The Mis-Translated Poem

This is an extract taken from a longer article about literary mistakes which can be found at


The other literary mistake that springs to mind ¡K arises in a fantastic book ¡V Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih. The narrator returns to his native Sudan after spending time in England. Salih makes it clear that he wants to return to his village in Sudan and see it unchanged, as though he never left. But this desired vision of continuity is repeatedly disrupted, most emphatically through the character Mustafa Sa¡¦eed, a newcomer to the village. As the novel progresses, it transpires that this character has also spent time abroad, in Cairo and in England, and the narrator begins to piece together Mustafa Sa¡¦eed¡¦s story.


The ¡¥mistake¡¦ occurs when, one evening, Mustafa Sa¡¦eed recites in English, ¡¥in a clear voice and with an impeccable accent¡¦ a poem, which the narrator says he later found in an anthology of First World War poetry. Here is the extract that appears in the book


Those women of Flanders

Await the lost,

Await the lost who never will leave the harbour

They await the lost whom the train never will bring.

To the embrace of those women with dead faces,

They await the lost, who lie dead in the trenches,

the barricade and the mud.

In the darkness of night,

This is Charing Cross Station, the hour¡¦s past one,

There was a faint light,

There was a great pain.


There¡¦s no point in Googling this, or leafing through anthologies searching for the first line ¡¥Those women of Flanders¡¦. This poem, as it appears here, would never be found in a First World War poetry anthology. What would be found in its place is Ford Madox Ford¡¦s ¡¥In October 1914 (Antwerp)¡¦. Here is the corresponding extract:


These are the women of Flanders.

They await the lost.

They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;

They await the lost that shall never again come by the train

To the embraces of all these women with dead faces:

They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,

In the dark of the night.

This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;

There is very little light.


There is so much pain.


Mustafa Sa¡¦eed is reciting a bastardised version of Ford Madox Ford¡¦s poem. How on earth has this happened?


[It might be argued that] Season of Migration to the North was originally written in Arabic and so the poem, in the original text, must have appeared in Arabic as well. When Denys Johnson-Davies translated the novel into English in 1969, he translated the poem into English. Perhaps he didn¡¦t recognise the poem¡¦s provenance and so didn¡¦t find the original for quotation. [However, if this is the case] it seems a bit mean for Tayeb Salih not to have let him know!


[A more thematically interesting explanation] is that what we have now in Season of Migration to the North is an English translation of an Arabic translation of English. It shows what a complicated and distorting process translation can be ¡V how impossible it is to neatly reverse, instead bringing one further and further away from the original. And if one takes translation on a bigger scale ¡V the literal ¡¥bearing across¡¦ not just of language but of a person ¡V a similar distortion occurs. Season of Migration to the North is about the translation of the narrator and Mustafa Sa¡¦eed from Sudan to England and then back to Sudan. If change happens in ¡K this tiny microcosm of Ford Madox Ford¡¦s poem, then [this may reflect the changes that happen to the two main characters]. [Neither the text, nor they can] move seamlessly from English to Arabic and then back to English ¡V change and disruption must leave their mark. Perhaps Denys Johnson-Davies deliberately continued the process of translation rather than finding the original poem. Or else there¡¦s rather a glaring mistake. Lucky for the publisher that Tayeb Salih isn¡¦t still around to make such a Franzenesque fuss about it.