Problems of Transmission
While the most challenging aspect of the Soulfisher that confronts translators is undoubtedly the colloquial nature of its vocabulary, it is also clear that the text has suffered somewhat in its transmission.
aklilẖ lgirita ulqusa
ḏzaqip bedẖ ṣaidilẖ
They will eat the catfish (or eel?) and catch
the spider crab that gets up on its hands.
hbnina esra eniana
agṭar sarkala umušpita
The one who captured his barbel tied
the knot and fixed it to the spit.
The term girita literally means “eel” (and this is in fact how Lidzbarski translated it) but the same name (in the form جري jirrī) is also applied to the Mesopotamian Catfish, Silurus triostegus jirri. In the previous line, the same creature is described as nuna ḏgirita šumẖ “the fish whose name is girita,” but this does not necessarily clarify whether the narrator intended to reference a catfish or an actual eel. Its partner, the qusa, is likely another taboo animal, elsewhere paired with sarṭana “crab.” Drower and Macuch identify it with Persian كوسج kawsaj or kūsaj “swordfish” but this requires that the following be read as “which leaps up on one’s hand” (as they have) rather than “it rises on its hands” (as the preposition b- requires). I suggest the spider crab (Elamenopsis kempi) which is found alongside the Mesopotamian Catfish in the marshes.
Lidzbarski left the following line largely untranslated. This same line apparently also posed some difficulties to the copyists; Lidzbarski’s Manuscript B has ḏbunnẖ sqa enina in place of the first three words. All translators of this passage have found the barbel (Barbus sharpeyi, a carp-like fish known locally as the بني bunnī) at the heart of the first word, but the rest of the passage is cryptic. I suggest that the eniana is not to be read as “response” (which does not make sense in the context) but rather as a back-formed singular of the word ainanata “eyes; knots.” Likewise, the hapax sarkala appears to me to be a contraction of the verb sarik “he fastened” followed by the object marker elau. In B the initial u- of the following word is omitted. I am not certain that this is much of an improvement upon Lidzbarski’s lacuna; although the relationship between the individual components of the line is clear, it unfortunately remains no less cryptic.
aumitinun unisbit razaiun ḏnunia ṭabia lalagṭia
I made them swear and took their secrets, so that they would not take the good fish.
la ganbilun minai uraipilun bqaina umdalilun umpasqilun umahilun kauaria brundia ualuai umitanun ḏlaqaimia ulihia ṣabia upalta biardna
They will not steal my cauves of fish from me, tie them to a cane, hoist them up, cut them up and beat them, and I made them swear to me that they would not start to dip their nets and spear in the Jordan.
A cauf (kauara) is a type of basket or ventilated box which is submerged off the side of the fishing boat and used to transport live fish. Through metonomy, this word has also come to mean fish in general, but it clearly retains its original, literal meaning in this passage. The term brundia refers to fish in both Classical and Neo-Mandaic, although it is not clear whether it refers to a specific type of fish or is merely a synonym for fish in general. The word palta survives among the Marsh Arabs in the form فالة fālah, which refers to a kind of reed pitchfork, roughly 10-12 ft. long and tipped with a head of five iron spikes (see the image to the right). Although these terms caused some consternation to the translators, they were not, in fact, the chief obstacle to translating this portion of the text. That honor belongs to the following phrase, ualuai umitanun.
Lidzbarski translated kauaria brundia ualuai as “fish in bayleaves and aloe” on the authority of Père Anastase-Marie de Saint Elie, who reported to him that fish were sometimes preserved with bayleaves. Drower and Macuch translated these three terms as three types of fish, one big and one small, inferring from context, and appealing to the Persian term وال vāl “whale; large fish” I would prefer to read ualaui as uelauai “and to me” followed by aumitinun “I adjured them” as in the preceding line (and indeed Lidzbarski’s manuscript C had umitinun in place of umitanun).
Another possibility is that ualuai stands for ueluai “and my spirits” and belongs grouped with the preceding “cauves of fish.” In the following lines we read laramin silita ukauaria ualuai lalagṭia “they will not cast nets and take fish and my spirits(?).” Admittedly, Persian وال vāl could potentially fit in this context (in the sense of “cauves of large fish;” a proper whale would obviously not fit, in more ways than one). In the absence of further data, conjectures such as these must suffice.