The Kahlil Gibran Collective

The Artist The Poet The Man

15 Jul 2022     Glen Kalem

AL-MAWAKIB, The Processions - Lost in Translation?

AL-MAWAKIB, The Processions - Lost in Translation

by Nicholas Martin[1]

On the dust cover of many of Alfred Knopf’s publications of Gibran’s work, we find a quote of Claude Bragdon, saying of Gibran that:

"His power came from some great reservoir of spiritual life else it could not have been so universal and potent, but the majesty of the language with which he clothed it were all his own."

This, I believe, is unquestionably true. However, the language being “all his own” was not necessarily true when his words were translated, as of course they have had to be so that his works could be more widely shared.

Claude Bragdon - back cover of The Prophet, Knopf 1969Claude Bragdon - back cover of The Prophet, Knopf 1969

I launched into a major study of Gibran’s life in the fall of 2012 when I discovered that a number of new biographies had come to light, in addition to whole volumes of his personal correspondence. These I had not been aware of before, even though they had been available already for many years. In an obscure footnote of one of the biographies, I learned for the first time that there were works of Gibran that had never been translated from Arabic into English! I had to know what was in them.

I ordered a copy of the relevant book[2] through a Lebanese bookshop with an English-language Internet presence (as I don’t speak a word of Arabic), and I began a search for translators who could help me make sense of it. This became a major project, lasting almost a year, and gradually evolved into The Arabic Plays of Kahlil Gibran,  which was released in 2015. While I had the easy opportunity, I also ordered a two-volume set of The Complete Works of Gibran (in Arabic).

The Arabic Plays of Kahlil Gibran, Edited by Nicholas Martin, 2015The Arabic Plays of Kahlil Gibran, Edited by Nicholas Martin, 2015

With a newly intensified passion for Gibran, I decided to familiarize myself with the great many of his writings that I did not yet know. His works in English became my bedtime reading. I read one book after another, constantly enriching my knowledge of Gibran, the man, while deepening my awareness of the depth and scope of his work. And then one night I reached for The Procession, a book I had never read or really even heard of. I read a page or two and paused.  This didn't sound at all like the Gibran I thought I knew. I noted that it was published in 1958 and was a translation by George Kheirallah. Because I now had the Arabic version in my volumes from Beirut, and because I had translators already working on the plays, I sent a page by email to Jerusalem and asked for a translation.

Al Mawkib/ The Processions Book Cover by Nicholas Martin, 2015Al Mawkib/ The Processions Book Cover by Nicholas Martin, 2015

What I received was very different from the English that had been published by Kheirallah. I sent the remainder of the poem, and it soon became clear that we should redo the entire book. That was the beginning of a second work I published in 2015: an intensive study and meticulous translation of Gibran’s Al-Mawakib. The ten months of the project were far from straightforward. Many unexpected developments led to delays, expansions, and detours. Was Kheirallah’s the only English translation? No, I found out, there were others. Were there French and Spanish translations? Yes, quite a few. Did they all present the work the same way? Not at all. Kheirallah had included illustrations; were they the same ones Gibran had used? Not exactly. Might it be possible to locate an original copy? Yes, but it would not be easy. The questions and answers became a veritable odyssey of adventure and discovery.

The volume the translators helped me develop was prepared for a very specific purpose: to share with the English-speaking world a highly accurate translation of The Processions.[3] It had been written in 1918[4] and first appeared in March 1919, as a publication of Mirat al-Gharb of New York[5] but at Gibran’s own expense.[6] It is the only work of Gibran written in rhyme and meter, making it virtually impossible to accurately translate without sacrificing those aspects of its poetic beauty.

The Procession by G. Kheirallah, Philosophical Library, 1958The Procession by G. Kheirallah, Philosophical Library, 1958

Al-Mawakib, Arabic original edition, 1919Al-Mawakib, Arabic original edition, 1919

 The first English translation appeared under the title of The Life of Gibran Khalil Gibran and His Procession (singular), by Kheirallah, published in 1947 by The Arab-American Press, New York, although it had been completed at least eleven years earlier.[7] Kheirallah’s translation was given much wider distribution when published virtually unchanged by The Philosophical Library, New York, in 1958, under the abbreviated title of simply The Procession. To this day, it remains the most readily available English version and perhaps even the accepted standard. However, in its efforts to retain rhyme and meter, much of Gibran’s original wording and meaning were lost. In addition, the order of verses was changed and some passages were even removed—without any indication that Kheirallah had done so. An excerpt from his translation appears below:

 

The Life of Gibran Khalil Gibran and His Procession, George Kheirallah, 1947The Life of Gibran Khalil Gibran and His Procession, George Kheirallah, 1947

"No confusion in the forest

       From illusion or from wine,

For the clouds endow the brooklet

       With elixir superfine.

Yet the human turns to drugging,

       As to nursing from the breast;

Coming to the age of weaning

       Only when he’s put to rest.

Give to me the reed and sing thou!

       For the song is gracious shade,

And the plaint of reed remaineth

       When illusions dim and fade."

Without the Arabic for comparison and, of course, the ability to understand it, how can we possibly be sure that this (above) is really what Gibran said?  The fact is, it is far—very far—from it!  Below is the same passage as painstakingly reviewed, translated, and verified by my team of native speakers:

"In the forests, there is no drunkenness

       from liquor or illusion,

For there is nothing in the ditches

       but the elixir of clouds.

What is drunkenness but a breast

       and milk for the people,

and when they grow old and die,

       they reach the age of weaning.

Give me the nay and sing,

       for singing is the best of drinks

And the moan of the nay endures

       after the hills perish."

 

A second translation of Al-Mawakib also appeared in 1947, by Anthony Rizcallah Ferris, under the title, “The Cortège.” It was part of a collection of Gibran’s works entitled The Secrets of the Heart, also published by The Philosophical Library. However, it does not appear in all editions of The Secrets. The Ferris translation was renamed “The Procession” and reprinted in the 1951 collection, A Treasury of Kahlil Gibran, published in New York by The Citadel Press.[8] Thus, although both Kheirallah and Ferris began with different titles and their translations are radically different, both versions bore the same title when republished in the 1950’s. Ferris’ translation of the same passage is as follows:

Secrets of The Heart - A collection of works as translated by Anthony Rizcallah Ferris, 1947 Secrets of The Heart - A collection of works as translated by Anthony Rizcallah Ferris, 1947
"There is no wine in the beautiful

Field, for glorious intoxication of

The soul is the reward of all who

Seek it in the bosom of Nature….The people

Of the city abuse the wine of Time…

Scurrying into old age with deep

But unknowing sorrow.

Give me the flute and let me sing,

And through my soul let music ring;

The song of God must ever stay,

All other things must pass away."

 

A third, quite rare, English edition of Al-Mawakib appeared under the title of The Prophet in Miniature, or Life in Procession, by Rev. Lawrence T. Fares, published by Dorrance and Co., Philadelphia, in 1973. Fares begins by clarifying that “This Poem is not a ‘translation,’ nor a ‘version,’ but a brand new composition,” and he went to great lengths to preserve rhyme and meter so as to re-create “the same ‘mood,’ ‘tone’ and ‘tempo’ of the Poet.”[9] Fares preserved the order of the topical sections but changed the wording and order of lines. Never intended to be an accurate translation, its relevance to our present discussion is limited, and it is mentioned only by way of historical interest. An excerpt from Fares’ work is as follows:

The Prophet in Miniature, or Life in Procession, by Rev Lawrence T. Fares published by Dorrance & Co Philadelphia in 1973The Prophet in Miniature, or Life in Procession, by Rev Lawrence T. Fares published by Dorrance & Co Philadelphia in 1973

 

No wine in Woods, nor use

Of drugs. White Virgin Clouds

Stream crystal limpid juice

To quench mounds, meads, and crowds!

Humans are brought to dopes

As Babes to Mothers’ breast—

They wean themselves one hopes,

When old, they’re put to rest!

Hand me, please, the Reed and sing,

Singing is Life’s best nectar;

And the Reed’s soft moans outring

World songs that may cheer or mar!

