Successive printings of The Prophet
In Gibran’s lifetime, as many as twenty-five printings of The Prophet were published by Knopf:
1. Published 23 September 1923
2. Second Printing, March 1924
3. Third Printing, August 1924
4. Fourth Printing, January 1925
5. Fifth Printing, May 1925
6. Sixth Printing, September 1925
7. Seventh Printing, December 1925
8. Eighth Printing, February 1926
9. Ninth Printing, October 1926
10. Tenth Printing, December 1926
11. Eleventh Printing, April 1927
12. Twelfth Printing, July 1927
13. Thirteenth Printing, December 1927
14. Fourteenth Printing, January 1928
15. Fifteenth Printing, March 1928
16. Sixteenth Printing, October 1928
17. Seventeenth Printing, December 1928
18. Eighteenth Printing, February 1929
19. Nineteenth Printing, July 1929
20.Twentieth Printing, September 1929
21.Twenty-first Printing, December 1929
22.Twenty-second Printing, March 1930
23.Twenty-third Printing, July 1930
24.Twenty-fourth Printing, October 1930
25. Twenty-fifth Printing, February 1931
26. Twenty-sixth Printing, October 1931 (first posthumous printing)
In addition to the book’s standard edition (15.5 cm x 22 cm), Knopf also published two other formats: a special, holiday deluxe edition in a slipcase (21 cm x 27.5 cm) and a pocket edition (11.5 cm x 14.5 cm).
Of the deluxe edition, only one printing was published in Gibran’s lifetime. It was in November 1926, the second dating posthumously from October 1938. Of the pocket edition, seven printings were published in Gibran’s lifetime, namely:
1. First published March 1927
2. Second Printing, July 1927
3. Third Printing, January 1928
4. Fourth Printing, September 1928
5. Fifth Printing, July 1929
6. Sixth Printing, January 1930
7. Seventh Printing, September 1930
8. Eighth Printing, July 1931 (first posthumous printing)
Early translations of "The Prophet"
As far as early translations are concerned, the very first foreign-language version of The Prophet was published in Munich, Germany, in 1925, under the German title Der Prophet, translated by Baron Georg-Eduard von Stietencron (1888-1974). Only 800 numbered copies of his translation are known to have been printed.6
In 1926, two other translations were published, first in Arabic by a young clergyman, the Lebanese-born Antonios Bashir7 (1889-1966), who later became the Orthodox Archbishop of New York and the Metropolitan of All North America, the ruling bishop of the North American archdiocese of the Church of Antioch. His translation, under the title al-Nabī, was published in Cairo.8
The other translation that was published that same year was in French, under the title Le Prophète. The book was translated by a young, then 18-year old, American poet named Madeline Mason (1908-1990). Only 750 numbered copies of Le Prophète were printed, of which 25 copies on Japon paper (from no. 1 to no. 25) and 725 on Vélin de Rives paper (from no. 26 to no. 750). Madeline Mason spent much of her childhood and teenage years in England and France where her parents had homes, hence her excellent command of the French language. In the early 1920s, Gibran drew a pencil portrait of her, and they became close friends. One year before Le Prophète was published in Paris, Madeline Mason had her first collection of poems published in London under the title Hill Fragments, with reproductions of five drawings by Gibran.9
The fourth translation of The Prophet to have ever been published was the Dutch version. Under the title De Profeet, it came out in The Hague, The Netherlands, in 1927. The translator was Liesbeth Christina Valckenier-Suringar (1901-1956), a social worker and teacher from Amsterdam.10
Later came the translations in Yiddish as Der novi by Isaac Horowitz in 1929, in Chinese as Xiānzhī by Bing Xin in 1931, and in Italian as Il Profeta by Eirene Niosi-Risos (a.k.a. Antonia Irene Risos) in 1936.11
From “Sleeping mother” to “sleepless mother”
From the first printing of The Prophet up to the third, the latter being part of our personal collection, the short sentence at the top of page 10 reads as follows: “And you, vast sea, sleeping mother.” To our surprise, when we acquired the 12th printing, we came upon the same sentence and realised that it was not quite the same sentence indeed: “And you, vast sea, sleeping mother” had become “And you, vast sea, sleepless mother.” The first deluxe edition of November 1926 and the first pocket edition of March 1927 both contain the updated sentence.
So, betwixt August 1924 (3rd printing of the standard edition) and November 1926 (deluxe edition), something had happened that made Gibran want to change that very sentence. Madeline Mason’s Le Prophète (1926) contains the following translation: “Et vous, onde infinie, mère sans sommeil” (literally: “And you, boundless waters, sleepless mother”). Considering that Madeline and Gibran were close friends, and that he was proficient in French12, we may assume with a fairly high degree of certainty that the two of them reviewed her French translation together. Most probably, Madeline translated The Prophet in the course of 1924 and 1925, during the same period her collection of poems was completed and prepared for publication. At that time, she must have interacted closely with Gibran for the selection of the drawings that he let her use as illustrations in Hill Fragments.
Could it be that one of Madeline’s poems from Hill Fragments triggered in Gibran’s mind the change from “sleeping mother” to “sleepless mother”? That is a hypothesis that we believe to be highly plausible. Unfortunately, it cannot be confirmed because neither of the protagonists is alive today. From Hill Fragments, one poem is titled “The Ocean”. It clearly refers to the restlessness, or sleeplessness, of the ocean, or sea, that knows no pause...
O thou restless one,
What mighty urge is in thy bosom
That nor night nor day
Thy striving knoweth pause?
Thou toilest ever to outreach thy bounds; Thou movest onward,
Though the shroud of Night
Lie heavy on thy breast;
And in the golden sun
Thou leapest merrily
To distant goals.
Earth fain would stay thee.
0, thou art merciless:
Thou woundest her
Until the bonds are rent
That hold thee.
And yet thou lovest her well.
But in thy longing for thine own fulfilment Is thy passion,
And though thou bringest treasures
And with tender sighing
Layest them before her,
Yet art thou ever distant,
0 thou restless one,
What mighty urge is in thy bosom
As down the timeless aisles of Space
Thou criest evermore: “Beyond! Beyond!”13
We recently managed to acquire the 4th printing of the standard edition, and the sentence at the top of page 10 reads: “And you, vast sea, sleepless mother”. We can now narrow down the period of time during which Gibran decided on the change: between August 1924 (3rd printing) and January 1925 (4th printing), i.e. during the second half of the year 1924, one year after the publication of the first edition (September 1923).
In Gibran’s body of writings, we have managed to identify two texts that refer to the restless or sleepless sea. The first, titled “Revelation”, is from the collection of poems, under the title Prose Poems, that was published by Knopf in 1934, with a foreword by Barbara Young. It was translated from the Arabic by Andrew Ghareeb. The Arabic version of the poem first appeared in Al-Funoon in March 1916, whilst its English version appeared for the first time in the Syrian World in June 1931.
When the night waxed deep and slumber cast its cloak upon the face of the earth,
I left my bed and sought the sea, saying to myself:
"The sea never sleeps, and the wakefulness of the sea brings comfort to a sleepless soul."
When I reached the shore, the mist had already descended from the mountain tops
And covered the world as a veil adorns the face of a maiden.
There I stood gazing at the waves, listening to their singing, and considering the power that lies behind them—
The power that travels with the storm, and rages with the volcano, that smiles with smiling flowers and makes melody with murmuring brooks.
After a while I turned, and lo,
I beheld three figures sitting upon a rock near by,
And I saw that the mist veiled them, and yet it veiled them not.
Slowly I walked toward the rock whereon they sat, drawn by some power which I know not.
A few paces off I stood and gazed upon them, for there was magic in the place
Which crystallized my purpose and bestirred my fancy.
And at that moment one of the three arose, and with a voice that seemed to come from the sea depths he said:
“Life without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit.
And love without beauty is like flowers without fragrance, and fruit without seeds.
Life, Love, and Beauty are three entities in one self, free and boundless,
Which know neither change nor separation.”
This he said, and sat again in his place.
Then the second figure arose, and with a voice like the roar of rushing waters he said:
“Life without rebellion is like the seasons without a spring.
And rebellion without right is like spring in an arid and barren desert.
Life, Rebellion, and Right are three entities in one self,
And in them is neither change nor separation.”
This he said, and sat again in his place.
Then the third figure arose, and spoke with a voice like the peal of the thunder, saying:
“Life without freedom is like a body without a spirit.
And freedom without thought is like a spirit confounded.
Life, Freedom, and Thought are three entities in one eternal self,
Which neither vanish nor pass away.”
Then the three arose and with voices of majesty and awe they spoke:
“Love and all that it begets,
Rebellion and all that it creates,
Freedom and all that it generates,
These three are aspects of God...
And God is the infinite mind of the finite and conscious world.”
Then silence followed, filled with the stirring of invisible wings and the tremor of the ethereal bodies.
And I closed my eyes, listening to the echo of the saying which I heard.
When I opened my eyes, I beheld naught but the sea hidden beneath a blanket of mist;
And I moved closer toward that rock
And I beheld naught but a pillar of incense rising unto the sky.14
The second text in which Gibran wrote of the restless sea is his epic poem The Earth Gods, which was published on 14 March 1931, just a few weeks before he passed away on 10 April.
THE EARTH GODS
When the night of the twelfth æon fell,
And silence, the high tide of the night, swallowed the hills,
The three earth-born gods, the Master Titans of life,
Appeared upon the mountains.
Rivers ran about their feet;
The mist floated across their breasts,
And their heads rose in majesty above the world.
Then they spoke, and like distant thunder
Their voices rolled over the plains.
Weary is my spirit of all there is.
I would not move a hand to create a world
Nor to erase one.
I would not live could I but die,
For the weight of æons is upon me,
And the ceaseless moan of the seas exhausts my sleep.
