Khalil Gibran

By Dr. Arpi Sarafian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

I was recently gifted a copy of the 1984 translation into Armenian (Technopresse Moderne, Beirut-Lebanon) by renowned poet Vahe-Vahian of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. An article I had read earlier that week about another translation into Armenian of Gibran’s internationally acclaimed classic prompted me to take a close look at my newly acquired treasure. In his “Markaren,” [“The Prophet”] published in the February 10, 2021 issue of Nor Or weekly, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian refers to Very Reverend Father Pakrad Bourjekian’s 1999 translation into Armenian (St. James Press, Jerusalem) of The Prophet as “a gem . . . impossible to compare with other existing translations.” The archbishop’s comments are undoubtedly well-founded. Bourjekian’s translation must have its merits and deserves to have its rightful place in our literary canon. My intention here is not to compare the two texts. Instead, I wish to draw attention to the earlier translation as well, still waiting to be resurrected and known to those who cannot, or perhaps have no desire to, read the book in the English original.

Not too long ago, I had read Vahe-Vahian’s translations of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s The Gardener, Gitanjali, and Fruit-gathering, works I was not familiar with at the time. I remember being captivated by the musicality and the lyricism of the Armenian translations of these classics. I could therefore not wait to read The Prophet, a book I had long ago adopted as “my little Bible,” in our mother tongue.


The Prophet has been a favorite of mine because of Gibran’s deep insights into the condition of man and of his infinite compassion for an ailing humanity. The protagonist, a visionary hermit living in the wilderness around the fictional port city of Orphalese, in a country away from his native land, shares his wisdom and knowledge with the town’s inhabitants, gathered to hear “of your truth,” before he sails back to his homeland after twelve years of exile. With “a bent head” and “tears falling upon his breast,” the “Prophet of God” speaks:  “Forget not that I shall come back to you . . . the spirit of the earth shall not sleep peacefully upon the wind till the needs of the least of you are satisfied.” The “wanderer” beseeches his “brothers” to wait patiently for their reward in some other transcendent realm. (Is going to another place the point of life?) The notion of a “reward” affirms their pain: “Not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

“I grieve, therefore I am,” comes closest to expressing the “truth” about the lives of the people of Orphalese. Pain is indeed the essence of their existence: “Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. . . the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.” The prophet’s desire to give his fellow men relief from their tears is key to understanding Gibran’s vision. Desire implies lack. It implies the lack of something essential for the well-being of the soul of man. And even if it is true that the rage and the anger of Gibran’s earlier work against unjust laws and corrupt customs have been mitigated in The Prophet, the need for something that transcends their primitive bodily existences and contaminated lives remains. “The prophet wants to wake up the universal . . . he wants to revive the divine light in the human soul,” writes Vahe-Vahian. I find the Armenian poet’s focus on the need to lift humanity from the surrounding putridity to loftier heights extremely appealing.

Vahe-Vahian undertook the translation because of his disappointment with existing renderings of the celebrated classic. There was indeed no adequate Armenian translation of a book that, despite changing audiences, had been ever-present since its publication in English in the United States in 1923, with translations into over twenty languages. Vahe-Vahian started translating in 1958, when Gibran was at the peak of his popularity. He gave his task the serious attention it deserved, and it was not until 1984 that he felt “ready” to commit his manuscript to publication.

Working on the project was a continuing joy to the translator. In the course of those 25 years, “my desire to translate grew with every new reading of the book,” he writes. And while its realization was postponed, the project was never forgotten: “I waited long without severing my mental connection with Gibran and his ‘odd little book.’” The poet was in fact “preparing myself” by studying the celebrated Golden Age translation of the Bible into Armenian, to further familiarize himself with the language that “the magical appeal, the warmth and the intimacy” of Gibran’s words recalled for him. The Prophet underwent three altogether new translations, and endless revisions, before it saw the light in 1984.

Vahe-Vahian’s translation is elegant and fresh. The sounds and the rhythms of the prose poems in translation are appropriate to Armenian prosody, at no point giving a hint that this is a text originally written in another language. The easy flow of the words in our kaghtsrakhos Armenian is never at the expense of liberties taken with the original either. Markaren is a faithful rendering of Gibran’s meaning, true to the spirit, the content and the style of the original. I shall venture to add that Vahe-Vahian’s rendition often surpasses the original in its musicality. Reading The Prophet in Armenian was a uniquely rewarding experience.

The 30-page Introduction itself is a valuable addition to the volume. It highlights the Armenian poet’s critical skills and also his mastery of Western Armenian prose. Besides giving a compelling overview of Gibran’s tragic life both in his native Lebanon and in exile, the Introduction outlines the key elements of his poetry. Vahe-Vahian’s commentary on the immediate popularity of the book when it was published in 1923 is particularly illuminating. The translator attributes the wide reception of the “slim volume,” that would eventually be hailed as Gibran’s masterpiece, to the mood of disappointment, of hopelessness, and of bitterness in the aftermath of World War I. The book did, in fact, provide spiritual and personal counsel. People found consolation in its statements of timeless truths, which were also relevant to their daily lives. “A book that had become the healer of grieving souls, gained even more popularity in the fifties because of the even greater disquietude caused by World War II,” writes Vahe-Vahian.

Gracing the cover of the 1984 translation is renowned artist Paul Guiragossian’s painting of a voyager standing between the sails of his ship. The deep red and the dark brown colors of the rather indistinct figure evoke a sunset against a darkening sky and capture the mystery and the spirituality of the prophet of the title. Indeed, the elegant cover heralds the beauty within and belies the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: