent on seeking rain water and pasture for their cattle. These were the ancient Bedouins, a nomadic Arabian tribal people living in desert areas in Arabia. They created their poetry during times of peace and war. Poetry versification was the business of a poet whose emergence was always celebrated in a tribe (Nicholson, 1907).

A poet was considered the oral warrior who used to shoulder the responsibility of defending his tribe by lampooning foes. As Sells (1989) explains "the long war of Basus, a recurrent theme of many odes, was sparked by the sacrilegious killing of a she-camel. The she-camel sacrifice is a ritual and poetic performance, sign and predication of the precarious balance of the community and the vitality of its bonds".  Thus, the pre-Islamic poetry is viewed as a literary archive of the Bedouins history; it is a repertoire of their epic days, preserving their glories for later generations to enjoy and be proud of. In Arabic, an aphorism is expressed by saying الشعر ديوان العرب (Poetry is the Arabs' record or chronicle)

Poetry was seen as the book that preserved many virtues and noble deeds. Pre-Islamic poetry formed a canon of cultural values. Al-Muallaqat exhibits the great legacy of ancient Arabic literature through its fine subjects and themes. Moreover, Al-Muallaqat language in general is free from artificiality and feebleness of style (awkwardness). This is ascribed to the truthful depiction of images and expressions taken from their nomadic environment and the richness of the Arabic language (Berdom, 2007). 

Al-Muallaqat presents various themes and images. The most conspicuous formal characteristics of this poetry are the special type of Arabic in which poetry is written along with its distinctive structure, varying according to the class of poetic markers of metre, rhyme,

special vocabulary, images and expressions used, resulting from the poetic refined talents of the composer.Al-Muallaqt exhibits a set of complicated metres based entirely on syllabic length. The poem is always composed in one metre, but metrical variation is produced by the presence of several variable positions within each metre. A large number of metres are recognized in pre-Islamic poetry (Meisami and Starkey, 1998).

Translation and Culture

Culture is a term that refers to that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, law, customs and many other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society’ (E. B. Taylor, cited in Shamaa, 1978). Each culture has certain symbols that stand for certain concepts, which are confined to that particular culture. Therefore, it is viewed that culture-based concepts and thoughts are not precisely understood in isolation from their cultural background. Language, being one aspect of culture, carries the medium through which culture is conveyed.

Examining the close relationship between language and culture, anthropologists argue that there exists an underlying common background between some cultures, referred to as ‘the universals of culture, perhaps following suit Chomsky’s Universal Grammar term. Theory of translation asserts the possibility of translating anything if the culture of the languages involved is shared between them. 

Considering that English and Arabic belong to very different language families, they are logically different linguistically, and so they are culturally. This poses many difficulties for the translator when rendering a text from Arabic into English. However, there exist some similarities between the two languages from the corners of the source of thoughts and religion: Both languages are influenced by the Greek pattern of thought. Islam has always been seen as a continuation of the message of Christianity (Shamaa, 1978)

Translation is seen as a means of communication among cultures, and it bridges the gap among different cultures. Translating literary texts is a gargantuan task, owing to the many problems the translator encounters. One of the problems arises from the fact that some words or phrases denoting objects or facts are so deeply rooted in their source culture and so specific (and perhaps exclusive or unique) to the culture that produced them to the extent that they have no equivalent in the target culture.  Such concepts could be unknown, or not yet codified in the target language. Some examples from Al-Muallaqat can be found in the form of الخمخم(Khim- khim plant), الأثافي (black stones on which big bowls are put for cooking), الثفال (piece of cloth or fabric placed beneath the mill so that no grist of wheat or barley falls on the ground), etc.  Nida (1964) suggests that differences between cultures may cause more severe complications for the translator than do differences in language structure. Moreover, several theorists support untranslatability when one encounters texts with terms that are so culture-bound and culture-specific as to defy translation.

When cultural differences arise between the two languages, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a successful transfer, (no matter how competent the translator in the two languages is). Literary translation can be viewed as an act of subversion, or a means of providing an alternative or sub-version of reality. Levine (1991) argues that the literary translator can be considered a subversive scribe.