Could I but lose the primal aim
And vanish like a wasted sun;
Could I but strip my divinity of its purpose
And breathe my immortality into space,
And be no more;
Could I but be consumed and pass from time’s memory
Into the emptiness of nowhere!15
“Sleeping mother” or “sleepless mother”: confusion across the Atlantic Ocean
Confusion also arose from the fact that the British publisher of The Prophet, the London-based William Heinemann Ltd publishing house, failed to align their publications with the version of Gibran’s masterpiece that was published in New York. Indeed, they first published The Prophet in January 1926, one full year after Knopf published the 4th printing of the book with the updated sentence. The Heinemann version contained the original sentence “And you, vast sea, sleeping mother”. The text has remained unchanged until recently: suffice it to consult their 8th printing of November 1935 and their 23rd printing of 1962, and the Penguin Books paperback edition of 1992.
The situation regarding the change eventually got clarified once and for all in the ultimate, world-wide edition of 2019 by Penguin Books, which includes a foreword by Rupi Kaur, an Indian-born Canadian poetess, visual artist and illustrator. At last, at long last, the sea-mother has forevermore become sleepless.
Forevermore? Well, not exactly... In 2011, Macmillan Collector’s Library (Pan Macmillan) published a gilt-edged pocket-size version of The Prophet that contains the original, first-edition sentence. And in early 2019, a lavish, leather-clad, slipcase-protected deluxe edition of The Prophet with exquisite, high-quality coloured reproductions of Gibran’s original drawings and paintings was published by the London-based publishing house The Folio Society Ltd, also reproducing the text in its original version, thus keeping the sentence “And you, vast sea, sleeping mother”.
Reference versions for the translators of The Prophet
By comparing numerous translations of The Prophet into French, Dutch (and Afrikaans, a South-African language very close to Dutch), and Italian, we have identified that the translators used either the original version of the text or the updated version as their references while rendering the book in their respective languages.
Twenty-three French translations of The Prophet have been consulted. They are presented chronologically:
- Le Prophète, translated by Madeline Mason, 1926: “Et vous, onde infinie, mère sans sommeil” (literally: “And you, boundless waters, sleepless mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Camille Aboussouan, 1956 (printing of 1977): “Et vous, étendue salée, mère toujours en éveil” (literally: “And you, expanse of salty water, mother ever awake”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Antoine Ghattas Karam, 1982 (printing of 2001): “Et vous, vaste mer, mère endormie” (literally: “And you, vast sea, sleeping mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Paul Kinnet, 1983 (printing of 1994): “Et vous, vaste océan, mère qui veillez” (literally: “And you, vast ocean, watchful mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Janine Lévy, 1983 (printing of 2004): “Et toi, vaste océan, mère endormie” (literally: “And you, vast ocean, sleeping mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Michaël la Chance, 1985: “Et toi, mer immense, mère toujours en éveil” (literally: “And you, wide sea, mother ever awake”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Marc de Smedt, 1990 (printing of 2004): “Et vous, vaste mer, mère endormie” (literally: “And you, vast sea, sleeping mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Anne Wade Minkowski, 1992 (printing of 2003): “Et toi, vaste mer, mère endormie” (literally: “And you, vast sea, sleeping mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Salah Stétié, 1992 (printing of 2014): “Et toi, vaste mer, mère endormie” (literally: “And you, vast sea, sleeping mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Jean-Pierre Dahdah, 1993 (printing of 2005): “Et toi, mer immense, mère toujours en éveil” (literally: “And you, wide sea, mother ever awake”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Guillaume Villeneuve, 1994 (printing of 2010): “Et toi, vaste mer, mère assoupie” (literally: “And you, vast sea, drowsy mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Bernard Dubant, 1995 (printing of 1999): “Et toi, mer immense, mère que le sommeil ignore” (literally: “And you, wide sea, mother whom sleep knows not”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Salah Stétié, 1998 (updated translation): “Et toi, vaste mer, mère endormie” (literally: “And you, vast sea, sleeping mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Cécile Brunet-Mansour et Rania Mansour, 1999: “Et toi, mer immense, mère toujours en éveil” (literally: “And you, wide sea, mother ever awake”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Pierre Ripert, 2006: “Et toi, mer immense, mère jamais endormie” (literally: “And you, wide sea, mother never asleep”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Jean-Christophe Benoist, 2008 (online version): “Et toi, mer immense, mère endormie” (literally: “And you, wide sea, sleeping mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Nicola Hahn, 2008: “Et toi, vaste mer, mère sans sommeil” (literally: “And you, vast sea, sleepless mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated and adapted by Omayma Arnouk el-Ayoubi, 2008: “[Qui vient rejoindre l’[océan infini]” (literally: “[That unites with the [boundless ocean]”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Philippe Morgaut, 2010: “Et toi, vaste mer, génitrice endormie” (literally: “And you, vast sea, sleeping genetrix”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Didier Sénécal, 2012: “Et toi, vaste mère, mère endormie” (literally: “And you, vast sea, sleeping mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Salah Stétié, 2012 (definitive translation): “Et toi, vaste mer, mère endormie” (literally: “And you, vast sea, sleeping mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Anne Juni, 2013: “Et toi, vaste mer, mère infatigable” (literally: “And you, vast sea, indefatigable mother”)
- Le Prophète, translated by Philippe Morgaut, 2016 (revised translation): “Et toi, vaste océan, mère endormie” (literally: “And you, vast ocean, sleeping mother”)