 

Yet another English translation appeared in 1997, as a poem entitled “Give Me the Nay.” It was part of a collection of Gibran’s writings published as Visions of the Prophet by Frog, Ltd. of Berkeley, California. Though beautifully written, it is incomplete, including only about two-thirds of the poem, and it is not from the Arabic directly but rather from a French translation by Jean-Pierre Dahdah.[10] Although Give Me the Nay” does not retain rhyme and meter, the French edition on which it is based makes at least some attempt to do so.[11] The same passage was presented as follows:

Vision of The Prophet, published by Frog Ltd., 1997Vision of The Prophet, published by Frog Ltd., 1997

 

In the forest no drunkenness

comes from wine or from dreams;

for rivers contain only

an elixir of clouds.

Rather, drunkenness is a mother’s breast whose milk nourishes man;

when he grows old and dies, then is he weaned.

Give me the nay and sing,

For song is the nectar in all our potions.

The laments of the nay will endure

far beyond the crumbling of mountains.

 

 

 

 

In 2015, yet another English version of Al-Mawakib was released by native speaker, Ghassan M. Kassab. Its back cover states that it is “The first complete and most accurate translation of Gibran Khalil Gibran’s Arabic masterpiece, ‘The Processions.’” His presentation of the same passage reads:

 

The Processions by Gibran Khalil Gibran, Translated by Ghassan M. KassabThe Processions by Gibran Khalil Gibran, Translated by Ghassan M. Kassab

 

In the woods, there is no intoxication,

Neither from wine nor imagination,

For in the streams you’ll only find

The clouds’ elixir left behind,

Drugging is but, in fact, a breast

And milk for weaklings, for their rest,

So when they die, after they age,

That’s when they reach their weaning age.

Give me the reed and sing away,

For singing is the finest drink,

And the sigh of the reed will stay,

After hills fall down and shrink.

 

So, obviously, we have several versions of the same passage. Which one is correct? Which is most accurate? Which best represents what Gibran was trying to say? Are we not free to enjoy them all and accept that Gibran was an artist, and every brush and palette will create a different canvas? I say no, absolutely not, and here’s why.

Gibran saw himself not only as a writer; he clearly expressed his desire to be a teacher:

I want some day not to write or paint but simply to live what I would say, and talk to people. I want to be a Teacher…I want to wake their consciousness to what I know it can know.[12]

For this reason, it seems essential to present his Arabic masterpiece in an English form designed to present the instruction of Gibran, the teacher. What was he trying to tell us? What lessons was he hoping to convey? To what was he hoping we would awaken?

To answer these questions, we must forego the attempt to preserve rhythm, rhyme, and poetic style. These would only magnify into impossibility the task of precisely capturing his words.

Al-Mawakib is a work that Gibran crafted into three-part sections, which he himself referred to as “processions,” presumably because they build one upon another.[13] Taken together, they are very much an evolving and progressive indictment of our traditional ways of thinking and interacting, culminating in the challenge to adopt and benefit from a very different view of who we really are and how we approach the lives we lead on earth.

According to his sponsor and closest friend, Mary Haskell, Gibran described the poem as a contrast in two voices: “one of the woods…the other more mental, more philosophical.”[14] She made note of his further comments in her journal:

Kahlil read some of his Procession [sic] in the Arabic and told me the idea. The processions are aspects of life as seen by man in two selves—the self of civilization—we called him “civile”—and the spontaneous simple self like certain shepherd lads of the Near East—a man as he accepts and chimes in with life, not analyzing, doubting, debating, or defining. The two meet where their two worlds also meet—on a ridge of land just outside the city and at the edge of the forest and they talk of many things.[15]

After the dialogue and except at the very end, each procession concludes with a third subsection, a refrain of the “simple self” in the repeated form of “Give me the nay and sing…”—the nay being an ancient reed flute, well known in the Middle East.

The dialogue, however, is far beyond the perspectives of city and forest, or even the civilized self and the simple, natural self. Here we can easily forgive Mary Haskell, who at the time of her writing had never seen The Processions in English.[16] With study, it soon becomes apparent that the poem is a dialogue between two who are of the same understanding as they observe and contrast man’s life in the physical, earthly world with his greater life in the realms of the spiritual—of the soul, the true self.