Al-Muallaqat Cultural Indicators

Cultural indicators is a term which refers to the signs (in all its various forms: linguistic and non-linguistic) which indicate cultural glimpses. Newmark (1988) puts forth his classification of foreign cultural words, establishing five categories:

  1. Ecology (flora, fauna, winds, climate, etc.).  Some examples from Al-Muallaqat could be  نبات الخمخم والعرفج والنخلة(Khim-khim plant, Rhanterium epapposum native to the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where it is known locally as عرفج‎‎ /ʕᶺrfaʒ/, and the palm tree, respectively) .The wind of السموم could also be seen as an example of cultural indicator rooted in Arab ecological culture.
  2. Material culture (food, clothes, houses, towns, transport). Some examples are الجون والهودج والأثافي والثفال.(howdah, black stones on which big bowls are put for cooking and piece of cloth or fabric placed beneath the mill so that no grist of wheat or barley falls on the ground, respectively).
  3. Social culture (work and leisure). An example is سلي ثيابي من ثيابك تنسلي (just draw off my garments from yours, and they'll slip away)
  4. Organizations, customs, activities, procedures or concepts, which include artistic, religious, political and administrative subcategories). One example is how life goes in the desert life, including life in peace and at war.
  5. Gestures and habits. One example is the Arabs’ tendency to keep tying the camel of a deceased to his grave.
  6. Environment (including climate, housing, food, etc.)
  7. Behavior (actions and ways of behaving in certain cultures): greeting someone with two kisses instead of shaking hands, offering Arabian coffee from a metal pot, which is always left on fire for any sudden arrival of a guest, etc.
  8. Capabilities, strategies and skills used to communicate (including non-verbal communication, rituals, etc.)
  9. Values of the society and its hierarchy.
  10. Identity: Arabs’ pride in their ancestors.

Katan (1999) also provides an extensive view of how a culture reveals itself at each of the following logical levels:

Translation of Verbal Language/Behavior

The situations of the behaviours in question need to be seen in their contexts, because viewing them in isolation from the context of the entire culture would lead the reader to misunderstand the situation in question. The shades and subtleties, standing in the background of any situation are most likely to escape the English reader. One simple example is the behavior of handing an oil lamp over a grave. While this could not mean more than a decoration for the English reader, it has significant meaning in the Arab reader. An oil lamp is hung over a grave comes from belief that it would bring good luck and cures illness. A deep religious faith underlines such behaviors. Such customs or beliefs seem exaggerated in the target culture (here English). One example is how the English and Arab cultures liken a beautiful girl. While Arabs liken a beautiful girl to a moon, the English people liken her to ‘a picture’. It is the belief that makes up the biggest differences between the two cultures and it is the aspect that affects all other components of culture. In Ode 1, it is noticed how Imr Al-Qais likens his beloved to ‘the ostrich egg’. It is very strange for the English reader to associate a girl to an ostrich egg, simply because he finds no correlation between the two objects. In fact, the Arabs’ belief behind likening a girl to an ostrich egg is that an ostrich egg is white in color with very favored touches of yellow. Poet Zul –Rimma says كأنها فضة قد مسّها ذهب( as if it was silver, gilded by gold) in reference to a girl likened to an ostrich egg.

People’s behavior is the direct explicit indication of the cultural values of a certain community. It is the visible manifestation of the cultural components. An English reader or even neighbor living in an Arabic-speaking country would not interpret the gesture of his Arab neighbor as inviting someone else, passing by his house as an action customary in countryside areas. He would most probably think it is an individual gesture.  I myself lived out first-hand experiences while studying in England. I used to renew my invitation to my Arab visitors after they finished off their lunch, a gesture seen then by my roommates as unneeded or even disturbing. However while I was acting within the framework of the norms of my own Arab society, I was not seen as part of a generally held custom from the perspective of the English culture. The same was true of seriously attempting to pay for my friend as using a bus in London.

The bards of the seven Odes, as is the case between any writer and his own audience, relies on a tacit implicit agreement on various cultural matters, necessary for understanding the entirety of the communicated message. The Arab reader or audience in general finds no problem in grasping the author’s intent and consequently in arriving at the conclusions meant, simply because that reader was born and has been brought up in the same culture as that of the writer. Therefore, one’s behavior should not be interpreted outside the boundaries of his culture and his ethical and social values. Otherwise, the interpretation would at best be viewed at face value.   Ode 2, line 5 reads كما قسم الترب المفايل باليد .(just as a boy playing will scoop the sand into parcels)  The word المفايل is the boy who is engaged in a game called المفايلة(a game in which a boy hides a small object in a heap of sand, then he splits the heap with his hands into two halves to ask the other players where the object has been hidden)  in ancient Arab times. The games involve a boy hiding an object in a small heap of sand. Then he splits the heap into 2 parts, asking afterwards the other boy where he thinks the object lies. If he guesses correctly, he wins; otherwise, he is a loser. This game is not culturally shared with the English culture, as opposed to ‘hide-and-seek’. The strategy followed here in translation has driven Arberry into paraphrasing it. He says ‘just as a boy playing will scoop the sand into parcels’. Still the meaning is unclear enough. This would leave the average English reader in bewilderment and puzzlement at this rendering. The reader would not be able to grasp the similarity between this game and the ship depicted.

Under verbal behavior comes ‘greetings’ which is used to describe the social phenomenon of ‘idle chatter’. It is used to shatter the silence and to establish a sort of communication with people around. Many of these greetings are culturally rooted, and thus should not be rendered literally. Instead, a pragmatic equivalent should be sought. For instance, the Islamic greeting used when meeting people, should not be literally translated into ‘peace be upon you’. Rather, a better pragmatic equivalent in the target language would be ‘good morning, hello, good evening’, etc.

Arabic is known to be a language, which makes an excessive use of ‘phatic language’ than English does. Most Arabic phatic communion expressions have their religious traces, such as يا فتاح يا كريم, أمري لله, مساء الخير يا شباب (good evening, youths, I return my affair to God, Oh Allah, the All-Knowing Judge, the oft-Generous).  Because the Odes were composed before the advent of Islam, it is noted that expressions used are devoid of Islam-related expressions’. The ancient Arabs of the odes’ time were pagans. Zuhair’s Ode mentions a phatic communion expression in line 6 as he says ألا أنعم صباحاً أيها الربع وأسلم. Apart from the rhetorical device of apostrophe where a poet personifies an inanimate and addresses it like a human, it is clear that the expressionأنعم صباحا(Good morrow)has been used with a two-fold purposes. At face value, it is an invocation where the poet is wishing the beloved’s place of residence a blessed time on this morning. At a deeper level, it is an invocation for the beloved.  Either way, the intended meaning is not a mere ‘good morning’ as Arberry translates it. Clouston (2011) grasps the hidden meaning better and translates it as ‘may thy morning be fair and auspicious’. He grasps the function of the literal succession of words expressed inأنعمصباحاً. He also changes the Arabic structure into an invocation.

Ode 3 exhibits one further example about the verbal behavior in reference to ‘two masters’. In line 18, Zuhair says يميناً لنعم السيدان وُجدتما على كل حال من سحيل ومبرم(a solemn oath I swear- you have proved yourselves fine masters in all maters, be the thread single or twisted double).While Arabic is linguistically characterized by expressing praise through what is syntactically known as أسلوبالمدح,(panegyric style) English stands short of expressing the same concept that briefly and succinctly. Arberry translates it as ‘a solemn oath I swear- you have proved yourselves fine masters’. Arberry also misunderstands the intended meaning of the use of literal سحيلومبرم which he renders as literal as they are. He states ‘be the thread single or twisted double’. For the average English reader, that means very little. In Arabic, this is a metaphor for ‘simple and complicated affairs’ as translated by Clouston (2011).

Translation of Collocations in Al-Muallaqat

Collocation is a phenomenon that is not subject to rules but to tendencies. Firth (1968) defines collocation as “the company that words keep” or “actual words in habitual company”. Benson (1986) defines collocation as a group of words that occurs repeatedly i.e. recurs, in a language. Robins (1968) says collocation is the habitual association of a word in a language with other particular words in sentences. Robins goes further to say that language users become accustomed to the use of collocations irrespective of their grammatical relations. For example, the verb ‘do’ collocates with the noun ‘homework’, while ‘make’ collocates with ‘comment’ or ‘complaint’. There are collocational divergences between the source and target languages. The non-full knowledge of the target language collocations results in unpredictability on the translator’s part, forcing him mostly to translate the collocations literally.

While the phrase ‘to make comment’ is best translated into Arabic as يعلّق, problems arise from the translator’s propensity to translate the two-word phrase into two others in the target language. It is obvious that there is no one-to-one correspondence between the collocational phenomenon in the two languages. An important question that poses itself here is what reason stands behind this ‘eye-catching’ phenomenon. In other words, why does one say خيطسميك, not خيطسمين?  Palmer (1981) alludes to the degree of arbitrariness of the collocational phenomenon. He adduces such examples as “addled + eggs/brains” and “rancid + bacon/ butter’.

Binomials can be seen as a sub-type of collocation where two nouns are joined by ‘and’ or ‘or’. An example of the former is ‘bread and butter’, while ‘sooner or later’ is an example of the latter. Doubtlessly collocations unveil much about the culture of the language. Therefore, collocations are culture-specific, and their translations into the target language cannot be literal. It should address the target language culture. If one attempts to translate the binomial ‘bread and butter’ into Arabic, he/she would need first to think what naturally collocates with this binomial in Arabic. In Arabic, one would say خبزوجبن (bread and cheese) in standard Arabic, or عيشوملح (bread and salt)  in Egyptian Arabic or خبزةوبصلة(bread and onion) in Levantine Arabic. A story related to us about Commander of Believers Umar Bin Al Khattab said that he had addressed his stomach saying, ‘if you churn or not, you will not taste meat until hungry Muslims are no longer so’. The story said his stomach had been churning out of the excessive consumption of ‘bread and oil’, giving us another alternative for the translation of ‘bread and butter’.

A literal translation of collocation may result in a weird or comic effect. This translation would definitely produce an awkward expression, flouting the Catford’s dynamic equivalence. Elaborating on this issue, “rancid” occurs only with “bacon” and “butter”, whereas “addled” with “brains” and “eggs” in spite of the fact that English has the terms “rotten” and “bad” and that “milk” never collocates with “rancid” but only with sour “. By the same token, there are examples of collocations one will find in Arabic.  I myself view collocations categorized into two parts: explicit and implicit. By explicit collocation, I mean the actual linguistic entities that co-exist together, i.e. the common concept of collocation. However, an implicit collocation is what a term implies. Some examples of the latter are as follows:

الملاب هو كل عطر مائع (liquid perfume)

الكباء كل عطر يابس (solid perfume)

الألنجوج كل عطر يدق (ground perfume)

It is clear that the term itself mentions nothing explicitly about the physical substance of the perfume listed above. However, an erudite Arab reader would understand that الملاب is a perfume in the liquid state, etc. Some examples about the former category are as follows:

أرضواسعة(a vast land)

بيت فسيح(a big house)

طريق مهيع(a wide road)

طعنة نجلاء(a big stab)

صدر رحيب(forbearance)

قميص فضفاض(loose-fitting shirt)

The adjectives given to modify the nouns they precede revolve in the orbit of ‘width’ or ‘vastness’ of the semantic domain. However, they are collocational restrictions of their

usage so that they co-occur respectively with their respective nouns. In Arabic, one may use different verbs with different nouns like شبّ حريق- نشب شجار- اندلعت حرب- تفشى مرض. Interestingly, the same phrasal verb is used in English, i.e. break out.

Al-Muallaqat demonstrates some examples of such collocations as in Line 37 of Labid’s Ode, Line 15 of Amr’s Ode and Line 25 of Antara’s Ode. Examples of collocations include خنساء ضيعت الفرير-(a flat-nosed oryx which has lost its baby) أم سقب(war)  قلصالنعام(baby ostrich) respectively. Arberry translates the name of animal babies rather inaccurately, using general designations instead. He translates الفرير as ‘her young’. He translates أمسقب as ‘a she-camel that’s lost its foal’. He also translates قلصالنعام as ‘young ostriches’. Arberry misses the accurate designations and collocation of such animal babies. Blunt, A. and Blunt, S.W. (1903) gave better translation, observing the collocations intended. They translate الفرير and قلصالنعام as ‘calf’. However, they fail to capture the intended collocation in أمسقب. They apparently mistake it for a proper noun, translating it as ‘Om Sakbin’.


This paper was written under my Advisor, Prof. Said M. Shiyab at Kent State University (US). It would not have come to fruition without 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.

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

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. He previously taught at Kuwait University, Damascus University, and Oman.


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