Sound Effects in the Qur’an
Sura 1 of the Qur’an, known as the Fatiha or Opening Chapter, consists of seven short verses. One of the shortest suras in the Qur’an, it is known by heart by tens of millions of pious Muslims all over the world and recited as a prayer five times a day. The Sura goes as follows:
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
Master of the Day of judgement.
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
Show us the Straight Way,
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose portion is not wrath, and who go not astray.
— Yusuf Ali translation.
Recited in Arabic in an incantatory voice, these seven verses often send auditors into a deep trance. This is because of the ‘magical’ sound effects of the original Arabic with its combination of alliteration, assonance, liquid, labial and sibilant sounds, apart from its complex internal rhymes. Here is the Arabic transliteration in English characters.
Bismillahi r-rahmani r-raheem
Al hamdoo lillahi rabbi l-Alameenar rahmani r-raheem
Maliki yawmee d-deen.
Iyyaka naboodoo wa eeyaka nasta’een.
Ihdina s-sirat almoostaeem.
Sirat alladeena an’amta ‘alayheem, gayril magdoobi alayheem, walad daleem. Ameeen.
A correspondent of mine wrote to me recently: “I once knew an old Sufi mystic from Samarkand who used to go into an instantaneous trance on hearing this sura recited to a background of gongs and flutes. The same sura, he told me, would not only induce levitation among the dancing dervishes but also produce a state of mind conducive to safe and easy firewalking. It is often said by occidentals of an Islamophobic bent that the Qur’an is “boring”. So decreed British novelist Anthony Burgess, author of The Clockwork Orange. Few, if any, of these Westerners are aware of the Qur’an’s occult underpinnings and its intricate concatenation of uncanny sounds. No other religious classic, when chanted, is known to have comparable physiological effects.”
Sound effects in Western poetry
Yo soy titiri, titiri, tina,
Flor de la jacarandina
Yo soy titiri, titiri, taina,
Flor de la jacarandaina.
— Calderón, El Alcalde de Zalamea. These lines are intended to imitate the sound of a guitar being strummed. Literal rendition: “I am titiri, titiri tina, the flower of the jacarandina; I am titiri, titiri taina, the flower of the jacarandaina.”
Consider Virgil’s: “Sunt lacrymae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.” (Aeneid, Book 1). Literally: “There are tears for misfortunes and mortal sorrows touch the heart.” The English version utterly fails to reproduce the intoxicating beauty of the Latin sounds: a soft sibilant start followed by liquids, ending with dentals, bilabials and a guttural.
Similar to the auditory effects in such a line is the Latinate euphony of Shakespeare’s “the multitudinous seas incarnadine”, with its nasal and dental sounds (m’s, n’s, t’s and d’s) in solemn, polysyllabic procession. The Bard is weaving his magic spell again when he deploys this subtle combination of similar sounds: nasals, labials, dentals and soft sibilants:
“Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday.”
From Shakespeare, it is one step to Tennyson’s very consciously pyrotechnic:
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmur of innumerable bees.”
— Tennyson, The Princess
Tennyson’s famous lines are of of course untranslatable if one tries to combine musicality with meaning. The magic of the lines rests on the many long vowels, the s’s and the liquids, and above all the beautiful m-sounds which combine labials with nasals (lip and nose sounds).
It could be said that of all the words in the world, not only in English but in every foreign language, the most beautiful words are those that contain m-sounds, l-sounds and r-sounds. When Donne writes, “Dull sublunary lovers’ love”, he knows he has struck rich ore. Another memorable example of lovely liquid sounds (l and r sounds) is Swinburne’s “The lilies and languors of virtue, / The roses and raptures of vice.”
Consider now these lines from Dante, beautiful beyond compare—a perfect synthesis of music and meaning:
“Per me si va nella città dolente,
per me si va nel’eterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Dinanzi a me non fur cose create,
Se non eterne, ed io eterno duro:
LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA, VOI CH’ENTRATE!”
— Dante, Divine Comedy, Inferno, III, 1-3; 7-9
Literally: “Through me is the way into the doleful city; through me the way into the eternal pain; through me the way among the people lost. Before me were no things created, but eternal; and eternal I endure; leave all hope you that enter.”
If those lines remain the finest that Italy has ever produced, these closing lines from Goethe’s Faust are the German equivalent: stately, profound, beautiful, transcendental:
Ist nur ein Gleichnis;
Heir wird’s Ereignis;
Heir wird’s getan,
Zieht uns hinan.”
“All things transitory
Are but similitude;
What is inadequate
Here becomes an event;
Here is brought about
The Eternal Womanly
Not a very inspiring translation. Here is a much better one by Stephen Spender. (I have taken the liberty of substituting “The Eternal Feminine” for Spender’s “Eternal Womanhead”.)
“All that is past of us
Was but reflected;
All that was lost in us
Here is corrected;
Here we descry;
The Eternal Feminine
Leads us on high.”
Consider these often quoted lines of Verlaine:
Les sanglots longs
Blessent mon Coeur
— Verlaine, Chansons d’Automne
The entire poem (three stanzas) is an attempt to reproduce the effect of hauntingly sad violin music. I have attempted to translate the poem myself, but without much success. An attempt to reproduce the lugubrious sound effects has led to a loss of accuracy. (See here)
Note here the lovely sibilant and liquid sounds that manage to convey the sense of a majestic river in slow motion.
“Far off from these, a slow and silent stream,
Lethé, the river of oblivion, rolls
Its watery labyrinth.”
— Milton, Paradise Lost
For beautiful sound effects, the witches’ scene in Macbeth is hard to beat. Listen to the sound or water bubbling in a pot:
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.”
For beautiful sound effects, Coleridge is unsurpassed:
“The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free,
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.”
— The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Or consider this from Shelley:
Like a high-born maiden
In a palace tower
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower.
Some of the most stunning sound effects are to be found in Swinburne:
Pale beyond porch and portal,
Crowned with calm leaves she stands
Who gathers all things mortal
With cold immortal hands.
These lines made such an impression on me that one day last year, when I saw a lovely pale young woman playing the violin on a street corner, I turned to my sister Lucy and murmured, “Look at her! Isn’t she beautiful? Pale beyond porch and portal!”
Lucy laughed. “How can anyone be pale beyond porch and portal?”
Indeed, how can they? And how would a translator translate such a phrase? Would it make any sense to translate this utterly meaningless phrase as “pale beyond house entrance and door”?
Of course not. This is an example where sound takes precedence over sense. There is a special figure of speech—I forget what it’s called—in which what is said sounds marvelous but turns out to be utter nonsense when you come to ask what it means.
Obviously if the translator translates the meaning but not the marvelous sound, he has failed utterly to understand that nothing can be gained by sacrificing a magical sound and forcing a meaning on a phrase that is meant to be meaningless—as in the phrase “pale beyond porch and portal.”
Swinburne is full of these meaningless sound effects, but here he is at his best, combining meaning with music:
I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow and reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep.
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods there be
That no life lives forever,
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
I had no particular love of poetry when I was a child, any more than the average. It was at the age of thirteen I had a near mystical experience brought on by a combination of factors: the onset of puberty, the intoxication of falling in love for the first time, and the random opening of a book in my father’s library on a sultry summer evening.
I remember distinctly it was a beautiful little book bound in green vellum called The Collected Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The first lines that met my eyes were these: lines which gave me such a frisson of delight that I went into an instantaneous trance. Never again in my life was I to experience such exquisite rapture brought on by the entrancement of mere words:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree,
Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.