Were this not true, Gibran’s references to the forests as an aspect of nature on earth, in a literal sense, would be absurd, as when he says that there are no flocks in the forest, and no will, no knowledge, no death, etc. Obviously, many kinds of flocks live in the forests of earth, and animals have both will and knowledge, and death is an inherent feature of all things in the natural world.

Far more could be said, but for now, let me conclude by saying how much I agree with Claude Bragdon that Gibran’s “power came from some great reservoir of spiritual life else it could not have been so universal and potent.” “the majesty of the language with which he clothed it” has been very much lost in translation.  This is to be deeply regretted, as the many and serious faults of translation have long undermined Gibran’s intention to present to us his gift.

 

ABOUT THE ARTICLE'S AUTHOR

Nicholas Martin has been a long-term student of Gibran and his work, since first discovering him in the 1970s. He likes to joke that no one understands him better than Gibran and says, in all seriousness, that Gibran's writings have greatly influenced his worldview and philosophy of life. Himself a multi-published author, Nick's works have primarily involved self-help, personal growth, and collaboration in special education. He resides near Dallas, Texas.

[1] This article is an adaptation of the introduction to Al-Mawakib, The Processions, released by Nicholas Martin through Amazon’s publishing platform in both digital and printed versions in 2015. It has also been translated into Spanish as Las Procesiones, released in 2019.

[2] Gibran Khalil Gibran, Nosous Kharej Al-Majmou'a [Texts Outside of the Collection], ed. Antoine Al-Qawwal [Beirut: Dar Amwaj, 1993]. By "Outside of the Collection" is meant those writings not included in the Arabic Complete Works of Gibran Khalil Gibran, compiled by Mikhail Naima (in English: Naimy).

[3] The full title of Gibran’s book when it first appeared was (as translated) The Processions, The Views of a Poet and Artist in Days and Nights, and his full Arabic name was included: Gibran Khalil Gibran. Note the transliterated spelling of “Khalil,” in contrast to the more familiar and Anglicized “Kahlil.” In English but not Arabic, the first “Gibran” was dropped soon after he arrived in the U.S. in 1895.

[4] George Kheirallah, The Life of Gibran Khalil Gibran and His Procession (New York: Arab-American Press, 1947), 11.

[5] Jean Gibran and [cousin] Kahlil Gibran, Kahlil Gibran, His Life and World (New York: Interlink Publishing, 1998), 333.

[6] George Kheirallah, op. cit., 15.

[7] Kheirallah had sent a copy of his translation to Gibran’s friend and sponsor, Mary Haskell, in 1936. Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran, op. cit., 417.

[8] In 1992, Citadel Press, by then the Carol Publishing Group, reprinted the 1947 Secrets of the Heart, and the Ferris translation appears there under its original title, “The Cortège.”

[9] Rev. Lawrence T. Fares, The Prophet in Miniature, or Life in Procession (Philadelphia: Dorrance and Company, 1973), vii. Capitalization and punctuation are as Fares presented them.

[10] The French edition is: Kahlil Gibran, Visions du Prophète (Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 1995).

[11] Dahdah’s complete translation can be found in: Kahlil Gibran, Merveilles et Processions (Paris: Albin Michel, 1996), 11-32. Another complete translation from Arabic into French was made by Anne Wade Minkowski and Adonis and appeared in 1975 as Le Livre des Processions, a publication of Arfuyen, Paris. Both French translations were consulted in the preparation of the present work. They differ greatly from each other and to varying degrees from the present translation as well.

[12] Letter to Mary Haskell, December 18, 1920. Source: Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran, op. cit., 346.

[13] Gibran wrote, “I have added seven new processions to the original Arabic poem.” Beloved Prophet, The love letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell and her private journal, ed. Virginia Hilu (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 314.

[14] Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran, op. cit., 311.

[15] Beloved Prophet, op. cit., 316. A longer quotation appears in Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran, op. cit., 321-322. The complete original is in the archives of the library of the University of North Carolina.

[16] Mary’s journal entry dates to 1918. Gibran died in 1931, and Mary in 1964. George Kheirallah presented his translation to her in 1936, which would have been the earliest opportunity for her to actually see the work in English.