Il-Kantilena: A 15th-century Poem in Medieval Maltese

Il-Kantilena by the Maltese poet and philosopher Pietru Caxaro (d. 1485) is the oldest known literary text in the Maltese language, and dates to the late 15th century. Since its discovery in the 1960s, much has been much written about this text and the implications for the historical understanding of medieval Malta. Unlike modern Maltese, which has a large number of loan words from Italian and English, Il-Kantilena is notable for its extensive Arabic vocabulary, demonstrating its relationship and proximity to the Sicilian Arabic spoken in Sicily during the 11th-13th century. The earliest comprehensive study of the poem is G. Wettinger and M. Fsadni. Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena (1968).

Il-Kantilena(Manuscript of Il-Kantilena. Source)

Original Orthography

Xideu il cada ye gireni tale nichadithicum
Mensab fil gueri uele nisab fo homorcom
Calb mehandihe chakim soltan ui le mule
Bir imgamic rimitne betiragin mucsule
Fen hayran al garca nenzel fi tirag minzeli
Nitla vu nargia ninzil deyem fil bachar il hali.

Huakit hi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
Mectatilix mihallimin me chitali tafal morchi
fen timayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
vackit hi mirammiti.

Huakit by mirammiti Nizlit hi li sisen
Mectatilix li mihallimin ma kitatili li gebel
fen tumayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
Huakit thi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
Huec ucakit hi mirammiti vargia ibnie
biddilihe inte il miken illi yeutihe
Min ibidill il miken ibidil i vintura
haliex liradi ’al col xibir sura
hemme ard bayad v hemme ard seude et hamyra
Hactar min hedann heme tred mine tamara.

Modern Orthography

Xidew il-qada, ja ġirieni, talli nħadditkom,
Ma nsab fil-weri u la nsab f’għomorkom
Qalb m’għandha ħakem, sultan u la mula
Bir imgħammiq irmietni, b’turġien muħsula,
Fejn ħajran għall-għarqa, ninżel f’taraġ minżeli
Nitla’ u nerġa’ ninżel dejjem fil-baħar il-għoli.

Waqgħet hi, imrammti, l’ili żmien nibni,
Ma ħtatlix mgħallmin, ’mma qatagħli tafal merħi;
Fejn tmajt insib il-ġebel, sibt tafal merħi;
Waqgħet hi, imrammti.

Waqgħet hi, imrammti, niżżlet hi s-sisien,
Ma ħtatlix l-imgħallmin, ’mma qatagħli l-ġebel;
Fejn tmajt insib il-ġebel, sibt tafal merħi;
Waqgħet hi, imrammti, l’ili żmien nibni.
U hekk waqgħet hi, imrammti! w erġa’ ibniha!
Biddilha inti l-imkien illi jewtiha;
Min ibiddel l-imkien ibiddel il-vintura;
Għaliex l-iradi għal kull xiber sura:
Hemm art bajda, w hemm art sewda u ħamra.
Aktar minn hedawn hemm trid minnha tmarra.

Arabic Transcription

اشهدوا القضاء القعدة يا جيراني ،تعالوا نحدّثكم،
ما انصاب في الواري ولا انصاب في عمركم
قلب ما عندهاش حاكم، سلطان ولا مولى
بير معمّق رماتني بدرجان مقسولة
فين حيران عالغرقة، ننزل في درج منزالي
نطلع ونرجع ننزل دايم في البحر العالي

وقعت هي مرمّتي، ليلي زمان نبني،
ما خطاتليش المعلمين أما قطعلي طَفَل مرخي
فين طمعت نصيب الجبل، صبت طَفَل مرخي
وقعت هي مرمّتي

وقعت هي مرمّتي، نزلت هي السّيسان
ما خطاتليش المعلمين أما قطعلي الجبل
فين طمعت نصيب الجبل، صبت طفل مرخي
وقعت هي مرمّتي، ليلي زمان نبني،
وهكّ وقعت هي، مرمّتي وارجع ابنيها
بدّلها انتِ للمكان اللّي يواتيها
من يبدل المكان يبدل ال”فنتورة”
علاش الأراضي على كل شبر صورة
فمّ (ثمّة) أرض بيضاء وفمّ أرض سوداء وحمراء
أكثر من هاذون فمّ تريد منها ثمرها ثمرة

English Translation

Witness my predicament, my friends (neighbors), as I shall relate it to you:
[What] never has there been, neither in the past, nor in your lifetime,
A [similar] heart, ungoverned, without lord or king (sultan),
That threw me down a well, with broken stairs
Where, yearning to drown, I descend the steps of my downfall,
I climb back up and down again, always faced with high seas.

It (she) fell, my building, its foundations collapsed;
It was not the builders’ fault, but the rock gave way,
Where I had hoped to find rock, I found loose clay
It (she) fell, my edifice, (that) which I had been building for so long.

And so, my edifice subsided, and I shall have to build it up again,
You change it to the site that suits her/it
Who changes his place, changes his fate!
for each (piece of land) has its own shape (features);
there is white land and there is black land, and red
But above all, (what) you want from it is a fruit.

(All transcriptions and translations are taken from here and here. An attempt at recitation can be found here)

For more on this text and the broader historical & cultural context of medieval Malta, see

https://web.archive.org/…/www.my…/interesting/cantilena.html

Rodrig Bin-Bovingon, “Further Comments on Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena”

Anthony T. Luttrell. “Approaches to Medieval Malta”

Bernard Micallef, “The Cantilena as a Reading Experience”

Louis Werner, “Europe’s New Arabic Connection”

Il-Cantilena of Malta: How much can a modern day Arab decipher from the oldest Maltese literature?”

Additional studies, including articles in Maltese, can be found here.

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